Friday, May 20, 2011 | 1:55 a.m.
Jorge Santiago recently rattled off a list of things he missed about the UFC since leaving the mixed martial arts promotion four years ago. He included the fans, the attention and the opportunity to fight alongside the world’s best.
Most of all, Santiago said, he missed the pure energy of the events. Santiago, who spent the last three years fighting in Japan, realized how much he wanted to return to the UFC every time he went to one of its fight cards to watch a friend or training partner.
“I had goose bumps all the time at the start of the show,” Santiago said. “I was like, ‘I have to come back here. I have to do this again.’”
Santiago, a middleweight who went 1-2 in his first run in the UFC in 2006, signed a new contract with the promotion earlier this year. His reintroduction fight will come next Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena against Brian Stann at UFC 130 as part of the pay-per-view main card.
But Santiago (23-8 MMA) said the clash with Stann (10-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC) was more like a debut. The 30-year-old Santiago, a Rio de Janeiro native, feels like a different person from the last time he walked into the octagon.
“I was just a kid,” Santiago said. “I was just trying to go places and fight. I wasn’t thinking about being prepared the way I am now. I live my life around good people and professionals with everything I do now. That’s the difference between before and now.”
Santiago’s success since stepping away from the UFC is undeniable. He’s gone 11-1 with 10 of those victories coming via stoppage.
Santiago captured a Strikeforce tournament championship, where he won two fights in one night, and the middleweight championship belt in Tokyo-based Sengoku promotion.
Casual MMA fans may have forgotten about Santiago, but those paying attention have seen a fighter inching toward the peak of his career.
“I had it in my mind that I had to fight in Japan because I was big fan of PRIDE back in the day,” Santiago said. “I went there, had the experience and loved it. But now that I’ve tried both, I know what I want. I had to go back.”
Santiago won his most recent fight, an August 2010 battle with Kazuo Misaki at Sengoku 14, in thrilling fashion. He trailed on the scorecards going into the fifth round but scored a TKO victory with less than 30 seconds remaining.
It was a bout that many labeled as one of the fights of the year. Santiago said he knew right after that performance it was time to return to America.
“I knew I had to come back and finish what I started here in the UFC,” Santiago said. “It’s the right time. I want to accomplish something big here and finish my career.”
UFC won’t welcome Santiago back with a simple stepping-stone. Stann is a slight betting favorite in the match after rising up the 185-pound ranks with an upset knockout victory over Chris Leben at UFC 125.
Stann originally asked for a bout with MMA legend Wanderlei Silva. That fell through when Silva refused to fight to him, citing Stann’s reputation as a war hero and fan favorite. A date with Santiago was a viable substitute for Stann.
“I’m here to fight the best,” Stann said earlier this year. “I don’t want any question marks left behind when my career or my time in this sport is finished. So, whoever I need to fight to be in the top 10 of the world is who I want to fight next.”
The winner of Stann vs. Santiago will easily be considered in that category. One of the two will leave UFC 130 as a middleweight contender.
“I’m more complete than him,” Santiago said. ““He’s accomplished a lot of things in mixed martial arts and he’s getting better every time I see him fight. But he has a lot of holes in his game.”
Santiago admitted Stann was probably stronger, but he thought the edge in motivation would rest in his own corner.
Santiago knows how he felt watching others walk into the octagon while he was away from the UFC. His moment will be even better.
“I’m going to feel very proud and very happy to be back,” Santiago said. “I’m here again and I’m going to do it a different way.”