santiagovsrussellAs a young man stepping onto the mats or putting on gloves for the first time, it’s easy for the imagination to go wild, with dreams of UFC glory, international fame, and master status within martial arts. Having lofty dreams is easy, yet it’s when those plans unravel, like hand wraps at the end of a training session, that a fighter’s character is truly tested. When it’s not yourself with your hand raised, but rather your opponent time and again, what is left?

“I remember going into my third fight thinking “If I lose, that’s it. It’s over.” and then after losing that fight I just remember walking in the back with my head down, in tears thinking “That’s it. I’m done. This isn’t for me. I can’t do this”

It was Richard Santiago’s third loss in three fights, and the silver lining on that UFC dream was fading to black against the reality of his situation. Coming from the tremendously successful Rivera Athletic Center with amateur champions and professional fighters in all directions, being the odd man out would be enough to make someone unpack their locker and head out for good, yet Santiago wasn’t going to walk away so easily.

“Time passed and I didn’t stop coming to the gym. I just couldn’t. Jorge [Rivera] booked my next fight without even asking me, so I nervously accepted and one night he looked me in the eye and said “You’re a winner. I believe in you and I don’t care about any of this BS” and I went on to win that fight.”

While there would be other bumps in the road for Santiago, that one win was enough to keep his foot on the gas and frame up one of the most unlikely runs in New England’s amateur MMA history, going from a 0-3 fighter to the cusp of the Cage Titans Flyweight title; Santiago proving to be one of the scrappiest underdogs to emerge on the scene in years.

Facing Ryan “Razzle Dazzle” Kane at Cage Titans 27 and counted out by the majority of fans in the sold out Plymouth Memorial Hall, Santiago put on a short and sweet jiu-jitsu clinic against his adversary, snatching victory with a rear naked choke and hoisting a title that seemed a million miles away for a man who was once winless in three fights. Pulling a quote from UFC great Matt Hughes, Santiago claims “You’re not really the champion until you defend the title”, now heading into Cage Titans 28 ready to solidify his claim as the best Flyweight in New England.

Opposite Santiago will be a man who has never had that painful walk out of the cage; holding back tears as the crowd roars for another. Yet his path to this title fight has been a painful grind that started as a homeless youth on the streets of Hartford, Connecticut. As a boy, Nate Russell faced an uphill battle; his father having passed away and mother battling drug addiction, yet the young man found solace on the wrestling mats; a place he not only survived from a life asunder, but thrived. Taking a state championship in high school, Russell would be given an opportunity to wrestle at William Penn University in Iowa. While he’d struggle with grades and injury, taking five years to attain that degree, Russell made the most of his opportunity to improve his life by virtue of his physical prowess.

Russell made that walk, graduating with a degree in physical education and moving on to earn his Masters at Springfield College. With school out of the way and wrestling over, Russell turned to MMA and found he loved the gym grind as much as ever, his work ethic and physicality impressing team mates and the audience alike across four amateur bouts.

“The guy is as tough as they come.” Commented team mate Nick “Juice Box” Mancinone. “He doesn’t care about getting hit, he loves to trade and he just pushes through any barriers regardless of the situation. He’s constantly improving.”

Already holding a title with Premier FC, Nate Russell will look to continue his undefeated streak and pick up another strap, this time looking to add the most coveted amateur belt in New England; two underdogs looking to remain top dog on April 9th at Cage Titans 28.

~ Mike Hammersmith

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