Taila Santos suffered her first professional loss at perhaps the worst possible time: her UFC debut.
Prior to that night in February 2019, the Brazilian Muay Thai standout had managed to get the W – usually by KO – in fifteen consecutive appearances, including a bout on Dana White’s Contender Series that catapulted her into the promotion.
“On my debut, I didn’t feel like I was actually there. I lost my focus and couldn’t focus on the fight,” she explained via translator.
It’s possible she’s being overly critical about the performance. Opening night jitters or not, it was still a narrow split decision on the scorecards that ultimately went to Mara Romero Borella, who, at that point had a couple more years under the bright lights. Still, she internalized the moment and left determined not to let it happen again.
For her follow-up fight, she found herself locked in the cage with Molly McCann. The Liverpudlian had a three-fight streak going, and was ranked in the flyweight’s top 15. The pairing was an indication that, despite her previous loss, the UFC was aware of the potential Santos brought.
“Molly is a very good opponent and I was very nervous to fight her because of the situation: I was coming off a loss in a fight where I didn’t perform well, so I knew I needed a good win.”
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A good win is what she got, cruising to a unanimous decision victory and getting her mojo back in the process.
“Once it was done, I felt free to fight the way I really want. I’m not so worried about the outcome of the fight. Now I’m able to do what I want to do in the fight. Against Molly, I was able to only focus on the fight itself. I let everything else go.”
No fighter ever invites a loss, but that debut defeat, coupled with the sophomore victory, proved to be an invaluable combination as she looked down the road.
“From those two experiences, I know I’m one of the most dangerous fighters in this weight class. Now I feel like I deserve to be in the UFC, and I can really make a run in this division.”
With continued performances like the one against McCann, she’ll certainly have her chance. For the second time in as many fights, the UFC has paired her with another top 15 fighter. On the main card of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night: Hermansson vs Vettori, she’ll meet division mainstay Montana De La Rosa.
“I’m excited because it looks like the old school-style clashes where you’ve got a strict-grappler trying to outgrapple a striker,” Santos says of the matchmaking. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a really interesting fight. Montana is a very brave fighter. It doesn’t matter if she’s winning or losing, she’s always moving forward and coming to fight, so I’m really excited to see how it’s going to go.”
Fighting at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, the environment will be very similar to the Fight Island setting where she scored her first UFC win, namely, without any fans in attendance. There are fighters who bemoan this necessary pandemic evil, but Santos isn’t among them.
“I feel great in this atmosphere. It was exactly the same against Molly. I feel very comfortable because it’s easier to listen to the cornermen. It feels like a sparring session in the gym. I feel loose.”
So does this mean the moment is right to start making that run?
“Yeah, for sure,” she says. “I’m sure that a good win and a good performance will put me in the top 15. But I’m not in a rush at all. I don’t care about rankings at the moment. I just want to keep fighting and keep improving as a fighter because I know my moment will come. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes. I’m going to be ranked and I’m going to get the belt. I’m not in a rush.”