He’s a tiger, you know? Like a lion, you know? He has that fire in his eyes and in his heart. I do, too. We’re the same. We both feel like we’re not going to just give a fight to anybody.
– Jorge Santiago, speaking to Sherdog’s Tony Loiseleur.
Two fighters once again proved their lionship on Sunday as Jorge Santiago defended his Sengoku middleweight title against Kazuo Misaki in an unbelievable five-round struggle. SRC 14’s main event undoubtedly lived up to the promise put forth by the pair’s initial meeting in January 2009, and managed to produce an even more dramatic finish.
After an even and relatively uneventful opening frame dictated by a pair of Misaki takedowns, the 34-year-old challenger set the drama in motion when he seized the neck of an off-balance Santiago in round two. Wrenching what Santiago would later confirm was an extremely tight guillotine, Misaki jumped guard and rolled into mount but was unable to finish off the champion. Santiago briefly threatened with a leglock late in the round, only to be stood up by referee Yoshinori Umeki when Misaki rolled through the ropes.
Santiago surged in the opening minute of round three, felling Misaki with a head kick-straight right combo which nearly ended the contest. As Umeki loomed, the now-bloodied “Hitman” somehow withstood a barrage of ten hard, unanswered punches and made it to the next round, where he would again turn the tables.
Two minutes into the penultimate round, an ill-conceived flying knee put Santiago within range of Misaki’s left hook, which sent the Brazilian crumpling to the mat. Misaki tried desperately to finish with punches from mount, knees to the face, an arm-triangle and a rear-naked choke, but Santiago would not be stopped.
The most unfortunate moment of the match came with 40 seconds left in the fourth, when referee Umeki issued an inarguably unwarranted red card to Santiago for rolling through the ropes – a foul which incurred no punishment when Misaki committed it two rounds prior. The card robbed Santiago of what could have been a crucial point, as well as 10% of his fight purse.
Just as in their first encounter, Misaki and Santiago entered the final stanza with Misaki seemingly ahead on the scorecards. Santiago wasted no time in pouring the punishment on his visibly weary opponent, dropping Misaki with combinations and a knee from the clinch almost as soon as the round began. The champion’s conditioning proved the difference as Santiago mounted Misaki, threatening with armbars and kata-gatame for the majority of the round. Misaki swept at one point, but Santiago executed a beautiful sweep using a kimura to latch on a rear-naked choke attempt.
Battered, bleeding and with both eyes nearly swollen shut, Misaki could not shake Santiago from his back. The choke attempt was abandoned and Santiago began thumping Misaki with punches from back mount until the Japanese corner was forced to throw in the towel with less than 30 seconds remaining, an action which HDNet color commentator Frank Trigg instantly deemed “the worst thing ever… horrific.” Upon replay, it was unclear whether referee Umeki had already decided to dive in for the stop when the towel hit the canvas.
With the way the judges’ scores added up entering the fifth round – 38-36, 38-36 and 39-36, all in favor of Misaki – it’s not entirely clear what might have happened had the bout not been halted in the waning seconds. The most likely scenario involves Santiago winning a majority “must” decision, which makes me thankful that the match ended the way it did. Today, instead of concerning ourselves with Sengoku’s goofy judging system, we can simply enjoy this Fight of the Year candidate for what it was and commend two men for putting their hearts on display and giving us one for the ages.
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