If you show up at any MMA event in New Jersey, there’s a good chance you’re going to come across the 5’5” 125 pound (usually) bright haired dynamo that is Sean Santella. The Miller Brothers MMA - and on this particular Saturday training with Catone MMA - fighter is coming up on his 10th year of fighting. His 25th fight is set for December 16th as he takes on Kevin Gray at CFFC 69.
“It came on quick,” Santella stated as he discussed his near decade long stint in MMA. “When I first started, it was just something to do. It was more about filling that gap I had from wrestling in high school. Then I became pro. I said I know a lot of people. I’m pretty popular. I could sell some tickets.”
Wins started piling up for Santella as he started his career 5-1-1 and all of a sudden this high school dropout who hadn’t “stuck with anything in his life” found something he could commit to.
“I just did wrestling. There was no summer thing. It was wrestling season for these two or three months and that’s it. I didn’t put any over time in. I didn’t care. For fighting you can’t do that. It’s something that I really loved. So time flew because it wasn’t dragging like school.”
If you’ve followed Shorty Rock for any period of time whether it’s in the gym or out one of the first things you notice (hair aside) is his demeanor. Call it a reverse Napoleonic complex because when he’s not training he’s more than willing to give advice and help out in whatever way he can. He marveled in our interview at his ability to now get paid to fight and to teach having developed and running a jiu-jitsu program. What makes this all the more fascinating is the Shorty Rock you see now was far more combative as a younger “Shorty.”
“I was a troubled child,” Santella admitted. “I liked to go to parties. I liked to be with my friends. Anything someone told me I had to do - it’s like no I’m not going to. Even if I loved doing it I’m just going to spite you. I actually dropped out of wrestling in middle school and played basketball just because my dad hated basketball. I wasn’t any good at it.”
But even after picking wrestling back up in high school, he still made every effort to do the bare minimum.
“In school it’s not that I was a bad kid, my grades were fine, I just didn’t like going to school. I would sign up. Go to first period. Then the second I could leave I was leaving. It was more of an attendance thing. I just didn’t like being in school. I only stayed in school for wrestling. Wrestling was at the beginning of the year. So from November to February I was in school the bare minimum. My wrestling coach would send people to pick me up at my house because I wasn’t there. You couldn’t wrestle unless you were in school for half the day. So I would miss the first half and as long as I came in before lunch it counted as a full day in order for me to wrestle. After wrestling season my coach didn’t care about me any more because I wasn’t useful to the team. So nobody picked me up and I never went to school. I ended up dropping out as a junior. I was getting into trouble. I just didn’t want to be in school.”
After dropping out of high school - with his mother’s approval - because of its oppressive environment, he got his GED. Shortly after though, he continued to spiral. After going down what he called a “dark path” thanks in part to a foray with drugs he moved down to Florida for a fresh start. A self proclaimed “meathead” at 5’5” and 170 at the time, Santella only moved back to New Jersey after a motorcycle accident left him unable to care for himself. But it’s also what led him into jiu-jitsu.
“A buddy of mine is like, ‘You got to do this jiu-jitsu.’ I hyperextended my arm the first day. I was out for 19 weeks and I fell in love with it ever since. It’s the only thing I stayed with. I didn’t stay with wrestling. I didn’t stay with school. I only stayed in school to wrestle because that was my passion. But you can’t wrestle all year long. School just wasn't for me. It’s just crazy that fighting and jiu-jitsu are the only things I’ve dedicated something to.”
What served to help him most as a jiu-jitsu practitioner ended up being his less than stellar experience in school. In particular it was a cop who gave him the greatest piece of advice that he carried with him.
“He said listen, Sean, I know you’re down in the dumps right now and most people are counting you out,” Santella reminisced. “He’s like everyone gets knocked down. Most people don’t get up. You prove to them and you get up and you push that in your face that you’re going to succeed. All these close people to me are telling me I’m going to amount to nothing. That really affected me. It gets me through my rough days because I’ve got a lot of people to prove wrong.”
Being able to serve as that “comeback” story is what drives the Whippany native on a daily basis. Saying he doesn’t want them to “have the last laugh”, he’s now training those same law enforcement officers as well as school teachers. Despite his own personal successes, in addition to his ability to serve as a role model for anyone, he hasn’t been as successful in his career...yet.
“I hold myself to a higher standard. So to me if I don’t make it to the big show - I kind of failed. No one remembers the regional champs. Even now I have a local name from fighting in all these regionals but to me it’s all about fighting the best and proving that I belong there.”
This is where it feels like he looks at his 10 year career and is annoyed. Saying after 10 years he “feels like he should get that chance” Shorty Rock had the highest and lowest moment of his career before UFC 201. Saying his “dreams were starting to come true” Sean was set to step in and face Wilson Reis on short notice. Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson had to pull out due to an injury and here was Shorty Rock’s opportunity. But, within 48 hours it was snatched from him just as quickly.
“Getting shut down because of medicals and it wasn’t even medical issues that I had,” Shorty Rock protested. “It was the fact that it was a mix up with my previous medicals being sent in. And I have hypertension. I’ve had it since I first started fighting. I have blood pressure medicine. I see a doctor. Never had an issue. I never failed a prefight, pos-tfight exam or anything. Never had any issues. And when they saw that, they wanted me to see other doctors, get a note from my doctor, get a couple of other tests done from neurologists. And I just didn’t have enough time.”
And so begins the Catch 22 Santella seems to find himself ever since. After being pulled from the card because of the medical issue, he later got everything cleared up. Saying he talked to the UFC doctor and the medical people, Santella was cleared to fight but still didn’t receive a call. So if he was good enough to get the call up and medically cleared by their doctors...what’s the hold up?
“They weren’t keeping me on standby just in case someone got hurt. So then I fought a couple of more times and I still won and they still weren’t paying attention. So then it’s like are you ever going to let me fight? What’s going on? I couldn’t get a straight answer even to this day. So the UFC tells me there are a bunch of people in front of me and there really only looking at undefeated prospects. I can’t understand that because I’m 18-6. I have 13 finishes. I’m a little more battle tested than someone who’s 5-0 who’s fought guys with a .500 record. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Offering to fly out to Las Vegas and get tested with his own money in order to get medically cleared again, Santella has someone trying to talk to the UFC to find out what they need from him. He’s also limited in his “big show” possibilities because so few of them have flyweights. Citing prohibitive cost issues, Santella talked about the frustrations still needing to satisfy a ticket minimum.
“I should be in a big show. If it’s not the UFC there are a couple of other promotions out there. I’m hoping if the UFC isn’t interested I can still go to another promotion. I want to fight. I want to win a belt for a big promotion. I can give anyone in the UFC division a run for their money. Entering me in there I feel like I could be top 5. I could beat any one of those guys.”
While it’s very easy to become complacent in any profession after more than 10 years, Santella continues to evolve - specifically by training with Nick Catone MMA. On this particular Saturday you’d be hard pressed to find more UFC fighters anywhere in the country. Training with the likes of Eddie Alvarez, Katlyn Chookagian, Frankie Edgar, Marlon Moraes and Edson Barboza has allowed him to continue to develop and refine his craft.
“To me it’s iron sharpens iron. I make this trip down here to train with the best guys that are going to push me so that I’m not the hammer every day in the gym. Most of the time I’m the nail. Soaking up the knowledge from guys that are where I want to be like Eddie, Edson, Marlon and Frankie (Edgar). Being around them makes it that much more enjoyable.”
Given the conundrum currently facing him with the UFC, Santella also looks to those who’ve made it for some perspective.
“I think it’s just keep your eyes on the prize and keep pushing forward. Try not to let all the BS on the outside take over the moment. The UFC isn’t always the end point. Don’t focus so much on getting to the UFC and maybe last year was just UFC tunnel vision. Talking to these other guys i’s like, ‘Hey it’s not the end of the world.’ You’ve seen guys in other promotions in the Top 5 leaving going to other promotions. It’s about being treated fairly. Maybe it’s not the best place for you. Everything happens for a reason.”
As Shorty Rock continues to wait for the next call he’s set to take on VFC champ Kevin Gray on the 16th once again defending his title. He’s looking to win his 6th in his last seven bouts.
Lutfi Sariahmed has been covering Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in some capacity since 2008, primarily with Sherdog. He's covered local NJ MMA promotions including Ring of Combat and Cage Fury Fighting Championships.
Limited Tickets Available for Cage Fury THIS SATURDAY NIGHT!
CFFC 69 on December 16 back at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa