Despite being only 28 years old, Mike Santiago already has the same number of bouts on his resume as fighters 20 years older than him. The UFC featherweight’s competitive nature started at a very early age while growing up near Chicago, as he was born into a family of athletes.
“From the time I got on my feet, I was running,” Santiago said. “I played football and baseball, and I started wrestling from age 5 until after high school. I started getting into mixed martial arts around the time The Ultimate Fighter started. All the champions in the UFC at that time were good wrestlers. I got into my share of scuffles in high school, so I found the gym closest to my school and I started fighting when I was 18.”
Santiago has accumulated a record of 21-10 in more than seven years of competing in MMA, and said his “competitive edge” has always been there.
“The competitiveness has always been in me,” Santiago said. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career, but it’s how you deal with adversity. You just have to keep moving forward.”
Part of the adversity Santiago has dealt with in his career is having to travel all over the country and compete in various regional promotions. Santiago has fought for and won titles in promotions like Ring of Combat, Cage Fury Fighting Championships, X-Treme Fighting Organization and the former Resurrection Fighting Alliance.
“Regional MMA is great, but there’s only a few places to really stand out in the Midwest,” said Santiago, the Chicago-area native. “In order to really evolve, you have to travel to the East Coast and the West Coast.”
After paying his dues and fighting all over the country, Santiago finally received his big break when he was selected to compete on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series on UFC Fight Pass. Santiago took advantage of his opportunity and secured a first-round knockout, and a contract with the UFC.
“I’ve done everything – boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, MMA,” Santiago said. “There’s not a style I haven’t gone up against and any style you have, I’ve probably seen it before. It was a great experience being around guys with solid records who were trying to make it. There was no bad blood – it was a humbling and grounding experience.”
Santiago made his debut on a UFC Fight Night card in September of last year as a late replacement against Zabit Magomedsharipov. While Santiago came up short in that fight, he didn’t attribute his loss to nerves.
“I had no time to get nervous,” Santiago said. “It didn’t really set in until I was walking to the cage. Zabit is a different breed of fighter, but with a 9-10 week camp, it would have been a different fight.”
Santiago looks to bounce back against Mads Burnell (8-2), who also made his UFC debut on that same Fight Night card last year. Santiago said he didn’t get a chance to interact with Burnell that night, but expects to get back on the winning track when he faces Burnell on Sunday, Jan. 14, in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I’ve been training my ass off, and I have a lot to prove now,” Santiago said. “With a full camp, I’m a challenge for anyone. Even if you’re the top 5-10 in the world, I will give you problems. I’ve lost more fights than [Burnell] has had fights in his career, and that gives me fire.”
Santiago is also looking to take the extensive experience he’s already accumulated in MMA and turn it into UFC gold.
“I want to be the champion,” Santiago said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who go 0-3 or 0-4 and then just say that ‘I was in the UFC.’ I want to make a mark and before my time is done, I will have gold around my waist.”
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