MMA: Jon Jones defends UFC title to enhance status as 'the greatest' fighter

Jon Jones of the United States (right) kicks Thiago Santos of Brazil during their UFC Light Heavyweight Title bout at T-Mobile Arena on July 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Jon Jones of the United States (right) kicks Thiago Santos of Brazil during their UFC Light Heavyweight Title bout at T-Mobile Arena on July 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/AFP

SINGAPORE - Thiago Santos is 1.88m and 93kg of bulging muscles, massive tattoos, and fearsome kicks, and is as intimidating as a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter can get.

But after 25 minutes on Saturday (July 6), he became just another statistic in Jon Jones' quest to be remembered as the greatest MMA fighter of all-time.

Jones defended his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) light heavyweight (up to 93kg) title with a split decision win over the Brazilian at the UFC 239 event at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The win was Jones' 25th of his career, and third in seven months - a notable achievement for someone who has endured a stop-start course since his meteoric rise to his first title win nearly a decade ago.

The win over the 35-year-old Santos puts him on par with Georges St-Pierre with most wins in a title bout (13) and while St-Pierre is now retired, Jones believes he still has a lot more in the tank.

"Yeah, it feels really good to be fighting this often," Jones told The Straits Times in an interview last week, in the lead-up to UFC 239.

"I know my coaches are enjoying it, the fans are enjoying it. It's a lot of work for me, but the victory makes it all so worth it. If my body holds up, I'd like to do this for another two to four years."

Conor McGregor might be the most well-known MMA fighter in the world, but there is hardly any argument Jones is the best in the business today.

After he became the youngest UFC champion aged 23 years and 243 days in 2011, he was touted as the future of the sport because of his athleticism, cool demeanour and unpredictable, innovative, and varied striking ability.

The American even became the first MMA fighter to have his own shoe line under a major brand.

But controversy has never been far from the 1.93m Jones. He has admitted to using cocaine and marijuana in the past, and in 2015 was involved in a hit-and-run incident where a pregnant woman was in one of the two other vehicles involved in the collision. As a result, he was stripped of the title he had held for four years.

He has also failed drug tests three times since 2015 and suspended for a total of 27 months, even though in each of those cases he was found by anti-doping officials to have not knowingly taken them.

He returned to the Octagon after those bans by reclaiming his title in Dec 2018 and the win over Santos was his second successful defence in a row, but the spectre of failed drug tests has loomed over him and his legacy since.

Jones turns 32 on July 19, and now wiser, responded with grace when asked after UFC 239 if he considers himself the greatest already.

"I do look at myself as one of the most dominant fighters in MMA history, especially looking at the competition I've faced," he said.

"But as far as greatness is concerned, there's a lot of things about me that's not great."

UFC president Dana White saluted Jones after the UFC 239 event, and said the challenges ahead could enshrine Jones as the best.

"These guys now he's starting to face are younger than him, and have been kinder to themselves outside the Octagon than he has," said White.

"This is now, in this stage of his career, what's going to define him as the greatest."

Even though MMA media reckons he has "cleared out" the light heavyweight division, Jones insists he still has challenges ahead and plans to fight in December, although he does not know who his opponent might be.

Jones told ST he is open to fighting bitter rival and UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier a third time "if the numbers make sense", and also showed he still has the side of him that makes him so polarising.

When asked if he would fight interim UFC middleweight (up to 84kg) champion Israel Adesanya - whom he has an on-going Twitter feud with - at catchweight (no defined weight class), Jones said: "I would have no reason to fight him at catchweight, that would be flattering him.

"If he wants a taste of the light heavyweight champion, come on up and get a piece."

At UFC 239, the UFC also announced it will return to Singapore to stage its Fight Night on Oct 26 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. It will be the fourth time the UFC will hold an event in Singapore, and second under the three-year deal it signed in 2018.

In June 2018, UFC veteran Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone headlined the card in Singapore a bout with British upstart Leon Edwards. Edwards won via unanimous decision.