Brazilian fighter Thiago "Marreta" Santos is featured in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night in Prague, where he will face fourth-ranked Jan Blachowicz. It's the second time that Santos will take part in the main event as he replaced Glover Teixeira last September in Sao Paulo and made his light heavyweight debut with a knockout of Eryk Anders.
The hard-striking Santos, a native of Rio de Janeiro, said he doesn't feel additional pressure as the headliner.
"I think there is more pressure having [main-evented] in my country, with all the fans cheering for me. But that's not the case here," Santos told ESPN Brazil. "Still, I kept my cool. I'm happy with this new opportunity. [It's] my first fight in Europe, second main event. I'm happy [and] enjoying every moment."
"Marreta" -- so nicknamed because his hands were described as being as heavy as a "sledgehammer" before coming over from Thai boxing -- will fight for the third time as a light heavyweight. He knocked out Jimi Manuwa in just 41 seconds at UFC 231, earning Performance of the Night honors. Santos said the change in weight class (he previously fought as a middleweight) was beneficial because of the weight cut to 185 pounds.
"I improved my training," he said. "I'm more willing to do camp until the end, [so] I do not get as weak as before. During fight weeks, I can also train better. I feel calmer, and my mood improves."
Moving up in weight class can involve losing speed, but it's not something Santos considers a factor.
"I keep moving well. I keep going fast, and the [punches are] stronger," he said.
A win over Blachowicz would not only move Santos up in the rankings, but it also would bring him closer to a championship bout with Jon Jones or Anthony Smith -- depending on the result of the UFC 235 main event.
"It depends on what happens, but surely the possibility exists," said Santos about a possible title shot. "We are working toward this, with a full focus on the fight against Jan Blachowicz, but of course, depending on what happens, the championship fight possibility exists."
The Tata Fight Team athlete from Rio's Cidade de Deus neighborhood began training with American Top Team in Florida in 2016. Much has changed since, including Santos' jiu-jitsu skills, but it doesn't worry him if the fight is determined on the canvas.
"If the fight goes to the ground, [there's] nothing to fear," he said. "I'm a black jiu-jitsu belt. If I have to fight on the ground too, let's fight. If he does, I'll finish."
What has become apparent over the years is that Santos has gained confidence and maturity.
"More and more, I want to be fighting inside the Octagon. We are not born a champion, we become one," he said. "I believe that I am on the way to becoming a champion, and for me, that is the main charge. I still want to learn, to improve, to become a better fighter every time."
What makes the Brazilian tick? Overcoming doubt. In 2014, Santos was a heavy underdog against Ronny Markes at UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Henderson 2. He climbed into the Octagon and knocked out Markes.
"I was criticized," Santos said. "A lot of people said that I did not deserve to be in the UFC, that I couldn't do it. But I knew I could. So it was a 'shut up' to a lot of people who thought that I would be just another fighter. That I would lose that fight and be sent away and not have [big potential] for the UFC.
"I was determined to overcome all of that."