Jon Jones entered his UFC 239 title bout at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night as a prohibitive minus-700 favorite to continue his reign as one of the greatest champions in mixed martial arts history.
He barely escaped with his light heavyweight belt — and was carried back to the locker room by his team — after narrowly eking out a split decision over unheralded former middleweight Thiago Santos.
“Oh my goodness, boy was he tough,” Jones said before he was even asked a question in the postfight interview. “We all knew Thiago’s best chance was to knock me out, so I played it smart. He was technically a lot more sound than I thought. Thiago Santos is a black belt in Muay Thai. I’m proud of myself, because I stood with a guy who’s been kickboxing way longer than me.”
Jones never attempted a takedown despite a massive edge in that department on paper, even after Santos appeared to injure his leg in the first round. Instead, he chose to allow Santos to circle with his back against the cage and Jones struggled to get inside. The champion tried various spinning attacks and did enough to impress the judges, but took on damage throughout the fight.
“I felt like I was winning, so there was no need to take him down,” Jones said. “We were playing a very high level game of chess in there. Any time you out-kickbox a black belt in Muay Thai, you shouldn’t hold your head down.
“He implemented a game plan I think a lot of people have wanted to for a very long time. He did a good job. He exploited a hole in my game that won’t be there next time.”
The only rounds the judges agreed on were the first for Santos and the third for Jones.
UFC 239 main card results
— Jon Jones (25-1, 1 no contest) def. Thiago Santos (21-7), split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47), to retain light heavyweight title
— Amanda Nunes (18-4) def. Holly Holm (12-5), KO, first round (4:10), to retain women’s bantamweight title
— Jorge Masvidal (34-13) def. Ben Askren (19-1, 1 no contest), welterweights, KO, first round (0:05)
— Jan Blachowicz (24-8) def. Luke Rockhold (16-5), light heavyweights, KO, second round (1:39)
— Michael Chiesa (16-4) def. Diego Sanchez (31-12), welterweights, unanimous decision (30-26, 30-26, 30-26)