LAS VEGAS -- A focused Thiago Santos walked through the doors of the UFC Performance Institute on Monday, just days away from his light heavyweight title fight at UFC 239 against Jon Jones. Flanked by his team of four coaches, Santos headed straight to the strength and conditioning area of this 30,000-square-foot venue.
Santos will spend the final two weeks training at the PI preparing for the biggest fight of his life. He's used the facility in many ways since its opening in 2017, but making his change in weight class a success has been the biggest accomplishment of this effort -- developed by both his personal and UFC-supported teams.
Many fighters, not just Santos, will be in Las Vegas for UFC 239 and spend a portion of their time at the PI. It's a space dedicated to the testing, treatment, training and recovery of mixed martial artists who fight on the UFC roster. Originating as a concept from senior executive leadership at the UFC who identified a need for their athletes to have access to high quality sports performance services, the institute -- which cost $14 million to build -- offers free consultation and services to rostered fighters.
In just over two full years of operation, 80 percent of UFC rostered fighters have paid it a visit. But the statistic that most pleases James Kimball, vice president of operations for the UFC, is that roughly one-third of UFC-rostered fighters engage with the institute either directly on the premises or remotely via phone, text or email on a monthly basis.
Santos is one of those fighters. As he readies for a main event matchup with Jones -- who some consider the greatest mixed martial artist in history -- I will spend a week at the facility shadowing Santos and his team as they make their final preparations for Saturday night.
How Santos needs to work the clinch vs. Jones
Dominick Cruz and Paul Felder break down how Thiago Santos needs to handle fighting in close quarters vs. Jon Jones. Buy UFC 239 here on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Monday, July 1
8 a.m.: The entire performance team of 17 gathers in a conference room to share notes from the previous week's events and to plan for the upcoming surge of visitors -- fighters, coaches, managers -- who will descend on the facility this week. The meeting is led by Kimball and Duncan French, vice president of operations, with the various directors of each division -- physical therapy, strength and conditioning, sports science and nutrition -- along with their support team all weighing in. Highlights of the team's recent visit to Shanghai to open the UFC's second Performance Institute and thoughts on areas to maintain close follow-up are shared among the group. The topic then turns to recapping the services provided at UFC Fight Night in Minneapolis last Saturday (numbers of fighters who sought treatment services, nutritional consults) and any requisite follow-up management.
Thiago Santos getting a PT session in with Heather Linden, Director of Physical Therapy at the UFC Performance Institute. This week is all about targeting optimal performance on Saturday night. Low load training and plenty of recovery.
The talk shifts to the plans for this week.
"Each year more fighters come during Fight Week," said French, noting that 98 came through the facility during this week last year and they project 115 this week. "Be ready for every eventuality."
While they run down the list of notable fighters -- including Santos, Michael Chiesa and others on the UFC 239 card -- there is also mention of several NBA teams who will be visiting the facility at some point during the summer league July 5-15, both for training purposes for their players and learning opportunities for the staff to observe the operations of the PI. The Chicago Bulls, for example, will be learning mixed martial arts, while other teams including the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings will be conducting training sessions. The meeting closes with a note on the importance of security at the facility to ensure the athletes' privacy and another reminder to emphasize care and service throughout the week.
The mood throughout the meeting is light and upbeat but there is no denying the buzz of excitement and anticipation of the team's busiest week of the year.
10 a.m.: Santos and his manager and coaches arrive at the PI. Santos routinely spends more than a week working with the staff at the PI in advance of his fights. He begins this day with a light workout under the supervision of Bo Sandoval, director of strength and conditioning. Sandoval says today is a focus on mobility and light workload, enough to get some light conditioning in without overtaxing Santos as he tapers his activity toward fight night.
"We don't really want to put the big guys through a lot of pounding as they get close to the fight," says Sandoval, noting that Santos is still working on training sessions this week and cutting weight.
Mobility and flexibility exercises, along with light calisthenics and some agility/coordination maneuvers constitute the bulk of the session. They work outdoors where the Vegas heat -- in the 90s mid-morning -- makes it easy for Santos to break a sweat and get loose.
The music playing in the indoor/outdoor workout area is turned up, but Santos remains focused throughout, especially when going through some light shadowboxing. His composure serves as a reminder that there is indeed a serious goal for him at the end of the week.
12:30 p.m.: Santos makes his first visit to the PT area, where he receives treatment from Heather Linden, the Performance Institute's director of physical therapy. Santos is well known to Linden at this point, as she has seen him not only at the PI on multiple occasions, but also while traveling to UFC events. The PT team provides services to athletes on the road, not only for those who are fighting on that event's card but also to those who live in town or who are there to do media or promotional events. Most recently, Linden treated Santos daily while in Rio for a UFC event in May.
Linden says the treatments for fighters in this week involves focusing on any areas that are particularly sore, emphasizing manual techniques to help "flush the tissue," facilitating the removal of any lactic acid and improving recovery from training sessions. With fighters cutting weight, there is also the potential for aching and cramping so addressing the soft tissue is critical.
Even though Santos doesn't speak much English, he and Linden have a good communication system worked out. She knows she's touched on an area that needs work by the way he reacts; he has learned particular words that convey the difference between pain and soreness. After an hour of treatment, Santos gets a break until the evening.
7 p.m.: Santos and his team return to the PI for a training session in the Octagon. This is the most intense version of Santos all day. Sessions with his sparring partners interspersed with instruction from his coaches give the feel of an impending fight. Other fighters who are training on nearby mats or in the adjacent boxing ring pause occasionally to watch Santos in action.
A handful of training sessions remain before fight night, making every bit of feedback, every observation or tweak from a coach that much more important. At the end of the session there is a round of applause, some from the folks inside the cage and some from the outside observers. Santos is dripping sweat at the end of the session and appears pleased with the workout. He cools down by riding the Airdyne bike, keeping the body moving as his coaches circle around him sharing final thoughts.
8:30 p.m.: The final session of the day is more physical therapy. The treatment is very similar to the earlier session but the tone is different. Everyone is quieter, gearing down for the night. After an hour of releasing and unwinding his body and his mind, Santos and his team pack up to head home for the night.
When I ask him what's left on the agenda for tonight, he smiles and says, "Dinner."
Tuesday, July 2
10:30 a.m.: The morning therapy session with Linden kicks off the day. Santos says he feels good, but hungry as the effects of the dietary changes for the week are starting to make themselves known. Linden's focus this morning is on large amplitude movements of the big joints, like the hip and shoulder. The goal is to maintain range of motion and elasticity as the fighters tend to stiffen up when they begin to cut weight.
Another UFC fighter, middleweight Kevin Holland, lies on the table next to Santos for treatment. Holland looks over at Santos and says, "Man, you were my first!"
The typically stoic Santos laughs as Holland shares that his first UFC fight -- and loss -- was against Santos a year ago. Santos nods in acknowledgment and notes that Holland "hugged him for a minute" during that fight and let him know he "warmed him up" for the Jones fight.
Santos returns to a state of quiet and tells Linden he is relaxing as the session progresses. When the time is up, he reluctantly gets up from the table to face the rest of his day.
11:15 a.m.: Santos and his manager and jiu-jitsu coach Tata Duarte (simply "Tata" to everyone) head to the UFC athlete check-ins/media sessions at the New York, New York Hotel & Casino. Poster signings and interviews are a necessary part of the lead-up to the fights, and the athletes spend several hours at the team hotel taking care of this aspect of the business.
7:30 p.m., Wand Fight Team Martial Arts: With more and more fighters at the PI, including Santos' opponent Jon Jones, Santos and his team elected to conduct his final training sessions offsite.
A red minivan pulls up to the front entrance of Wand Fight Team Martial Arts, a nondescript stucco building set among other similar structures on a side street across the highway from the Las Vegas Strip.
Members of Team Santos emerge from the vehicle including Tata, Phillip Lima (who owns black belts in jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and capoeira) and Gabriel de Oliveira, his boxing coach and sparring partner. His father, Servilio de Oliveira, was a boxing legend in Brazil -- the first in his country to earn an Olympic medal in the sport, earning a bronze at the 1968 Olympics.
Also with them is 6-foot-5 "Montanha" (the Mountain) Antonio Paulo Branjao, a professional MMA fighter from Team Nogueira who appeared on Ultimate Fighter 3: Brazil. He's a multidisciplinary sparring partner for Santos and has accompanied the team on this trip because he closely matches the size of Santos' 6-foot-4 opponent, Jon Jones. Although Branjao's reach at 82 inches does not quite duplicate Jones' incredible 84-inch stretch, he edges Jones out in height, making him an ideal training partner in the days leading up to the fight.
They enter the building single file with Tata leading the way.
Once inside, it is clear this is a second home for Santos. This training academy, founded by Brazilian fighting legend Wanderlei Silva prior to the existence of the UFC PI, is where Santos would come with his team to train when in Vegas. The owners, Brazilian natives Leandro and Taisa Lorranco, greet the team warmly. Leandro will serve as; Santos' grappling partner tonight.
It is noisy inside the gym, the sound of legs hitting pads reverberating throughout, as a class full of students ranging from youth to adults is engaged in a training session. While his coaches banter with the trainers at the gym, Santos quietly takes a seat at the end of a row of bleachers, patiently waiting for his training session, staring at the water bottle in his hands with the same laser focus he sports any time he's inside a gym.
As the class clears out, Santos slips off his flip-flops and steps to the mat. The first session -- a series of boxing rounds with de Oliveira -- begins. It is brutally hot in the gym and within what would be the first three-minute round of 12, Santos' face and head are dripping sweat. At the end of 12 rounds, there is not a dry spot on Santos. He sits on the edge of the mat, leaning against the bleacher seats, sweat pouring off his body.
He and Tata discuss his session.
Santos: "It was good?"
Tata: "Yes, better than expected because you're now without carbohydrates."
Tata works to cool Santos by pouring a slow stream of water over his head.
Santos says he likes the heat because it helps him with his weight loss. Even though it makes the conditions harder for his training, it's better for the weight cut. He points out that being here for nine days has helped him adapt to the heat, making it far easier than it would have been had he waited.
As Santos moves on to the grappling session of his training, Tata explains that this is a hard point of the week for his fighter. Having cut out carbs as of Monday, he has less energy, making the training more challenging. Tata says he feels good about where Santos is with his weight, with about 16 pounds to go before Friday's weigh-in. The bulk of what Santos has left to lose is water.
The grappling session, while intense, is of shorter duration than the boxing. As Leandro and Santos finish, the team gathers together on the mat along with some of the staff from the facility for a photo. Handshakes and hugs are exchanged as the group files out of the academy.
Santos decides there will be no therapy session tonight, opting to go home and rest. He'll return to the PI in the morning. There is one demanding training session remaining on Wednesday night before the aggressive weight cutting gets underway and it is time to sleep.
Wednesday, July 3
10:45 a.m.: Physical therapy is first on the agenda once again for Santos. The combined effects of training, weight cutting and the 100-plus degree temperatures in Las Vegas are piling up -- a normal but nonetheless difficult component of Fight Week. He indicates he is sore from the workouts and, as is typical at this point of the week, hungry. Otherwise, he is in good spirits.
Linden's efforts shift to addressing some of Santos' soreness tied directly to his last few days of training.
"During Fight Week most athletes cutting weight tend to complain about lower extremity tightness and fatigue from the increased cardiovascular sessions," Linden explains.
Incorporated into Santos' treatment for today is cupping, a form of therapy based in traditional medicine that uses suction to create negative pressure via cups placed on the skin, in order to theoretically help address inflammation. Mixed martial artists often have tight hip flexors as a result of the repetitive leg kicks and striking in the sport.
That tightness is more apparent with Santos today, resulting in some increased low back soreness (due to the stress placed on the low back as the pelvis is drawn more anteriorly by the hip flexors). In addition to using manual techniques to loosen the large muscles of Santos' back and mobilize the spinal joints, Linden spends time stretching the hip flexors. At the end of the session, Santos says his back is much more relaxed and he feels better than when he walked in the door.
He is less eager about heading to the UFC's scheduled open workouts, preferring to conserve his energy for training. But this is Fight Week, and it's part of the athletes' media obligations.
3 p.m.: Santos participates in the UFC 239 open workouts at the MGM Grand. His public session is brief, about 10 minutes in total. Santos demonstrates grappling with Tata for two minutes, a minute of boxing with de Oliveira, and then he mixes it up between Muay Thai and capoeira for two minutes with Lima. The workout is followed by a brief question-and-answer session with the media in which Santos, who speaks very limited English, tells reporters, "I will shock the world." There are a few selfies with the public to cap it off, and then Santos and his team head home.
7 p.m.: A few hours later, Santos and his team return to the UFC PI for a training session. They head upstairs to the grappling mats and secure a space in the furthermost rear corner, the most private spot in the open-area gym and also one of the warmest. The goal tonight is to get Santos' cardiovascular system going and increase his sweating to help him cut more weight, while maintaining work at low load in terms of contact. Mini-stations with each coach are set up so that Santos can switch easily between disciplines within each five-minute round of training. A little boxing with Oliveira, some Muay Thai with Lima and some ground-and-pound technique with a dummy -- all supervised by Tata, who calls out when to switch stations.
The PI is noticeably busier than it was Monday, when Santos had a training session in the Octagon. More fighters are arriving in town and scheduling workouts with their teams. Those who are on the fight card prefer to train at night, as it best simulates fight conditions -- but that also means sharing space. There is plenty of area in which to train, but most of the athletes competing this week prefer not to run into their opponents or put any of their defensive strategies on display.
Santos appears noticeably fatigued this evening. His demeanor is typically serious and focused; there is little smiling or laughter during workouts. Tonight, however, he has even more of an edge. He appears frustrated during one of the 60-second rest periods, and the coaches gather around him, giving him water repeatedly, talking in tones that hint at attempts to elevate his energy.
When Santos resumes a five-minute training round, I ask Lima how Santos is doing.
"His humor is on the floor," Lima said. "Grumpy. But that is normal at this point, with the weight cut."
When I ask what degree of effort Santos is being asked to give tonight with respect to the intensity of his punches and kicks, Lima estimates 20 to 40 percent. He says the rapid switching between disciplines within a round is designed to not only offset fatigue but to distract the mind from the irritability that comes with food restriction.
At one point, Santos' coaches offer him a snack, a few almonds to briefly counter the effects of hunger, fatigue and heat. But Santos, extremely disciplined, shakes it off. He has followed his prescribed meal plan, including snacks, to the letter for eight weeks, and he is not about to deviate from the script.
After four rounds of work, Santos and his coaches decide to call it a night. Before he goes home, however, Santos heads to the hot tub. Now that his metabolism is elevated from working out in the heat, he will go to the hot water to help shed more weight. Every ounce counts, and a pound shed tonight will be one fewer pound he is forced to lose tomorrow.
8:30 p.m.: As Santos and his crew exit the PI, the consensus is that sleep is the most important next step. Resting the body will be more beneficial than another 15 or 20 minutes of training. The most difficult 30 hours of the week -- the final weight cut -- is about to begin.
Thursday, July 4
Early a.m.: The weight cutting will be most aggressive over the next 24 hours, the time remaining until the weigh-ins take place. It starts early in the morning at the residence where Santos and his team are staying throughout Fight Week. Santos dons a heavy sweatshirt and shorts, along with his boxing gloves, and goes through a workout with de Oliveira, shedding weight via sweat in the 85-degree heat. It is followed by a hot bath and rest. Then it is time to get dressed and head to The Strip for UFC 239 Media Day.
11:00 a.m.: Santos and his coaches are escorted into the area reserved for fighters and media at T-Mobile Arena. All fighters assigned to the blue corner are present, standing at stations on each side of the media area. Santos, as one of the headliners, is granted a spot on the elevated stage up front. He is dressed in a sleek gray suit with a black shirt and black dress shoes. He sports dark sunglasses, exhibiting a cool confidence. A translator joins him onstage, and the question-and-answer session begins.
Over the next hour, questions come to Santos in English and Portuguese, and he calmly answers them all. He comes down from the stage to the floor for additional video interviews.
When asked by a reporter if he feels pressure to win this fight for his country, Santos responds, "I have no pressure... I already consider myself a champion in life. I have overcome many things in my life, and it is not the belt that will make me champion or not."
He is asked about his time at the UFC PI and why Santos has utilized it so heavily in recent months.
"I really like PI," Santos says. "I use it a lot when I come here both before and after the fight. I think it's very good for the athletes. They have always treated me very well, not because I'm in a belt race, they treat me well always."
He goes on to explain that as the PI becomes busier in the days leading up to the fight, he finds it easier to do more of his weight cutting away from the facility. But he notes that he intends to use the PI to assist in his recovery post-fight.
If he is feeling fatigued from the beginning of the weight-cutting process, it does not show. He admits to being hungry, and when asked what his first food will be once he makes weight, it's clear he's already looking forward to it.
"First, drink water... then fruit... like strawberries, blueberries," Santos says. He pauses. A big smile crosses his face. "And... sweet potatoes. Carbs."
After the hour-long media session wraps up, Santos and the other fighters are escorted out. They are asked to wait just to the side of the stage, as the incoming red corner fighters are waiting on the other side of the stage. It's time for faceoffs.
Santos and Jones are the final two to take the stage, and the height difference is apparent. Santos, appearing unfazed, removes his sunglasses to stare at Jones. Jones returns the look briefly, then turns to face the front of the room. Santos dons his sunglasses and follows suit. The two fighters assume their final poses before exiting toward their respective sides of the stage. The faceoff for Santos and Jones is relatively uneventful.
With media commitments done for the day, Santos returns home to prepare for his final weight cut.
6:00 p.m.: Santos and his team head to the UFC PI to begin the most intense portion of the weight cut. When he checks in, Santos is well hydrated and is on track with his prescribed nutrition. He is in good spirits, or at least as good as can be expected when facing the least enjoyable aspect of fight prep. Santos applies to his body an oil that in theory helps with sweat rate, then puts on a sweat suit -- a vinyl suit that traps heat to increase sweating. He then begins with a slow jog to get his cardio system working at a higher rate and to initiate intense sweating.
Over the next hour and a half, Santos cycles through steam and sauna treatments interspersed with rest, as he brings his body closer to the 205-pound weight limit. The session is closely monitored by members of the PI's nutrition and performance staff, who measure Santos' physiological responses to ensure he does not exhibit signs of significant distress. So far, so good. He is given the green light to return home to rest some more.
A good night's sleep is critical. The final weight cut will take place in the morning.
Friday, July 5
Early a.m.: The time before weigh-ins is spent relaxing at home. Santos already knows he has made the weight, now it is just a matter of resting until he can step on the official scale. At the end of his weight cutting session at the PI on Thursday night, Santos was able to consume a UCAN glutamine shake. UCAN is a slow absorbing carb drink used to stabilize energy. Glutamine, an amino acid commonly used for muscle repair, is used for gut health by fighters at weight cut time to help prevent a condition called leaky gut syndrome, sometimes brought on by heat exposure, dehydration and fasting.
The beverage consumption brings Santos' weight up approximately a pound but he will "float" that and a bit more overnight. In other words, he will lose that weight passively via natural processes -- breathing, urination, metabolism -- in the next several hours.
Another hot bath session takes place in the morning and Santos and his team can rest knowing the hardest pre-fight work is over.
9:00 a.m.: Official weigh-ins begin. They take place in a nondescript meeting room on the second floor of the New York City hotel. There is no fanfare surrounding this element of Fight Week; that is reserved for the ceremonial weigh-ins happening later in the day. Only coaches, UFC officials and media are present, yet the room is full and there is a buzz as the crowd waits to see if every fighter makes weight. Each athlete competing Saturday night will come to the stage, one at a time, to step on the scale for their official measurement. When it is Santos' turn, he steps confidently on the scale and his weight is announced at 204.5 pounds. His coaches cheer their support.
He immediately heads to an adjacent meeting room where a refueling and rehydration station is staffed by the PI folks. Clint Wattenberg, director of nutrition services, who is supervising Santos' refueling efforts, understands the apprehension most people have around the seemingly unnatural process of cutting weight. But Wattenberg, a former elite wrestler, says the approach to weight cutting can be the difference between what is safe and what isn't.
"Weight cutting done recklessly or without proper structure and strategy can be dangerous and can significantly impact both short- and long-term health and performance," Wattenberg said. "However, when the making weight process begins strategically weeks in advance, weight cutting can be built upon sound tactics from all areas of the performance matrix."
The restorative process for Santos begins with the consumption of water and a refueling shake within 30 minutes of weighing in. Within the next half-hour he consumes more water and a second shake. Over the next 30 to 60 minutes, he will be instructed to consume some very specific light foods and fluids, as long as there is no bloating. And, three hours after weigh-ins comes the moment Santos has been waiting for -- a meal! Starches comprise the majority of what he will consume over the next several hours, meaning Santos can finally get the sweet potatoes he was craving 24 hours earlier. His energy is good and his spirits are up. After all, this day will be easy compared to the one before.
3:00 p.m.: It is time for ceremonial weigh-ins at T-Mobile Arena. The area reserved for fans is full and they are loudly cheering on their favorite fighters. A shirtless Santos steps up to the symbolic scale, his signature sledgehammer tattoo on display and he flexes for the amped-up crowd. The final face-off between him and Jones comes and goes without much drama, but when asked for his thoughts on the fight, Santos thanks the crowd and announces, in English, that he will "shock the world."
Santos and his team depart the arena and head home for a night of rest and mental preparation. The weight cut has been smooth and his refueling and rehydration program have restored his energy. He has even cancelled his physical therapy session for the evening, telling Linden that he feels good and is ready to go.
The final preparation for Santos during fight week has been intense, but everything has gone according to plan. No surprises, no setbacks. Santos elected to work with the PI staff for his fight camps specifically to create as much structure as possible in the weeks leading up to a fight and to optimize his performance.
When he steps into the Octagon Saturday night, Santos will know he has not skipped any steps or taken any shortcuts in the days leading up to this moment.
Igor Silva also contributed to this feature.