Not many fighters have gone unbeaten for so long inside the octagon, but Leonardo Santos doesn’t feel he gets the love he deserves from the UFC.
Santos became The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 2 welterweight winner in 2013, racking up a 6-0-1 record since. In a career often plagued by injuries, the jiu-jitsu ace scored gigantic stoppages over the likes of Kevin Lee and Anthony Rocco Martin in the UFC. Still, he awaits a retribution that never seems to come.
“I just want [the UFC] to put me in the top 10,” Santos said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “I just want my name in the top 10. Truth is: being an undefeated guy, TUF: Brazil winner and unranked, it’s hard for people to accept a fight against me. If I’m ranked, they’ll say, ‘It’s a tough fight but it’s worth the risk because I’ll enter the top 10 with a win.’
“That’s how myself and all fighters think. When someone calls you out they go see the number by their name. If I can get in the rankings, maybe we’ll see some brave guys accepting a fight with me.”
The man standing across the cage Saturday night, when Santos returns at UFC Vegas 22, will be Grant Dawson, a 27-year-old lightweight who won 16 of 17 professional fights and is 4-0 under the UFC banner.
Santos wasn’t happy with the choice, but is too tired to argue.
”I’m in the UFC for a long time and I’ve showed I can fight anyone but I can’t fight against time, right?” he said. “If they keep holding me back, it only gets harder for me to enter the rankings and get to the belt or whatever, but I think they could give me a ranked opponent.
“It’s been a long time since I stopped debating what the UFC does, which opponent they give me. Let’s work. If he’s here [in the UFC], he’s no piece of cake. He has four wins in the lightweight division so it’s not an easy fight. We prepare for war and we’ll see what happens.”
Undefeated in his last 13 MMA bouts dating back to his Sengoku days over a decade ago, the Nova Uniao talent doesn’t feel the company is interested in investing in a 41-year-old that derails hype trains.
“That’s the problem,” Santos said. “They put me in there to lose and [my opponents] to go up, actually, but I always ruin their party [laughs]. I continue to ruin their party. It makes sense, but there’s nothing I can do. I feel great today, I’m happy to continue training. It’s hard to see older fighters fighting, so they will have to put up with me for a long time.”
“I’ve asked for names, I’ve called out Michael Chiesa, and they never give me,” he continued. “I had to stop and think about it, and now I look at this situation differently. I’m a blessed man. I’m 41. Of all fighters that have competed with me and fought MMA, everyone stopped already, and I continue doing what I love in the world’s biggest promotion and being well-paid for it, so, hold on, is this stress really worth it? I stopped and relaxed.
“Brother, I’m enjoying life and living the moment. There’s not much I can say. This whole pandemic, so many craziness going on, and I continue doing what I love and getting paid for it? I can’t complain, I can only thank.”
Looking on the bright side of life now, Santos focuses on handing Dawson his first UFC loss Saturday night — and believes it will all come down to grappling.
“His style, he likes to take you down and work on top, and I think that’s where it plays out,” Santos said. “We have a strategy set, ‘Dede’ [Pederneiras] and I. We’re well-trained and we’ll impose our will so he doesn’t get too comfortable. He’s a young kid and he’s excited, he wants to show his work, so we have to intimidate him right off the bat and finish the fight early.”