Inspired by Jones, Santiago seizing the day

The bigger picture: Coming full cirle has helped Jorge Santiago put things in perspective. Daniel Herbertson/Sherdog.com

Since the start of 2011, Jorge Santiago’s life has taken some drastic and unexpected turns, despite the fact that he has not once entered the ring or cage to compete.

The former Sengoku Raiden Championship middleweight titleholder has not fought since August, when he stopped Kazuo Misaki on a fifth-round technical knockout at SRC 14 in what became the Sherdog.com “Fight of the Year” for 2010. In February, Santiago was granted his release from his SRC contract and received an immediate invitation from UFC President Dana White.

“Dana was at the UFC 126 [news] conference when I texted my manager,” Santiago said. “He got close to Dana and whispered that to him. Immediately, I was asked to get on a plane to the U.S.”

Eleven days later, on Feb. 16, Santiago agreed to a multi-fight contract with the UFC. The whirlwind, however, did not end there. The 6-foot-1 Brazilian left American Top Team with Gesias Cavalcante, Danillo Villefort and Yuri Villefort to join former EliteXC heavyweight champion Antonio Silva, Vitor Miranda and Carlos Augusto Inocente Filho at the new Florida-based Imperial Athletics. By the time he reaches his return bout with former World Extreme Cagefighting light heavyweight champion Brian Stann at UFC 130 “Maynard vs. Edgar 3” on May 28, Santiago hopes to have spent at least three months training at the Boca Raton, Fla., camp.

“My decision [to leave American Top Team] coincided with my return to the UFC,” he said. “There are too many athletes at ATT, and I had to seize the moment to focus more on myself, because I’m getting older.”

Santiago, who turns 31 in October, has rattled off 11 wins in 12 appearances. He spent nearly a decade training at American Top Team, where he became one of the world’s top fighters at 185 pounds.

“At this age, we start losing time instead of having more,” Santiago said. “I just have to thank ATT for those eight years. [Trainer] Ricardo Liborio and everyone trusted me, but now I have more time to decide schedules and can train even harder. It has been working for me and the guys.”

Back in the UFC after three exceptional years in Japan, the world-ranked middleweight contender feels reborn.

“I’m really motivated,” he said. “I feel like a warrior who turned up a battle. I have a stronger mind, and I’m gonna win -- whatever it takes.”

Santiago lost two of his three UFC bouts in 2006, cut down in knockouts to Chris Leben and Alan Belcher. If he was looking for inspiration to climb the middleweight ladder in the UFC quickly, he did not have to jog his memory much. Santiago agreed to help Rashad Evans train for his bout with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128. Evans, however, injured his knee and withdrew from the fight. Santiago never joined Greg Jackson’s camp to train in Albuquerque, N.M., but he watched Jon Jones train during the week he was there. Jones, of course, steamrolled Rua to become the youngest UFC champion in history.

“I spent one week with Jones before he fought [Ryan] Bader [at UFC 126], and he is such a talent,” Santiago said. “He has an enormous capacity to create. He’s like a child that doesn’t realize all that can go wrong, so he attacks every time. Jones’ biggest opponent will be the pressure. If he learns how to deal with that, it will be a great strength for him.”

More mature, Santiago feels prepared to face the heavy-handed Stann, no matter where the fight goes inside the Octagon. Stann, himself on the cusp of contention, will carry a two-fight winning streak into the cage. The 30-year-old last appeared at UFC 125 on New Year’s Day, when he stopped Leben on first-round punches at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Stann has finished back-to-back opponents since dropping to the middleweight division following his February 2010 defeat to unbeaten prospect Phil Davis.

“Stann is a fresh blood and well-promoted guy,” Santiago said. “The UFC trusts him a lot. It will be tough, but if he wants to beat me, he will need to want even more.”

A slick ground fighter, Santiago has secured more than half (12) of his 23 career victories by submission. His list of victims includes Misaki, Golden Glory’s Siyar Bahadurzada and 112-fight veteran Jeremy Horn. Most believe Santiago will have a decided advantage if the fight with Stann spills onto the ground.

“I take advantage on the floor, but nowadays, no one is a dummy on the floor,” he said. “They know how to defend and stand up again. I’m preparing for every martial art, from jiu-jitsu and wrestling to striking. I will confound him everywhere in the Octagon.”

Colin Foster contributed to this report.