The Severe Spotlight: Daniel Santos

One of the many things we love about MMA is the unpredictability of the sport, of the outcomes, of the storylines. Almost all fights have a story line, a beginning, a middle and an end. A protagonist, a hero, a loser, and a winner. Its rare that we have a contest where both athletes perform well enough to be rapturously applauded and lauded for their efforts. Daniel Santos and John Castañeda had one of those exact fights in the UFC Apex on Saturday night.

The fight began with Castañeda firmly on the front, locking up a guillotine choke to counter the against the fence double leg by Santos. He showed his smarts in this endeavour as he did not commit so fully as to render himself on bottom regardless of the outcome. Noticing early that the choke was not on, he used the same choke to allow him to forward shift, return to his feet, and initiate a grappling exchange of his own.

Santos’ defensive grappling is a marvel, it was on show in spades. But also, his transitional fighting, having gone from being in said guillotine, to then being forced to defend a double leg against the cage, he showed the wherewithal to land a clean, damaging elbow on Castañeda as they broke from the clinch.

Castañeda drove on. We all remember the Edmen Shahbazyan head kick against Brad Tavares. Driving the left hand into the eye line of Tavares, following with the kick behind the shot to mask it? Yeah. We saw that picture perfect again here. A Castañeda left hand down the pipe caused Santos to bring his hands to his face to defend. The left high kick had already left the chamber before Santos had time to react and landed perfectly. Santos rocked and wobbly legged was thrown into the chaos.

Again, the defensive grappling of Santos comes to his rescue as amidst the chaos he finds a closed guard. Using that closed guard to recover he begins to throw upkicks, as counters to the Castañeda ground and pound. A flush upkick lands, giving Santos enough time to get back to his feet. The soles of his feet don’t grace the canvas for long, as a piston left hand sits the Brazilian right back to the mat.

Rocked badly once, sat down a second time in quick succession, Santos manages to pull out a brilliant armbar setup to force a scramble. He secures the left wrist of Castañeda with an overhook. He then digs an underhook on the near side leg, like how you would in an X-guard position. Instead, his legs were placed both by the sides of the ribs. He off balances Castañeda with an uppercut to the near leg, at the same time he vaults his right leg over the head and looks to lock up an armbar. Given the circumstances, that is mighty impressive.

Castañeda does all the right things to free his elbow line from the submission, riding the off balance to both keep top position, and reduce the clamp of Santos’ legs. Upon the reset, Castañeda chooses to go back to the grappling, taking a shot at a double leg. Santos puts in a whizzer, and smartly Castañeda cuts the angle behind Santos’ hips turns the clockwise corner, and dumps Santos back down, briefly in a side control. Santos does an excellent job of preventing the mount, ensuring to switch his hips to ensure he had a leg of Castañeda always trapped in ¾ mount, before returning to his feet.

With both men now back on their feet, Santos puts his foot on the gas pedal, landing several shots, and a big knee. The American with the surface level etchings of a man questioning what he must do to keep his opponent off him. He answers his own question quickly using the same setup for the first high kick again, this time not committing to the left hand and instead feinting it – Santos bites hard on it and pays the price of a shin connecting to his jaw once again. The wobbles this time looking potentially fight ending. Castañeda sensed the same thing, he had boiled his kettle, and was pouring the boiling water all over Daniel Santos. Keith Peterson’s stern look couldn’t have been sterner, as he paid very close attention to Santos’ equilibrium.

Santos, amid the chaos, found an ice bucket challenge left hook. Tide turned; Castañeda hurt. Insanity.

Round two begins with Santos boiling his own kettle. Castañeda looks to get back to the grappling, but mistakes ensue. A similar sequence to the whizzer and corner turn occurs however this time, Castañeda pulls Santos on top of him. Anytime you place your hips on the ground before your opponents when initiating a grappling exchange, you’re asking for trouble. There of course ways to negate the scrambles and ways to slow down your opponents. But as a general axiom, the fighter who has superior hip height generally wins exchanges.

Castañeda doesn’t pay heavily for the mistake as they end up back in a dogfight situation, however Santos now makes a mistake. From the dogfight he looks for a choke, and unlike Castañeda’s decision making in the first, commits a little too much. Up against the fence, Castañeda drives his right leg behind the left leg of Santos and shelving it. He then digs a scoop grip with his left hand to the left leg of Santos and footsweeps as he turns the corner and drops Santos to the mat and immediately into side control. Gorgeous, intuitive grappling.

Santos once again returns to his feet – and the kettle is boiled. The Brazilian has sensed that the belief in Castañeda is fading. His shots become as fluid as the water pouring from his spout, lowkicks, feint spins to draw reactions, pulling and sticking shots, lands a huge knee from a grappling transition. The steam is real, and the fog beginning to cloud the eyes of John Castañeda is not condensation.

The end begins with a huge right hand. Santos flurries, sensing his chance, a right high kick lands and Castañeda is on his last legs. Strapped to the fence, unable to get out, Santos lands two big body hooks, switches immediately upstairs with two big hooks, another to the body before going to a plum clinch and the gargantuan knee lands. Castañeda goes down, and Peterson has seen enough.

The tide of the sea in MMA is an unforgiving beast. Even with the best ship and crew, it might still swallow you alive. Amazing performance from both men.