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Leonardo Santos changed mindset, training regimen for first UFC fight in 32 months

Jiu-jitsu specialist Leonardo Santos holds a knockout win over Kevin Lee.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Take a fighter with an unbeaten UFC record that includes stoppages over names like Kevin Lee and Anthony Rocco Martin and they very well could be ranked among the best in two different weight classes today — but that’s not the case with Leonardo Santos.

Santos signed with the UFC after winning the second season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil and currently holds a 5-0-1 record in the UFC, with two of those wins being a first-round knockout of Lee and a second-round submission of Martin. Yet, injuries have kept him away for the spotlight since a decision win over Adriano Martins in Oct. 2016.

Undefeated for the last 10 years, the Nova Uniao lightweight now makes his return at UFC Stockholm, taking on Stevie Ray on June 1 in Sweden. He spoke with MMA Fighting about how it feels to finally be able to do what he loves the most.

“I’m a bit nervous and anxious, actually, after such a long time on the outside,” Santos said, “And now I’ve finally finished a training camp and am going to a fight. The worst part is coming now, the weight cut, but I’ll fight.”

Santos had a few bouts cancelled over the last three years. A serious back injury forced out him out a lightweight clash with Evan Dunham in June 2016. A year later, Olivier Aubin-Mercier pulled out from a fight due to injury, and the promotion never found a replacement. On June 2018, a wrist injury prevented Santos from facing Nik Lentz.

The Brazilian veteran, who turned 39 in February, opted against surgery to fix his injured wrist. It meant a long road to recovery, but felt more natural, he explains. Yet despite all of the roadblocks, Santos never doubted he would come back to the sport again.

“I’m a very resilient guy,” Santos said. “I think everything has a reason to be. I try to keep my head on the right place since my body hasn’t followed that much, otherwise we snap, man. I remained calm, tried to believe in God’s plans, and that’s it. Things would eventually fall in place. I knew I’d come back eventually. No way I’d be out once and for all.

”Fighters are stubborn people, right?” he continued, laughing. “We want things to happen fast, but I’m an experienced guy who have gone through a lot, so you have to calm down. You can’t rush things, can’t run against time, otherwise you’ll have more problems. I had to completely change the way I train in camp. I had to learn everything all over again, and it worked out perfectly. I’m well prepared for this fight.”

Money wasn’t an issue during Santos’ time away from MMA since the experienced fighter saved cash throughout his career — and made more money teaching jiu-jitsu classes and seminars over the past few years.

From a training aspect, though, Santos had to make a few changes to avoid injuries, adding things like acupuncture, physical therapy, and massage to his daily routine.

“I’ve been training with those kids for a long time and I can keep the pace no problem, but we have to learn that while they are 100 percent the next day, we’re at 80 percent,” Santos said. “We have to start respecting our bodies. I can fight like a kid during a 15-minute fight, but the next day is the real thing. You end up accumulating damage. You’d break your body every day and not think about the recovery.”

Santos’ UFC Stockholm opponent doesn’t have the name value of guys like Lee and Martin, but Santos knows he can’t demand much after losing his momentum. In the end, what the Rio de Janeiro native wants most is to have his hands raised.

“I don’t think too much about that,” Santos said of facing big name opponents. “The UFC had plenty of chances to give me that push and give me someone in the top 10. This is one of the toughest divisions and I knocked out a title contender, beat some of the best. They’ve made promises and promises but it never happened, so I can’t whine about it. I did my job, it was on them, but I don’t think about that anymore. I want to do my job, get paid and come back home a happy man.

“I’m prepared and relaxed. I’m staying relaxed so I don’t let the anxiety affect me. I know it’s going to be a tough fight. Even though he’s had some highs and lows in the UFC, it’s going to be tough, especially over there in Europe. He won’t make it easy for me.”

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