About 14 months ago, at the same time Hector Lombard was piling up wins while cloaked in anonymity, Jorge Santiago was about to make a highly anticipated return to the UFC.
Santiago fought three times for the UFC in 2006, but went 1-2 and was unceremoniously cut. Rather than sulk or look for a new line of work, Santiago assessed his weaknesses, found a new camp and remade himself as a fighter.
He won 11 of 12 after the UFC cut him and earned a new contract with the promotion. When he did, he was immediately welcomed as some sort of conquering hero by a portion of the fan base, which expected him to inject a jolt of life into what had become a staid middleweight division.
Fans were starving for a challenger who was good enough to beat champion Anderson Silva. Santiago, with that brilliant 11-1 streak and an amazing win over Kazuo Misaki, was deemed to be the guy.
Turns out, though, he wasn't. Far from it, actually.
Santiago was beaten up by Brian Stann and stopped in the second round of their bout at UFC 130. Four months later, he was repeatedly taken down and outworked by Demian Maia.
There would be no Silva fight. It was no triumphant return. After the back-to-back losses dropped him to 1-4 in his UFC career, he was cut again, this time probably for good.
And now comes Lombard, another similarly heralded middleweight. He's 31-2-1 and hasn't lost a fight in almost six years. He's won 20 in a row and has gone 24-0-1 in his last 25 bouts.
He won the Bellator, AFC and CFC middleweight titles along the way and, much like Santiago 14 months earlier, enters the UFC with the hope that he might be the guy to knock Silva off his perch.
He'll face Tim Boetsch Saturday at UFC 149 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. And while UFC president Dana White wouldn't come out and say it directly, it's obvious that Lombard will be on the fast track to a title shot if he gets past Boetsch.
"We've got to see [how he does]," White said. "… The 185-pound division is getting very interesting. [The Silva-Chael Sonnen] fight [on July 7] changed a lot of things. We'll have to see. We'll have to see how this whole thing shakes out but Hector Lombard is definitely one of the top guys."
White, though, gave Lombard a prime spot on the card, putting him in the co-main event, where he's going to be highly visible. Should he defeat Boetsch, who has won three in a row in a very impressive manner since dropping to middleweight, Lombard will be right near the top of the heap.
It's been a long ride for Lombard, who has black belts in both judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He competed for Cuba in judo in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and turned pro as a fighter in 2004.
He was winning his fights, though, on sheer talent alone. He didn't have access to the kind of coaching and facilities his competition had. A loss to Gegard Mousasi in PRIDE on Nov. 5, 2006, forced Lombard to reassess the direction of his career.
He was 7-2 and not creating much of an impression on anyone.
"When I was competing in Japan, I was fighting with the best and I'm like, 'Wow, these guys, they have the best training facilities and they have the best trainers and they're full-time athletes," Lombard said on the UFC 149 Countdown show. "I realized that I could do better.
"I came here to America and it was a whole different game. When I got here, I was amazed with the setup. You know, wrestling mat, jiu-jitsu mat, cage, ring. I was like, 'Wow.' This is the place to be."
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The UFC is the place to be for ambitious fighters who dream of world-wide recognition as the best. Lombard's long streak is impressive, but it doesn't include anyone in the Top 10.
He has much to prove, like Santiago did in 2011. Boetsch lavished praise upon Lombard, but he also noted it's a different world from the one he's been dominating.
"This is a different pond, with much bigger fish," Boetsch said. " … There's a much deeper talent pool. The talent level is higher across the board. You don't get easy fights in the UFC."
The 20 wins in a row and the 31 wins in 34 fights won't mean a thing if Lombard doesn't beat Boetsch. If he loses on Saturday, fairly or not, he'll be derided as a second-tier fighter who beat up on B-caliber talent.
There is, though, ample reason to believe that's the case. It's up to Lombard to prove that isn't true. In a very similar situation, Santiago wasn't up to the task.
Lombard will get his chance on Saturday, but it might be wise to wait to see how he does before anointing him the next big thing.
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