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Leonardo Santos cleared to train after rib fracture, eyes early return next year to UFC

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Stockholm- Ray vs Santos
Leonardo Santos stopped Stevie Ray in one round in his return to the Octagon earlier this year.
Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

RIO DE JANEIRO — Leonardo Santos put an end to his 32-month layoff with an incredible first-round knockout victory over Stevie Ray in June, but was once again sidelined with an injury.

Speaking with MMA Fighting last month, Jared Gordon said he was originally scheduled to fight Santos at UFC Sao Paulo, but the company changed plans after the the Brazilian got injured, replacing him with Charles Oliveira.

The Nova Uniao star told reporters during a UFC media day in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday that he was forced out for a month after fracturing a rib, but is “100 percent” now and targeting an early-2020 return to the Octagon.

“Just send me the contract to fight. February, March, I’m ready,” Santos said. “UFC Brasilia would be a safe choice because I’m Brazilian, I’m the TUF Brazil 2 winner, and would be a great opportunity for me to come back. I don’t choose too much. I want to fight as much as possible next year. I’ve been out for a long time and came back with a wonderful victory, so I want to keep working, no matter where.”

Santos’ last fight before his recent knockout over Ray was a 2016 win over Adriano Martins, but he guarantees he never contemplated retirement due to the many injuries he suffered over the years. As long as his mind is into it, Santos will get back in the gym to train and fight.

“The worst part was getting better, doing a test in the gym and getting hurt again. That’s what frustrates the most,” Santos said. “But I never thought about retiring. What I thought was, ‘Brother, even if I have to drag myself there, limping, I’ll at least fight once as a farewell bout’ [laughs]. But I never contemplated retirement.

“As much as I get older, going through several generations in jiu-jitsu and MMA, I like this. Your mind changes a little, you think ‘I’m tired of this training,’ but you have to watch yourself all the time, you have to keep working. If you want to do it, you have to pay the price. But I never considered retiring because of injuries. Injuries come and go. That’s how I think.”

Santos admits he didn’t expect to beat Ray by first-round knockout in Stockholm, and felt blessed to be able to come back in such impressive fashion. That, by the way, showed him once again that he’s not an “unlucky” person as he once thought.

“It took a long time for me to get to the UFC,” Santos said. “I had a good record, a big name in jiu-jitsu, was called the lightweight king, a multiple-time world champion, and all that wait makes you think you’re unlucky because you saw other people coming in. But it gets to a point that you have to relax. If it has to happen, it will, and it happened in the last minute.

“My story on TUF Brazil also proved to me that I’m a lucky guy, I’m a blessed guy, and God is always with me. Injuries happen. Age, all those years training at a higher level, we have to know how to deal with it.”

Santos is undefeated since 2010 with a 6-1 record in the UFC. His resume includes wins over the likes of Kevin Lee by first-round knockout, and a second-round submission against Anthony Rocco Martin. Those names alone could earn him a spot in the top 15 of the lightweight division, but both happened in 2015.

The lightweight veteran, who turns 40 in February, doesn’t think that inactivity explains why he’s out of the top 15 since he wasn’t elevated in the ranking after those wins four years ago. He still wants a chance to compete against a top-ranked foe, but part of him just ignores the list.

“I told ‘Dede’ (Pederneiras), ‘I think I’ll forget this (ranking),’” Santos said. “Let’s fight, let’s do our job. It’s alright. If I overthink this maybe I’ll run against the clock and get a fight and screw things up. It’s not only up to me, though. It’s up to the UFC as well.”