Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Throughout the five-round affair, Ankalaev acted as the aggressor as he waited for Santos to engage with him, but it was clear the one-time light heavyweight title challenger had a similar strategy in mind. Still, Ankalaev controlled the pace while winning the majority of the exchanges, which helped him secure the unanimous decision win.
When it was over, the judges scored the fight 49-46, 49-46, and 48-47, with Ankalaev moving his record to 8-1 in the UFC.
“I wanted to fight five rounds to see if I’m ready to test myself,” Ankalaev said afterward. “To see if I’m ready to go all the way to the top. I was expecting him to be more aggressive and grapple more, but he didn’t. He was very careful.
“There was some moments where I could take him to the ground. But I took the opportunity when there was a right time for it.”
Fast on his feet with a lot of power in his hands, Ankalaev showed no fear standing in front of Santos as he set up his strikes at the start of the fight. Every time Santos threw a shot, Ankalaev was quick to counter and he generally landed on target with deadly precision.
Santos had to be careful about engaging too much because he was getting tagged hard every time Ankalaev connected with a clean punch. It was clear that Ankalaev was waiting for Santos to throw so he could react, but that also slowed down the pace because the Brazilian wasn’t biting to give him any openings.
Late in the second round, Santos got drawn into an exchange and that’s when he uncorked a huge overhand punch that dropped Ankalaev to the canvas. It was a flash knockdown, but exactly the kind of strike Santos needed to stop Ankalaev from continuing to march him down.
Sadly, that moment only led to more trepidation from both Ankalaev and Santos, as they appeared cautious about getting too aggressive out of fear of potential retribution. Santos did manage to come after Ankalaev with a flurry at the start of the fourth round, but even that was a short-lived strategy, as afterward he settled back into his spot near the edge of the cage.
With the low output on the feet from both fighters, Ankalaev did manage to snatch a late takedown and control Santos in the clinch against the cage, which helped him rack up more points with the judges. As time was running out, Ankalaev seemed comfortable to just pepper away at Santos with short knees to the body and legs until the final horn sounded.
While it probably wasn’t the way he wanted to win, Ankalaev still managed to take out another ranked opponent — and now he’s hoping that the UFC will reward him with a shot at gold.
“I feel that I deserve a title fight,” Ankalaev said. “But of course it will depend on the UFC, who my next opponent will be, but I feel I deserve a title fight.”
As for Santos, he falls to 1-3 in his last four fights after coming up short in his bid to become champion in a split decision loss to Jon Jones back in 2019.