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The main card opener for UFC 259 featured a real crackerjack on paper, with two knockout artists in Aleksandar Rakic and Thiago Santos set to clash for a top contender's spot at 205 pounds. However, the dynamic battle never got off the ground, resulting in a cautious, dull affair with little of note occurring. A lot of people were sorely disappointed at the dud, including Dana White himself. And yet, they shouldn't have been. Not only did it make perfect sense for Rakic-Santos to be boring, but it would have been downright foolish for either man to fight differently than he did.
To understand this, let's look at the motivations and situations of both men. In Rakic's case, he is a promising young contender who was 5-1 in his UFC career, with the only blemish being a split decision loss to Volkan Oezdemir that the vast majority of media and fans alike had seen in favor of Rakic. He had already scored an electrifying head kick knockout that sent Jimi Manuwa into retirement and thoroughly mauled and dominated Anthony Smith. Given how thin the light heavyweight division is nowadays, he is very close to a title shot. Now, what does Rakic know about his opponent, Santos? Like the rest of us, he watched Santos fight Glover Teixeira and noted how poorly he moved coming off double-knee surgery to deal with tears to his ACL, MCL and PCL; not even able to bend his knees properly at times. At the same time, Santos was still a dangerous puncher, almost knocking out Teixeira twice. Rakic rightly reasoned that with his knees in such a poor state, Santos wouldn't be able to throw his formerly brutal leg kicks. This in turn would allow Rakic to throw his own excellent leg kicks from range, winning that particular battle. The optimal strategy to win with a minimum of risk formulated itself: Rakic had to stay at range, throwing leg kicks and using his longer reach to flick the occasional jab, while staying out of the pocket and not getting into any boxing exchanges with Santos.
Was this a boring strategy? Yes. Was it also safe and effective? Absolutely. A lot of fighters might shrink at this approach for fear of incurring Dana White's wrath, but what does Rakic have to fear in his current position? He's a Top 5 fighter, young, and has had lots of exciting fights in a very weak division. He's certainly not getting cut or even demoted. Yes, a thrilling knockout victory might have given him an immediate title shot while his tepid decision triumph might still have him a fight away. However, consider how badly a knockout loss to Santos would have hurt Rakic's prospects. He would have been many fights away in that case. Never mind that a victory guarantees Rakic a win bonus, no small consideration for a fighter who is far from rich. Rakic made the smart choice. For his career and his family, it was more important to simply win than to be exciting and possibly lose.
But what about Santos? He, too, fought cautiously. Couldn't he have engaged more? Let's consider his own situation. After an amazing fight against Jon Jones which many people, myself included, felt he won despite battling on one good leg from Round 2 on, he had the disappointing loss to Teixeira where he looked badly compromised, unable to bend his knees to defend his fellow Brazilian's takedowns, and then being wholly unable to get up once on his back. That loss occurred only four months before the fight against Rakic. Presumably, his confidence was at an all-time low, as his own body had betrayed him. He was particularly concerned about being taken down by Rakic, who has a powerful snatch single he has used successfully many times, even against foes with good takedown defense like Oezdemir. Moreover, Rakic has mauled both Justin Ledet and Anthony Smith with ground-and-pound, so Santos had some fear that a repeat of his fight with Teixeira would occur.
Santos also knows that Rakic is a powerful striker himself, and he badly wanted to avoid a knockout defeat. At 37, a KO loss to the Austrian would essentially end Santos' days as any kind of contender. With low confidence and justified worries about being taken down or knocked out, is it any wonder that Santos wasn't overly aggressive? Not to me. It's also notable that after Santos successfully defended Rakic's few takedown attempts in the first two rounds, he gained more confidence, and had his best performance in the third and final stanza, winning it.
Thus, we had an interesting situation, where a seemingly great fight turned into a dull one, and it makes perfect sense why. Should UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard have foreseen this and booked a different affair? Maybe, but this is the same duo I dubbed “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum” for their utter incompetence with basic booking. And frankly, I wouldn't fault them too much. Such considerations will constantly crop up for both fighters, and it's a natural response to the way the UFC is set up. Lower-level fighters may feel overwhelming pressure to put on exciting bouts, but those with more job security, with a title shot in reach, will prioritize simply winning. We've seen this in many title fights, too. Kamaru Usman took the safe approach to guarantee a victory over Jorge Masvidal. Both Israel Adesanya and Jan Blachowicz were cautious in their fight, since winning was also more important than entertaining the pay-per-view audience.
And frankly, this isn't a bad thing. If every fight was a thrilling war of attrition because that's what the martial artists are forced to do, that's not a real sport. It's pro wrestling or sports entertainment. So the next time you come across a surprisingly lackluster match like Rakic-Santos, think about whether there are reasons for this, and also realize that boring fights are here to stay!