In 2005, Santiago (23-8) began his first UFC stint at UFN 25 impressively, crushing the late Justin Levens with a first-round knee. Club-fisted strikers Chris Leben and Alan Belcher then delivered consecutive knockouts, resulting in Santiago's release from the organization.
What followed was a devastating twelve-fight blitz through the world middleweight division.
After the smoke cleared, Santiago had left ten victims asleep on the canvas while adding the titles of Strikeforce Middleweight Gran Prix champion and Sengoku Middleweight Champion to his resume. Top-ranked middleweight Mamed Khalidov was the only opponent to beat him and subsequently survive to a decision when Santiago exacted revenge in the rematch.
Santiago also excelled in finding and facing the most reputable competition he could. Immediately after his Octagon exit, he beat three former UFC fighters: beginning with Andrei Semenov, then Santiago's knee alone traveled to the Strikeforce tournament, where the evil patella scored back-to-back knockouts over Trevor Prangley and Sean Salmon in the same night.
A tour of Japan in the Sengoku promotion was up next, where Santiago ran through Pride and Pancrase vet Yuki Sasaki, former WEC fighter Logan Clark, Golden Glory middleweight Siyar Bahadurzada, former Pride and UFC fighter Kazuhiro Nakamura, and Pride welterweight GP champion Kazuo Misaki to win the Sengoku strap.
The circuitous path of dominance has lead him back to the UFC to oppose former WEC light-heavyweight champion Brian "All American" Stann (10-3). A true hero of the Iraq war who was awarded the Silver Star medal for valor in battle, Stann has now multiplied his strength and punching power by dropping down to middleweight.
The results have been highly encouraging after two fights. Stann scored his first career submission over Mike Massenzio and joined Anderson Silva with the rare accolade of being the only two fighters to knock iron-headed Chris Leben out.
Stann's MMA style is just what you'd expect from a decorated Marine: hard-nosed, nothing fancy, no weakness, no mercy.
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What Brian Stann may lack in extensive technique and experience he more than makes up for with his rugged toughness and natural fighting instincts.
He's a basic but functional boxer with massive power, and his strength and athleticism make him a threat in the clinch and with takedowns.
Santiago is a thoroughly complete martial artist, with a black belt in BJJ, deadly Muay Thai, a killer clinch game, and top-notch striking.
His use of footwork and angles are subtle attributes that may frustrate Stann standing. Stann has good head movement and wields a wide arsenal of punches, but I'm not sure he can hang with Santiago's slick stand-up routine.
Taking Stann's impressive KO of Chris Leben into account would point toward his right hand finding Santiago's weakest spot, which is his chin. However, I don't think it's that easy, as Leben is known for wading through punches, and Santiago will be fully aware that the military man will be gunning for a knockout.
Stann's technique in the clinch in the animation to the right might not be the best sign either. If he lowers his head and bull-rushes like that, I can see Santiago plugging a huge knee straight up the pocket from the Thai plum.
Stann has what I'd call the best bang for the buck. Without half a lifetime in a singular combat sport and little MMA experience, his heavy-handed boxing and raw toughness forgive him of many sins that the sport usually doesn't allow. Chances are, in a straight shootout while standing against Santiago, Stann's walloping right hand and reliable chin will probably prevail.
Santiago's deeply layered experience and technique will start to become apparent in the clinch -- even if Stann overpowers him -- and even more apparent on the ground.
This match-up hearkens back to the early days of NHB, where a natural born fighter with a major size and strength advantage meets up with superior technique in a more experienced artisan. The difference in modern times is that, with stellar coaches like Greg Jackson, strategies can be drawn up where weaknesses remain hidden, and Stann has all the tools to carry that game-plan out.
I don't think Santiago can take Stann down, but it's possible with the right timing, especially since Stann will be ruthlessly unloading. If Stann takes top control, just like everywhere else, he might only need a few well-placed punches to end the fight. If Santiago can control his wrists and avoid the frenzy, he has a stacked repository of sweeps and submissions, and his diverse repertoire of leg-locks in particular might come in handy.
I've gone back and forth on this fight and changed my pick twice, and need to get off the fence.
Even though "All American" might bulldoze him and play a safe and cautious strategy, I think Santiago will be more effective on the feet than many think, and his clinch and ground game will be surprising if he can endure the bombardment.
My Prediction: Santiago by submission