In his UFC debut at Ultimate Fight Night 5 on June 26, 2006, Santiago scored a first-round knockout over Justin Levens. However, the next two UFN cards saw him on the receiving end of knockouts at the hands of Chris (The Crippler) Leben and Alan (The Talent) Belcher.
The two losses earned Santiago his walking papers, but the blow only fuelled him to become a better fighter.
“As soon as I left the UFC, I realized I had to train harder and be a professional,” Santiago said in an interview with the Sun.
“I became a professional and was improving every year, every fight. And at one point, I was like, ‘I have to get back to the UFC and prove myself to American fans.’
“I’m a completely different fighter today. I can put on a good show and fight the top competitors. I’ve been waiting for two years to fight top 10 guys.”
Since his release from the UFC, Santiago has won 11 of his past 12 bouts, including victories over Jeremy (Gumby) Horn, Andrei Semenov, Trevor Prangley and two legendary stoppages over Kazuo (Hitman) Misaki.
The first win over Misaki earned Santiago the middleweight championship for Japanese MMA organization Sengoku, while the second scrap was the best fight of 2010. Yes, even better than Anderson (The Spider) Silva and Chael Sonnen.
Santiago’s only defeat during his run outside the UFC was a TKO to Mamed Khalidov at Sengoku Eleventh Battle on Nov. 7, 2009. He avenged the loss four months later, earning a unanimous decision.
Santiago said the time away from the UFC helped him to fix the holes in his game.
“During those years in Japan, I got the chance to try things and see what works for me and what is not working,” Santiago said.
“The difference is now I know myself and I know what I need. That’s why I think things are different now — a new Jorge Santiago. I’m going to show that I’m more focused and have sharpened things.”
Santiago gets the opportunity to make a second impression with UFC fans when he faces Brian (All-American) Stann at UFC 130 Sat., May 28 in Las Vegas.
Santiago said Stann is the perfect opponent for his comeback.
“I couldn’t ask for a better return fight,” Santiago said.
“He’s an American hero. Brian Stann’s all American, he’s a great guy, he’s improving a lot and going for the top contender (spot). I couldn’t ask for a better fight. (Returning to the) UFC and fighting a good guy, that’s all I ask.
“Coming back, putting on a good show and getting a good win against a good opponent. So I’m very excited for this match.”
A Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt who has truly developed his striking over the last few years, Santiago is comfortable meeting Stann on the feet, but feels grappling is his opponent’s weakness.
“I know he’s very worried about the ground game because he knows I’m a jiu jitsu black belt,” Santiago said. “His strongest points are his kickboxing. He’s improving and he likes to stand and bang in the pocket and throw hard punches. You know, swing for the fences.
“I’m not afraid. These past couple years, I had a good experience and trained all over the world. I’ve been fighting the top guys in Japan, knocking people out. You never know. I know what I’m good at. I have all the tools. I just have one thing in my mind: Go out there and finish the fight. It could be a knockout or submission, but Brian Stann, I see his weakness is the ground.
“He can’t expect anything from me. Be ready for anything. That’s something I think he already knows.”