After spending the first three-plus years of his professional mixed martial arts career fighting bigger, stronger men, up-and-comer Sean Santella has finally found the right weight class for him: flyweight.
“By far, I’m most comfortable [at 125 pounds],” Santella told Sherdog.com. “I only walk around at 138 or 140 pounds at the heaviest. At 145 and even at 135, I was overpowered and undersized. When you hit the top level at 135, guys are cutting from the high 150s.
“Now that I’m at 125, I have the same skillset, but I’m harder to deal with,” he added. “I’m only cutting 10 or 12 pounds to make it, so I’m never overmatched when it comes to power or size, and my cardio and quickness are just as good. I really feel like I can make a splash at 125 once I get my chance.”
Santella, who hails from Whippany, N.J., and calls the AMA Fight Club home, has won two straight fights at 125 pounds and has victories in five of his last six fights dating back to December 2010. In his most recent outing in April, he defended his Cage Fury Fighting Championships flyweight title with a first-round submission win over Tuan Pham, taking just 1:53 to secure the tap via rear-naked choke. It was his eighth submission in 10 professional MMA victories, so it should come as no surprise that Santella comes from a wrestling and jiu-jitsu background.
“I started wrestling in kindergarten and wrestled up through high school,” said Santella, who has never been finished in 14 professional fights. “I had some friends that started doing jiu-jitsu and they told me to check it out, and I fell in love with it from the first day that I went to class. For the first year and a half, I just did jiu-jitsu, but some of the guys I did jiu-jitsu with went to AMA. They saw me doing well at jiu-jitsu and said I needed to go to AMA and train there. I ended up going down there with friend. He never came back, but I kept coming back and now I’m a pro fighter and one of the instructors there.”
While Santella cites his ground game as his strength, the man they call “Shorty Rock” knows he must improve on his striking as he tries to climb the 125-pound ranks.
“I’d have to say my ground game off my back is one of things I’m best at,” said Santella. “I’m a really good wrestler, but I’m actually only good at shooting, not sprawling. When I wrestled, I wanted to take you down and that has carried over well to MMA. My guard game is definitely my strong point.
“As for what I need to work on, it’s definitely my striking,” he added. “I’ve been working a lot on it with my boxing and muay Thai coaches. I’ve got good movement, but I need to put my moves together. So far, I’ve been so good on the ground that I haven’t had much of a chance to show what I’ve learned, but that’s still my weak point right now.”
Santella has been in MMA training for a little more than four years -- he made his professional debut in November 2008 against Bellator Fighting Championships, WEC and UFC veteran Nick Pace -- and his trainer, Mike Constantino, believes the expansion of the 125-pound weight class in North America has definitely benefitted Santella.
“Sean is very dynamic,” said Constantino, who trains UFC mainstays Jim Miller, Dan Miller and Charlie Brenneman. “He has a good mix of wrestling, jiu-jitsu and standup. All his fights have been against tough guys. Sean started out all the way up at 145, and he’s unbeaten at 125. The only thing that kept him out of this weight class sooner was there really wasn’t much of a 125-pound weight class. Flyweight is definitely his natural weight class. The only reason he hasn’t gotten to the UFC yet was that, until recently, there was no 125-pund weight class in the UFC.”
The UFC’s addition of a 125-pound weight class and the upcoming title fight between Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson have him looking forward to the opportunity to test his skills under the Zuffa banner.
“I was ecstatic [when the UFC added the 125-pound division],” said Santella, who is 10-2 since starting his career 0-1-1. “I knew it was a matter of time. The first time I read it on a Web site, it felt like my birthday. I feel like the UFC had been missing out on it because it’s a fun weight class to watch. Little guys like to scrap. Big guys can throw a lot of leather, but little guys can, too.
“Mike’s been talking to [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby and tweeting him about signing me,” he added. “All I can do is keep winning and keep finishing fights and hope they can’t turn me away. However, I’m not going to wait. I’m going to keep at it, regardless, because fighting is my passion. But the UFC is my goal. I want to fight the best guys in the world.”
Constantino thinks it is only a matter of time before Santella competes in the UFC.
“I think talent-wise he’s there,” said Constantino. “I think they just need to open up the weight class a little more. A lot of it comes down to fight availability on a card. Not a lot of 125s are signed right now by the UFC and a lot of 135s are dropping to 125. [Shelby] knows who Sean is, and he’s on their radar. He’s always training and getting better every day. ‘Shorty’ could fight tomorrow if we got the call.”
Until that call comes, Santella will stay busy defending his CFFC belt. He has another title fight tentatively scheduled for Aug. 24 against Dave Morgan, a two-time NCAA Div. III national wrestling champion who sports a 4-1 record. Coincidentally, Morgan’s lone loss came to Pham by rear-naked choke submission in October.
“It’ll be the last fight on my contract,” Santella said. “CFFC has mentioned a name to me and they may be trying to get that name approved. [Morgan] is supposed to be a strong wrestler, but that’s my strong point, so maybe I get to work on my standup. He’s really aggressive with his takedowns, so I’ll probably try to beat him up standing, but if he takes me down, I’m going to throw some submissions on him from my back.”