When most fighters say they "live in the gym," it's merely a figure of speech, a way to show their peers just how hard they're working.
For middleweight Wilfredo Santiago (6-3, 5 KOs), this commonly used expression is his reality, not just a clever euphemism. The transplanted Lawrence, Mass., native actually lives in his gym 2,200 miles west in Albuquerque, N.M.
"I have a room in the gym and everything," Santiago said. "My address is the gym."
Suffice to say, the 33-year-old Santiago has made plenty of sacrifices to ensure his career heads in the right direction. The hard work and dedication has paid off in the form of a nationally-televised headliner on the main card of "CES MMA 39" next Friday, Nov. 4th, 2016 against established veteran Chuck O'Neil (17-8, 6 KOs) at the historic Memorial Hall in Plymouth, Mass.
The O'Neil-Santiago middleweight main event is one of seven fights on the televised main card of AXS TV's AXS TV Fights telecast, which begins 9 p.m. ET and is promoted by CES MMA in association with Cage Titans FC. Next Friday will be Santiago's network television debut while O'Neil takes center stage on AXS TV for the sixth time.
"I can't say enough. I'm blessed," Santiago said. "All those mistakes a lot of fighters make, I made those in the beginning of my career. I took some time to myself due to injuries and did some soul searching. I've been taking it one fight at a time, training my ass off.
"I'm ready," he continued. "No disrespect to Chuck, but I believe in myself 100 percent."
A year ago, after winning a title at "Cage Titans 26" in Plymouth, Santiago decided he wanted to branch out and expand his training, so he reached out to gyms from all over the country. A few replied, including the Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, co-owned by Greg Jackson and widely considered one of the sport's top training facilities.
The legendary Jackson has trained the likes of former Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) women's bantamweight champion Holly Holm, former UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones and ex-welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, among others. Santiago decided to pack his bags and head west, but the original plan was to stay for just six months. The move soon became permanent as Santiago realized the benefits of training full-time at Jackson Wink, both in and out of the cage.
"It's a dream come true," Santiago said. "To train everyday with some of the best in the world, that alone builds confidence.
"One of the biggest aspects to being a fighter is being able to handle yourself outside of the cage. I'm an old-school guy. My mom and dad taught us morals and values, and to see how these champions carry themselves, it just makes you want to do better."
Relocating more than 2,000 miles from his hometown hasn't been easy. Santiago left a lot of close friends and family behind, including his ill mother, but knowing this could be his last chance to build off his current three-fight win streak and take his career to the next level made the decision much easier.
"It takes a lot to do this," he said, "but great sacrifices bring great rewards."
The climb back to the top for Santiago has been slow and steady, but equally rewarding. After losing to Darrius Heylinger in 2013, his third loss in four fights, Santiago suffered a torn labrum that forced him to take time off. He wound up sitting out for two and a half years, not only to heal his shoulder, but to take a mental break as well.
He returned in July of 2015 with a knockout win over Ralph Johnson and has now won his last three fights as he steps up from the welterweight division to middleweight to face the red-hot O'Neil, who's won his last two fights at 185 on AXS TV.
"None of us ever go into a camp 100 percent, but, overall, all the major injury issues I had in the past are behind me," Santiago said. "Training-wise, things couldn't be better. My body is still fresh. I haven't taken a lot of beatings like some of these other guys have. Everything is great."
O'Neil, a Bourne, Mass., native who now fights out of East Bridgewater, enters next Friday with newfound confidence since rebounding from his loss to Daniel Vizcaya last October after winning his last two fights. Outsiders questioned whether or not he made the right decision jumping from 170 to 185, and others have criticized his decision to moonlight as a professional wrestler, suggesting it's affected his performance in the cage, but O'Neil remains as steady and consistent as ever.
The former UFC vet makes his 12th appearance with CES MMA next Friday and he does so less than 20 miles from his hometown, the site of his first victory in an MMA title fight nearly eight years to the date; a former CES MMA title-holder, O'Neil also won the Reality Fighting Welterweight Championship Nov. 1st, 2008 at Memorial Hall.
"It's pretty crazy when you think about it. I'm an old man now," said the 31-year-old O'Neil. "Back then, I was a young, scrappy kid trying to get by as the tough guy.
"I wouldn't change anything for the world. There's nothing better than getting in that cage and winning."
While O'Neil has always eyed a potential return to the UFC, he's carved a niche with CES MMA as an electrifying, hard-hitting middleweight who's as precise at cutting promos as he is at finishing his opponents. The flashy, outspoken O'Neil enters next Friday's fight with a definitive size advantage over his shorter, lighter opponent, who's moving up in weight, but promises to maintain the same approach once the bell rings.
"[Santiago] is definitely a dangerous fighter," O'Neil said. "He's a game opponent. He throws a lot of heavy punches, big overhand rights, and he switches back and forth and likes to hop in and out, mostly in and out looking for that big shot.
"He's fought taller guys before. He knocked out Ralph Johnson, but before that was having trouble with his range. But I'm not Ralph Johnson. Not at all. As [head coach] Diamond Dave [Keefe] says, I'm going to go out there and be the F-ing boss. I'm going to establish that and take control. If you go in there waiting on stuff, you're going to get hit with things."
O'Neil has found his comfort zone at 185, which means no more crazy weight-cuts leading up to fight night. Managing his weight and diet properly has helped O'Neil look and feel better when he enters the cage and it's showed in his last two bouts, particularly in his fight against Dennis Olson in March when he fought three full rounds and never lost stamina, closing with a championship performance in the third and final round.
Now O'Neil returns to the site of some of his greatest achievements against a scrappy, underdog slugger with nothing to lose, perhaps a reflection of the fighter O'Neil used to be.
"Every fight, I feel stronger and stronger," O'Neil said. "I'm not killing myself and I'm not burning muscle. I enter that cage on fight night feeling strong. I'm looking forward to this fight."
Tickets for "CES MMA 39" are priced at $45.00, $55.00, $75.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesboxing.com or www.cagetix.com or by phone at 401-724-2253/2254. All fights and fighters are subject to change.
"CES MMA 39" features eight action-packed bouts, including a featherweight showdown between 25-fight vet Saul Almeida (18-7, 1 KO) of Framingham, Mass., and Abington, Mass., prospect Manny Bermudez (7-0, 1 KO), who puts his unbeaten record on the line.
The 27-year-old Almeida is a veteran of several prominent organizations, including CES MMA, World Series of Fighting (WSOF) and Bellator Fighting Championships. Nov. 4th will be his ninth under the promotional guidance of CES MMA and first since 2014. Bermudez, a longtime Cage Titans and CES MMA vet, returns to the cage for the first time since August when he defeated Rodrigo Almeida via first-round submission.
Also on the main card, Quincy, Mass., light heavyweight Mike Rodriguez (5-1, 3 KOs) returns following an impressive network television debut at "CES MMA 38" in September to face New Hampshire's Kevin Haley (5-3, 2 KOs) and Cage Titans vet Peter Barrett (6-0, 5 KOs) of Abington puts his unbeaten record on the line in a featherweight bout against Clearwater, Fla., native Jeremy Davis (3-0, 1 KO), also undefeated.
In the flyweight division, Milford, Mass., vet Remo Cardarelli (6-4) faces Josh Ricci (2-0) of Whitesville, N.Y., and Stoughton, Mass., bantamweight Max Barrett (3-0, 2 KOs) returns to face Matt Almy (2-1) of Binghamton, N.Y., both on the main card.
Sandwich, Mass., welterweight Bobby Flynn (6-3, 1 KO), fresh off his win over Kevin Horowitz at "CES MMA 36," battles unbeaten Crofton, Md., native Micah Terrill (6-0, 5 KOs) on the main card while Connor Barry (1-0) of Holbrook, Mass., faces lightweight Anthony Giachina (1-0) of Selden, N.Y., on the preliminary card.
Visit www.cesmma.com, www.twitter.com/cesmma or www.facebook.com/cesmma for more information, follow CES MMA on Instagram at @CESMMA and use the hashtag #CES39 to join the conversation.
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