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History in the Making: Jorge Santiago's epic run through Japan leading up to his UFC return

Photo via <a href="" target="new">Sherdog</a>
Photo via Sherdog

Unlike other prodigal sons that have returned to the Octagon like Tito Ortiz or B.J. Penn, Jorge Santiago didn't leave the UFC over contract negotiations or money issues.

Plain and simple, he got knocked out -- quite literally -- of the company by Chris Leben and Alan Belcher.

Two consecutive losses are enough to get almost any fighter cut from the world's most elite mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion but tack on the brutality of the knockouts he suffered and you've got a pink slip signed and ready to go.

But since leaving the Las Vegas-based company, Santiago has become a tournament champion in Strikeforce and earned championship gold in Japan. He put together a post-UFC record of 11-1, impressive enough for his former employer to offer the Brazilian a chance at redemption.

He'll get that chance tomorrow (May 28, 2011) at UFC 130: "Rampage vs. Hamill" against Brian Stann

Before that, we'll examine the road that led him back to Vegas which includes a fight with Kazuo Misaki that happens to be one of the best fights of all-time.

Let's take a look.

Four months after getting his walking papers from the UFC, Santiago signed on to a fight with the bodogFIGHT promotion. That name means more in the gambling world than in MMA and with good reason.

After the initial UFC boom in the mid-2000s, it seemed everyone with a few million dollars to burn decided to jump into the sandbox with Zuffa.

The promotion held a dozen events, usually in Russia or Costa Rica, where the tax evasion issues that plagued Calvin Ayre, the owner of Bodog, wouldn't come into play.

If this all sounds like the makings of a disaster waiting to happen then congratulations, you have common sense. Santiago seemed to feel that way as well and just spent a little under 10 minutes with the company, enough time to give fellow UFC veteran Andrei Semenov only his second loss via strikes in his 36-fight career.

"Sandman" then made his way back to the States where he picked up a win over MMA pioneer Jeremy Horn in my hometown of Dallas. He then traded in the Lone Star State for the sunnier beaches of California and signed with Strikeforce.

It was there that Santiago became part of MMA trivia. For the first time in California history, a major MMA promotion was sanctioned to hold a one-night tournament harking back to the roots of the sports. The rules were changed slightly as the fights resembled The Ultimate Fighter's (TUF) two round plus sudden death if needed-format.

Santiago didn't end up needing the sudden death round in either fight.

Hell, he didn't even need the second.

Strikeforce: "Four Men Enter, One Man Survives" might hold the title for 'worst MMA event name ever' but the 185-pound tournament it hosted delivered fireworks.

In his first fight of the night, Santiago was paired off against Sean Salmon who is best known for bruising Rashad Evan's shin with his skull before passing out for unexplained reasons.

Salmon would be on the business end of another highlight reel-worthy knockout when less than 30 seconds in, "Sandman" put him to sleep with a perfectly placed flying knee.

Arms sticking straight up, body stiff as a plank of solid oak, it's the kind of knockout that --after you're done cheering -- you say, "Damn, I hope he's alright."

The Brazilian's match in the finals took him a bit longer to finish although it produced an equally brutal result.

He squared off against Trevor Prangley, a long veteran of the sport. Early into the first, Santiago peppered his South African opponent's legs with kicks and staggered him momentarily with a huge right.

Immediately after that bomb, another leg kick sent "The South African Hammer" to the mat. Midway through the round, a quick exchange leads the fighters to a clinch where Santiago delivers a devastating knee that seems to temporarily shut Prangley's body down.

He starts to fall back and another knee to his chest only serves as the exclamation point to this knockout.

Santiago left the Strikeforce promotion that night and signed with the Japanese company World Victory Road's Sengoku brand six months later. A hard-earned submission victory in his debut with the promotion earned him a spot in their inaugeral middleweight grand prix.

He dominated his first-round bout with American Logan Clark and was booked against Siyar Bahadurzada a month later. Bahdurzada has all the making of an internet cult favorite: he trains with Alistair Overeem, owns the nickname "The Killer," and has an exciting kickboxing style that even the staunchest grappling aficionado can get behind.

So what does Santiago do?

He finished the fight in a little over a minute by submission.

Seeing as how the semi-finals and finals of the tournament would take place that same night, anyone who watch Santiago's performances in Strikeforce would gather that he would try to finish the first bout of the evening as quickly as possible to remain fresh for the second.

In the finals, he faced off against Japanese favorite Kazuhiro Nakamura. The judoka took it to Santiago in the first two rounds, mixing up his striking and takedowns to presumably put himself ahead on the scorecards.

Being only five minutes away from ruining the Brazilian's seven-fight win streak, Nakamura entered the third round confident he would win Sengoku's middleweight grand prix.

That confidence came crashing down as "Sandman" landed a combination that rocked Nakamura. A stiff jab opened the Pride veteran up and a monster right hook dropped him to the mat.

A barrage of ground and pound was absorbed by the fallen fighter before the fight was called to a stop.

Santiago had won his second 185-pound tournament in just as many years and earned himself a shot at Sengoku's middleweight title.

In what would be his fourth fight in less than 100 days, "Sandman" faced off against Japanese legend Kazuo Misaki. Two even rounds made way for Misaki to take control of the third and the fourth. Much like his fight with Nakamura, Santiago found himself five minutes away from a decision loss.

"Sandman" changed his gameplan and shot in for a takedown in the fifth and final round, putting the "Grabaka Hitman" on his back. From there, he landed enough ground and pound to force Misaki to give up his back in what would be the most significant moment in the fight.

Clinging onto the Japanese fighter's back like Velcro, Santiago works for a rear naked choke until he's finally able to sink it in. Misaki refuses to tap and ends up going unconscious.

Aftter the win -- which was the Brazilian's first taste of gold -- in early 2009, "Sandman" took most of the year off. Fighting on average every 25 days deserves a break. When he returned against little-known Mamem Khalidov 10 months later, he suffered an embarrasing defeat.

Perhaps it was ring rush. Perhaps he overlooked his opponent. But at Sengoku: "Eleventh Battle," he was quickly caught up an upkick while in Khalidov's guard which led to a ground and pound stoppage for the debuting Polish fighter.

The non-title fight led to a title bout rematch four months later. He fared much better and controlled most of the action en route to a unanimous decision. Several submission attempts including an omoplata that nearly ripped Khalidov's arm out of socket were a major factor in the victory and Santiago's redemption.

In what would end up being "Sandman's" final fight for the Japanese company, he rematched the man who he beat for the title in the first place, Kazuo Misaki.

The five-round epic war stands as one of the greatest fights of all time filled to the brim with everything an amazing fight should have: back and forth action, near finishes, the drama that comes with an edge of your seat classic like this.

Rather than go through the bout blow-by-blow, I'll let the fight speak for itself.

Jorge Santiago's journey through the sport we all love comes full circle at UFC 130. Will he reach the same dizzying heights he did in Japan here in the UFC?

Or will Brian Stann prove that he still doesn't have what it takes to run with the big dogs?

We'll find out tomorrow night.

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