Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos set to co-headline UFC 239 in July

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Jon Jones, left, kicks Anthony Smith during a light-heavyweight mixed martial arts title bout at UFC 235 in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

The last time Jon Jones fought more than once in the same calendar year it was back in 2013. Barring any unexpected setbacks, that streak will end in 2019 as Jones is set to face Thiago Santos at UFC 239 in July.

The matchup, which UFC president Dana White confirmed to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, will serve as the co-headliner alongside a women’s bantamweight title bout between champion Amanda Nunes and former champion Holly Holm.

Jones (24-1, one no-contest) defeated Anthony Smith via five-round unanimous decision at UFC 235 in early March, three months after stopping rival Alexander Gustafsson by second-round technical knockout at UFC 232.

Jones, widely regarded as the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time, never faced “Rumble” during Anthony Johnson’s notorious three-year run of dominance at light-heavyweight from 2014 to 2016 but Santos is the next closest thing. The Brazilian is the current No. 3-ranked contender at 205 pounds and most aggressive striker the division has seen since Johnson went on his path of destruction.

Like Johnson, Santos (21-6) began his UFC tenure as a welterweight, which is mind-boggling considering the size and power he has carried with him throughout the middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions. He picked up a TKO win over Smith in a 185-pound bout in February 2018. That fight led to Smith moving up in weight and once he did he flourished, earning three consecutive wins and a title shot.

Santos, 35, has finished Eryk Anders, Jimi Manuwa and most recently Jan Blachowicz in consecutive bouts. He was awarded with a $50,000 post-fight bonus for each victory. Jones has a significant advantage in the wrestling and grappling departments but as long as this fight remains on the feet it should be interesting.

Jones has mulled a move to heavyweight, even teasing a potential bout with former champ Stipe Miocic before verbally agreeing to the Santos matchup, but it appears for now he’s content remaining a dominant force in the 205-pound division. The UFC legend has little issue making the weight and has previously stated that he wants to have an historic impact on the sport similar to former longtime champions Demetrious Johnson, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre.

Jones’s two most notable victories are over current heavyweight titleholder Daniel Cormier (although the second of which was later changed to a no-contest) so it would not be a shock to see Jones eventually move up a division for the right opportunity whether it’s a trilogy bout with Cormier, facing Miocic or even Brock Lesnar, who could return to the Octagon at some point in 2019.

For the time being, however, Jones views himself only as a 205-pounder and if he can get by Santos there are plenty of potential contenders to choose from.

Former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold is scheduled to make his UFC light-heavyweight debut at UFC 239 when he takes on Blachowicz. An impressive victory over a ranked contender like Blachowicz could be enough for Rockhold to gain a shot at gold.

Dominick Reyes is ranked fifth and Corey Anderson sits eighth in the division. Both are on solid winning streaks and firmly in the title picture. There is also rising contender Johnny Walker that fans are excited about. The 26-year-old Brazilian is a highlight machine whose three most recent fights have earned him performance bonuses and lasted a total of 2:48.

The 205-pound weight class – thanks in large part to Jones’s legal troubles, failed drug tests and frequent out-of-cage mishaps – has been rather stale the past few years but with Jones back in the fold it’s becoming rather compelling once again.

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