Santiago ready for return to the United States and the UFC
After departing the organization in 2006 following back-to-back losses, the Brazilian middleweight found his focus and piled up the victories, becoming one of the top 185-pound fighters outside of the sport’s premier organization. He followed up wins over UFC veterans Jeremy Horn and Trevor Prangley by claiming the Sengoku Middleweight Grand Prix, becoming the organization’s first and only middleweight champion to date.
His August bout with Japanese veteran Kazuo Misaki was a fixture on many Fight of the Year lists, but after facing just two opponents over the last two years and seeing the Japanese MMA scene crumbling around him, Santiago was granted his release. He quickly signed with the UFC, and is looking forward to facing Brian Stann in his return to the Octagon at UFC 130 in May.
“I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity,” Santiago told Heavy.com. “Come back to the United States, fight in the UFC, Brian Stann, an American hero, main card, May 28th. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, you know?”
While fellow Brazilian Wanderlei Silva had been rumored to face Stann following Stann’s defeat of Chris Leben at UFC 125, “The Axe Murderer” reportedly declined the bout because he didn’t want to be “the bad guy” going up against decorated Marine. Santiago has no such reservations.
“As soon as I heard he was the guy I was supposed to fight, Brian Stann, he’s [making] a lot of noise, I was like, `man, perfect, right away, yes.’ Like I said, I want to come back to the United States and face the best guys, and right now, he’s an [up-and-coming] fighter, and I think it’s the best time for me to prove myself to all the American fans, you know?”
Even though Santiago had climbed into the Top 10 of the middleweight rankings during his impressive run in Japan, he felt a change was necessary after only competing four times against two opponents over the last two years.
“Everyone can see MMA in Japan getting weaker and weaker every year. I never had problems with Sengoku; they always treated me right, they always paid me on time, but I was fighting maybe twice a year, and like I’d always be telling my friends, I’ve been ranked in the Top 10 and there is no challenge over there.
“I’d be fighting the same guys over and over again; I fought Mizaki twice already, so I just chose to come back and fight in the United States. The fact is, they’re getting weaker and smaller every year, all the Japanese promoters.”
Returning to the UFC not only gives Santiago the opportunity to compete against the best in the world, but it affords him the chance to prove his detractors wrong.
Though he’s been ranking in the middleweight top 10 for quite some time, he knows there are a number of people who challenge his position, and he’s eager to justify his standing as one of the world’s best.
“There’s a lot of people doubting me because I’m not here, I’m not fighting the guys everybody sees on every month on TV, because the Japanese fighters don’t get the same exposure here in the United States.
“Like I said, I’ve fought a lot of good guys, I’ve [beaten] a lot of good names, I’ve [won] a lot of titles in my life, but I just want to come back and take it one step at a time. I’m getting back to the UFC; I’ll have this fight, of course, one day, I want to fight for the title, but I just want to prove myself and do everything I did in Japan. I want to [do the same things here in the UFC.] Sky’s the limit, my friend.”
Santiago knows that how quickly he climbs to the top of the list of contenders in the middleweight division is beyond his control, keeping his focus on the fight in front of him and defeating Brian Stann. But given the opportunity, the Brazilian is confident he could get the better of his countryman, middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
“Of course; nobody is unbeatable man, we know that,” replied Santiago when asked if he could defeat Silva. “With the right game plan, I think one advantage I have to my game is that I know how to mix it up. I’m not just a striker; I do jiu jitsu, wrestling. If somebody wants to come and just bang, it’s not something that I’m going to do. I’m going to chose what I want to do. We saw the fight against Chael Sonnen; everybody has their weaknesses, their bad day. I think I have a big chance.”
While a title fight is not on the immediate horizon, it’s also not Santiago’s primary focus right now. At this point, all he wants is an opportunity to show he belongs amongst the sport’s best middleweights, and his first opportunity is less than three months away.
If the former American Top Team product get through Stann at UFC 130, it will solidify his place as one of the top threats in the 185-pound division, and set the wheels in motion for what could another big year in 2011.
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