Santiago sets the bar high in UFC return

New and improved: Jorge Santiago has come a long way since his first stint in the UFC. Ed Mulholland for ESPN.com

Jorge Santiago may have been in the best fight you never saw.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who caught Santiago’s five-round gut-wrenching emotional wreck of a win against Kazuo Misaki in August, you know the deal. If not, the 30-year-old middleweight, a veteran of most major organizations (including the UFC in 2006), plans on something similar Saturday when he meets Brian Stann in Las Vegas.

"We're going to go inside the [Octagon] and fight for our lives,” Santiago told ESPN.com. “I feel prepared. I feel I deserve to be there.”

While Santiago’s efforts over the past five years are prominent in his return to the UFC, so too are realities of the fight business in Japan, his competitive home since 2008. Contracted to Sengoku, a start-up promotion created in the wake of Pride’s collapse, Santiago (23-8) was afforded strong paydays, serviceable competition, and the chance to resurrect his career. But as Santiago thrived with a 7-1 record over that stretch, Sengoku never gained a foothold with fans. That wasn’t so much a failing of the promotion as it was an indication of just how far Japanese MMA had fallen since cresting in 2006.

On the same weekend Zuffa promotes UFC 130, kicking off a stretch of major fights in North America that lasts through the beginning of July, Dream, the Pride reincarnate, makes its 2011 debut in front of its smallest audience ever on May 29. In part that’s because the card is considered a qualifier for the bantamweight grand prix tournament set to begin in September. But mostly it’s an indication of where the industry stands right now.

"What happens moving forward, I honestly don't know,” said Mike Kogan, a consultant and fighter liaison for Dream. “The plan is to keep going forward. When I spoke to Dream they said they want to continue. That's their plans. Right now they're holding an event. There's another one in July. K-1 is still restructuring, there's no actual event schedule yet. This year might not even have an event schedule."

"It's really been struggling with the downfall of Pride, Dream and K-1 having such financial issues, and now you've got more pressing matters than MMA with the tsunami and after effects,” said MMA veteran Josh Barnett, who on Thursday hosted a benefit in Los Angeles to raise money for Red Cross disaster relief efforts in Japan. For years, Barnett cut his teeth in Japan's MMA leagues.

“The Japanese are incredibly resilient and just because they face tragedy [doesn't mean they] quit," Barnett said. "They're still putting on MMA shows. In fact, to an extent, it's almost as if they feel like now is the time to keep the people in good spirits.”

Santiago certainly provided Japanese fight fans with lasting memories, especially in his final appearance against Misaki, which appropriately earned consideration as the best bout of 2010.

“It was a fight about who wants more. I have a lot of respect for Misaki,” Santiago said of the former Pride welterweight grand prix champion. “He didn't stop. The corner had to throw in the towel to stop the fight. I'd like to have the same kind of fight on Saturday. We'll see.”

Ranked No. 8 by ESPN.com at 185 pounds, Santiago acknowledged the only way for him to climb that ladder is inside the UFC.

“I just got stuck there for two years because I didn't have a chance to fight the guys above [in the MMA rankings] -- they're all in UFC,” he said. “Now I think I'll have a chance to fight different, tough guys. I just want to prove myself and get better."

Though Stann (10-3) isn’t considered a top-10 middleweight, the 30-year-old Marine does represent the type of puncher that troubled Santiago, who was not necessarily known for having the best chin during his previous UFC stint.

Said Santiago of Stann: "He's an excellent fighter. Every fight he showed he improved every time. He has a heart. He's a fighter like I am. We don't stop. We fight all over the place. I don't have nothing bad to say.”

“We all know I have more experience,” he continued. “I've been training [longer]. He has the heart and I have the heart.”

Santiago said in the five years since he was released by the UFC, he became more professional and mature in his approach. In February, he departed American Top Team to form a new crew featuring the likes of Rashad Evans and Mike Van Arsdale.

“All that happened before, I learned and took advantage,” Santiago said. “Some guys don't learn anything. I learned and worked even harder. I became a well-rounded fighter. I'm a different guy today. If I had to fight myself back in the day, I can't even pass for 30 seconds. I would destroy that guy."

But what about Stann? And contenders lying in wait? That remains to be seen.