When Jorge Santiago faces off with Brian Stann on Saturday night at UFC 130, he will hear a sound that's recognizable, yet unfamiliar: the crowd's constant roar.
If he listens closely, he'll probably be able to pick out a few Karate Kid quotes, expletives, and bellows begging him to stand up if he finds himself on the mat sometime during the fight. But at least he'll be able to understand the catcalls.
Five years after he was unceremoniously cut from the promotion, Santiago (23-8) is returning to a different UFC. The modest company slowly going from red to black has been replaced by a 100-plus employee juggernaut running all over the world with events. The rowdy fans remain -- there are just more of them now.
Santiago is, in kind, returning to the UFC a different man. A more confident fighter and certainly a more well-traveled one. His pink slip prompted a tour of smaller promotions around the world, a standard move for a UFC vet from a well-known camp (in this case, American Top Team). After a fight in Russia and a short but successful stint in Strikeforce, he took residence in Japan with Sengoku, a start up that emerged in the wake of PRIDE's sale to the UFC. In two years of fighting for the promotion, he went 7-1 and transformed himself from a 12-7 Octagon washout to a top-10 middleweight.
Not many fighters are able to turn careers around like that, but Santiago's persistence paid off. And on more than a few occasions, he managed to get a rise out of the famously quiet Japanese fans. A back-and forth whirlwind of a fight against former PRIDE champ Kazuo Misaki was one of the best fights of 2010, and it brought an infusion of career capital to jump ship to the UFC when Sengoku ran low on cash earlier this year.
"Everything came at the right moment," Santiago said. "I added a lot of good things to my game, and right now I think is the best time to come back. I think now is the time to prove that I belong in the UFC with the top competitors."
To newer fans unwise or uninterested in overseas MMA, though, he is an untested commodity. Odds makers have him as an underdog in the fight, though his résumé and stature has made slight the paper disadvantage. And make no mistake -- a hard road awaits Santiago's return. The UFC's middleweight division is deeper, and those that have remained in his absence have sharpened their tools. Stann (10-3), a former WEC light-heavyweight champion, is fresh off a career-defining win over Chris Leben, a guy who knocked him out cold.
"He's a different kind of fighter," Santiago said of Stann. "He's a tough guy, and he likes to stand up. My style is to fight all over the place. I like to do jiu-jitsu. My background is jiu-jitsu; his is boxing. I expect him to try to brawl. I can do it, but I just have more tools to choose what I want to do."
As it turns out, Santiago's rebirth comes at a time where he's sharpening his tools elsewhere. Late last year, he and several teammates left American Top Team -- he'd been there for nearly a decade as both a fighter and management client of the team -- and struck out with new managers and a new training facility. Santiago speaks of the move as a necessary step in moving forward; that the time was right to move on, and that he's grateful for what he learned in his years with his old team. That assessment isn't shared by ATT; a source close to the team said a tortuous inference suit has been filed against the fighter's management team.
But according to Santiago, things are better behind the scenes, and he's more prepared than ever to tackle the steep challenge ahead.
"It's different because we can put focus on our ourself," Santiago said. "There are not too many fighters, so we bring some guys in so they can train with us. We have coaches that put more attention on us. Once you have 60 inside the gym, it's kind of hard to do the game plan for everybody. I think I did the best move ever moving forward to a new place."
The well-exposed Stann is likely to get most of the love on Saturday night when the fighters walk out to the cage. He is, after all, a decorated war veteran and a former champion, and his presence on the Memorial Day weekend event isn't unrecognized by the promotional machinery. He's also incredibly well spoken and on-message when it comes to selling a fight, which, in this case, is a consolation after former PRIDE champion Wanderlei Silva turned him down.
"Let's face it, I got a tougher opponent who is better for my career," Stann said. "Look who Jorge Santiago is, he's a champion, 11-1 the last four years. I have so much more to gain from this fight than I would have fighting Silva."
A win Saturday could put Santiago on a far shorter path to the title than those making a fresh start in the UFC. His impressive run has afforded him that luxury. But it's all for nothing if he can't find his rhythm in the Octagon this time around.
Some fighters curdle when the first wave of sound hits them on the walk out to the cage. Will it be music to Santiago's ears?
"I see myself as a top contender already, but I haven't proved it yet," he said. "So this is it. I'm here fighting one of the good guys in the middleweight division, and I'm going to prove myself to the UFC and make my run for the title shot."