Both Jan Blachowicz and Thiago Santos will be within striking distance of a title shot with a victory at UFC Prague this Saturday.
Of any division in the UFC, getting a title shot in the light heavyweight division is arguably the most difficult. Once dominated by a Big 3, fighters at 205 are aware that the division could finally be wide open after next week and are excited to take advantage of the opportunity. Two of those fighters will be colliding on Saturday as Jan Blachowicz looks to turn back the menacing Thiago Santos at UFC Prague.
If you are not particularly familiar with the “Prince of Cieszyn” Jan Blachowicz, you’re not alone. While he is in the midst of a four-fight win streak, he has been relegated to either Fight Pass or prelims on FOX Sports 1 for all of them. But even if it has not been in front of a wide audience, his recent work has been nothing short of impressive. He avenged a prior loss to the hard-hitting Jimi Manuwa in a Fight of the Night contest, and he spoiled the return of dangerous striker Nikita Krylov with a submission that earned him another Performance Bonus and elevated him to fourth in the UFC rankings.
All of this is more impressive considering that he was fighting for relevancy prior to going on this run. In 2015, he went 1-4 and his job would have been on rocky ground had he lost his third straight fight back in 2017. But while his UFC start was not as he would have wished, his latest success has drawn attention to his time prior to entering the Octagon. The former KSW champion is a veteran of thirty fights with years of success on the European circuit. If Jon Jones is able to turn back Anthony Smith, then Blachowicz would be the next logical light-heavyweight contender.
Opposing him will be the electrifying Thiago Santos, who in 2018 became must-see television. A former middleweight standout, Santos holds an impressive 11-6 record since entering the UFC in 2013. He also has one of the busiest schedules in the company, fighting three times per year since 2015 and a staggering five times in 2018. The finishing rate of “Marreta” speaks for itself, but he is arguably an even bigger threat at 205 than he was 185. In his pair of performances at light heavyweight, Santos has kept his vaunted power and is no longer putting his body through the strain of cutting 20 extra pounds for each fight.
His most recent performance against Jimi Manuwa in December was considered one of the most exciting bouts of 2018. He also stopped upcoming title-challenger Anthony Smith last February. Another victory, particularly an exciting one, would strengthen his case that he is ready for the next level at 205. Should Smith in particular pull off the upset next week, a title shot could materialize even faster than expected.
The bout pits the more patient Blachowicz against the buzzsaw Santos, and both men are expected to be pushed to the limit. First, Blachowicz must avoid a careless exchange early on when Santos is fresh and at his most explosive. The easiest way to neutralize Santos is to get him on his back, so Blachowicz should look to change levels as Santos is coming forward. On the feet, he should keep the fight either at long range or in close-quarters as to avoid the brunt of the Brazilian’s attack.
Santos should look to implement his usual strategy of forward pressure. Blachowicz is a durable fighter but doesn’t figure to be able to overpower Santos in a firefight. Santos is fully capable of overwhelming Blachowicz, but he should avoid getting careless and winging punches when the Polish contender is prepared to counter. “Marreta” will be looking to put Blachowicz away with brutal combinations and the best time to land them will be when the Polish contender is stationary or moving away.
A victory for for Jan Blachowicz would be his fifth in a row and through process of elimination he would be the next logical contender for the title. Thiago Santos would be 8-1 in his last nine and would be 3-0 at light heavyweight. The biggest obstacle to both men getting a title shot is marketing. Should he get past Anthony Smith, most will expect Jon Jones to move up to heavyweight where a fight with Daniel Cormier or Stipe Miocic would draw huge numbers on pay-per-view as opposed to a bout with either Blachowicz or Santos. Even if Smith pulls off a titanic upset next week, it is virtually guaranteed that he would give Jones a rematch before being able to turn his attention to this winner at UFC Prague.