The Professional Fighters League will see a new star debut at this year’s PFL 1 card on April 1, as Thiago Santos will make his promotional debut fighting last year’s light heavyweight champ Rob Wilkinson at the event.
“I don’t have many years to do new things, different things,” Santos (22-11) told Cageside Press in an exclusive interview recently, asked about the change of scenery that has him moving from the UFC to PFL. “I saw the time to try new challenges, new goals. I’m very excited for that.”
Of course, a million dollars doesn’t hurt either. “Absolutely, it’s not bad for anyone,” admitted Santos.
Getting Wilkinson right out of the gate appears to be the perfect scenario for “Marreta,” which as most fight fans now know is Portuguese for “Sledgehammer.”
“I think it’s a great match-up. He’s a tough opponent. He’s a striker, aggressive, kind of my style. So it’s going to be very, very nice,” Santos said of the match-up. “He’s been doing a great job. He improved, he really improved so much. He became light heavyweight champion in the PFL, after he left UFC. So I think it’s going to be fireworks, it’s going to be a great fight. I’m excited for that. I respect him, but I’m going to get the win.”
The rigors of the PFL season will change things just a little for Thiago Santos as he enters his first year with the league. “Yeah absolutely. Absolutely, I started taking care more about my body since I get old. I’m not young, like 20s. I’m 39 now, I’m not that same man I was at 26, 25. So I need to take care more about my body, about my health,” he told us. “I started that before, but now I’m doing even better, because the PFL season, it’s a couple of fights in a row, so I need to be ready, I need to be healthy, I need to control my weight.”
Putting more focus on recovery and taking care of his body helps Santos to ensure he has a few more years in the sport, he added. Plus, he has a partner in Yana Kunitskaya, a UFC women’s bantamweight, who fights as well. “It’s good, because we both eat the same things, we’re both on diet, preparing for fights, we help each other. We work hard now, and then after our fight, we can enjoy [it] together.”
Santos has a new baby girl with Kunitskaya, just under a year old, which is added motivation. “I’m enjoying every moment, every second with my little daughter. She is so special, making my life better than it was before.”
“I’m so blessed that I have opportunities to do my job, come back home, stay with her a little, rest, come back to training. I’m so grateful that I can spend every single moment with her, because time passes so fast. It looks like she arrived just yesterday, but she’s already 10 months, almost one year, so time’s going very fast. But I’m so blessed that I can enjoy every single moment with her.”
Santos’ history in the UFC will no doubt make him one to watch in the PFL. In 2019, he pushed Jon Jones to the brink in their light heavyweight title fight, coming up just short in a split decision loss. The Brazilian was among those watching when “Bones” made his return at heavyweight earlier this month after three years away.
“I watched his fight. I knew he would win, but I didn’t expect how fast he did. He did very well, he made it easy,” said Santos. “He just proved he is one of the greatest fighters of all time.”
Not the greatest to Santos, however. For him, there’s still one man ahead of Jon Jones. “It’s about opinion. In my opinion, he is in second place. The first one in my opinion still is Fedor Emelianenko.”
As for Santos’ top five, outside of Fedor and Jones, there’s Anderson Silva, who Santos has tied with Jones. Then Georges St-Pierre, Demetrious Johnson. Since Jones and Silva are tied, Jose Aldo comes next.
Thiago Santos will forever be remembered for his fight with Jones — as will the damage he absorbed to his knees in that fight. But while some, like Rampage Jackson, have suggested banning oblique kicks, a favorite Jones technique, Santos isn’t among them.
“No I don’t think so. It’s part of the sport’s evolution. When he started doing that, people were like ‘oh my God, what to do? How can I [defend] that?'” But, reiterated Santos, as more and more people use the technique, it becomes part of the evolution of MMA. “Someone creates some position, some attack, and then people are going to create how to defend, how to escape.”
“People just need to learn how to defend that. You can see now, not many people use that. Some people still use it, but it doesn’t work like it worked before.”
While some might see this upcoming PFL season as a chance for Thiago Santos to go on a final run, and perhaps walk away with a major championship, “Marreta” is looking beyond that. “I see myself fighting three more years, and I want to enjoy that, every moment. I don’t think about, ‘now I’m the champion, it’s time to stop.’ If I’m still healthy, if I still have power to go to the gym every single day, twice a day, and train hard, doing good, I’m still going to keep doing [this].”
Of course if things change, and if his body won’t let him continue at a high level, “that’s time to stop. It’s most important.” Otherwise, whether he wins or loses, “it’s part of the journey. It’s part of sports. I don’t care so much. I’m enjoying every single moment. I go there and train every single day. I’m proud of myself every time, because I train hard, and I’m still doing what I love to do. Some people would be stopped after the injuries that I had. I’m still doing that; I’m proud of myself. If God gives me more opportunities to do it for a few years, I’m going to do it the best way possible and enjoy every moment.”
Watch our full interview with PFL 1 light heavyweight Thiago Santos above. “Marreta” faces Rob Wilkinson on April 1, 2023.