Awkward silence permeated on multiple occasions throughout the UFC 239 main event Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena.
One of the most striking instances came early in the third round when light heavyweight challenger Thiago Santos clocked Jon Jones with a combination in the middle of the octagon to send the champion retreating. Seeing the long-reigning Jones desperate to preserve himself instead of staying defiant and pressuring an opponent was such a new phenomenon that the crowd of 18,358 fans appeared unsure of how to process it.
“He’s the most powerful guy I’ve ever fought,” Jones said. “I blocked almost all of his face punches. I think two landed on me. He knocked my mouthpiece out even when I blocked one.”
The 5-to-1 underdog Santos gave Jones all he could handle in the finale of this year’s International Fight Week. He mustered enough offense, primarily through thunderous leg kicks, and kept Jones so uncomfortable in every round that the result of the fight was in doubt as it headed to the scorecards after five rounds.
Alas, Jones survived — albeit in the closest fashion of his career according to the scores. Jones won via split decision (48-47, 48-47, 47-48), making UFC 239 the first time a judge has ever tallied a fight against him.
“I’m of the same opinion of him as I was when I went into the fight: He’s a man just like any other man,” Santos said of Jones through a translator. “I had good moments in the fight, so he’s not unbeatable.”
Most past opponents have gone the same route with their post-fight comments in trying to humanize Jones. But it was hard always hard to believe them.
Santos might be the first one to actually have a point.
Even in what were considered Jones’ lesser outings — such as this past March’s win over Anthony Smith or his 2016 return victory against Ovince St. Preux — he was never in any real danger of losing and ultimately won every round. Santos, a former middleweight known for preternatural power, was different because he undeniably gave Jones trouble.
At least one judge gave Santos a nod in every round except for the third — and that was when he may have landed his best shots before fading down the stretch — to illustrate just how close Jones was to falling into one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
“These guys he’s starting to face are younger than him and have been kinder to themselves outside of the octagon than he’s been,” UFC President Dana White said. “At this stage of his career, (beating them) is what’s really going to define him as the greatest.”
The 35-year-old Santos is actually not younger than Jones, 32, in but it was still a shrewd observation from White. Part of his larger point was that Jones has been considered the young hotshot for so long that it’s hard to miss the fact that he’s transitioning into a new phase of his career.
Santos started his mixed martial arts career after Jones, which is about to be the norm for opponents of the man considered the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Although Jones is currently linked to taking on the winner of the upcoming Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic rematch at UFC 226 in a superfight, he said aside from money, that wouldn’t be his top choice.
He wants to keep fighting at light heavyweight, and that means welcoming a new generation of competitors. That means being forced to adjust when he’s no longer the fighter with fewer miles logged and a drive for the life-changing ascent that comes with reaching the top of the sport.
“I want challenges, and every time I go through crazy battles, I learn a lot about myself,” Jones said. “I’m going to watch this fight probably eight times and learn what all the light heavyweights are thinking of me right now. I’m going to be my own harshest critic.”
He should have plenty of time to review as it may be a while before he’s cleared to return to training. Although Jones said he was not seriously injured, he rolled to the UFC 239 post-fight news conference in a wheelchair.
He’ll also have plenty to nitpick about his performance. Chief among the mistakes was stubbornness as Jones stayed standing and never attempted a takedown despite knowing he injured Santos’ leg by checking a kick early in the first round.
“Everything happened like we thought it would, like we trained for,” Santos said. “The knee really got in my way.”
Santos pushing Jones so far on what he called a, “bum knee,” will be an eye-opener to hungry light heavyweight up-and-comers such as Johnny Walker and Aleksandar Rakic. It certainly was for the crowd.
The final time the venue fell quiet on Saturday came in the minute or so between the end of the fight and octagon announcer Bruce Buffer reading the scores. That silence was a sign of suspense, a symbol of Jones’ previously shatterproof aura swaying ever so slightly.
“To have a fight like this is extremely humbling,” Jones said. “It was a good warning for me tonight.”