Ever since his UFC debut, when he entered the Octagon to a live mariachi soundtrack, Diego Sanchez has been one of the sport’s most entertaining figures. After winning the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Sanchez began his Ultimate Fighting Championship career with six consecutive victories, including a unanimous decision over future Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz.
Though he has yet to capture championship gold, Sanchez remains marketable, thanks to an all-out style in the cage and an endearing quirkiness out of it. He has gone from welterweight to lightweight and back, from Albuquerque, N.M., to San Diego and back. He began his career as “The Nightmare” before a newfound approach to living prompted a change in moniker to “The Dream.” He has followed the teachings of noted philosophers Greg Jackson and Tony Robbins.
Often as memorable in defeat as he is in victory, Sanchez once again finds himself on the cusp of title contention at 170 pounds. On Wednesday, he faces Jake Ellenberger in the UFC on Fuel TV 1 main event at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., with a chance to shoot up the ranks in the suddenly wide-open welterweight division. It remains unclear whether a win would earn Sanchez an immediate title shot, but, as UFC President Dana White likes to say, he would certainly be “in the mix.”
There will be plenty of time to examine Sanchez’s future after the fight, but, in the meantime, here is a trip down memory lane with “Five Memorable Moments” from “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner.
“The Ultimate Fighter 9” Finale
June 20, 2009 -- Las Vegas
At this point in his career, Sanchez was still known as “The Nightmare,” and Clay Guida quickly found out why. After oozing intensity during the pre-fight introductions, Sanchez rushed across the cage to meet the Illinois native at the outset of their lightweight bout, firing off a frenzy of crosses, uppercuts and knees. Guida, who lost his mouthpiece during the opening salvo, momentarily quelled the assault by scoring a double-leg takedown to get the contest to the mat. Sanchez got back to his feet, and a break in the action was called so that Guida could re-insert his mouthpiece. It would turn out to be a prudent act by referee Josh Rosenthal because, moments later, Sanchez crushed Guida with a head kick that remains the lasting image of their fight today.
Amazingly, the man known as “The Carpenter” survived. “The light switches out and then the light turns back on,” Guida later told the Albuquerque Journal.
Though Guida’s recovery was nothing short of remarkable, he would not be able to do enough to punctuate his rally with a victory. When taken down, Sanchez bloodied Guida with elbows from his back. Even though the Chicagoan’s resolve had the crowd chanting “Guida, Guida, Guida,” in the final two frames, it was Sanchez who came away with a split decision nod and ultimately earned a title shot against B.J. Penn after just two bouts at 155 pounds.
“That’s what the UFC is all about, bringing battles like this to the Octagon,” Sanchez said in a post-fight interview.
The fight also comes with a back story, as it was one of a handful of camps where Sanchez did not train under the watchful eye of Jackson. While Sanchez honed his skills under Saulo Ribeiro at The Arena in San Diego, Guida made a call to Albuquerque, N.M., to inquire about Jackson’s availability for his own camp. Jackson politely declined, citing a conflict of interest since he still maintained a close relationship with Sanchez. Jackson invited Guida to join the team after his fight with Sanchez, an offer the former Strikeforce champion accepted. Eventually, Sanchez returned to New Mexico, and the two have been training partners ever since, albeit at different weight classes.
UFC 107 “Penn vs. Sanchez”
Dec. 12, 2009 -- Memphis, Tenn.
If it were entirely up to him, only death or dismemberment would stop Sanchez from finishing a night’s work inside the cage. Sometimes, when the heart and mind are still saying yes, the cageside physician says no. Such was the case in the only title bout of Sanchez’s UFC tenure, which came against one of the legends of the sport.
At his best, Sanchez could wear down foes with his trademark pace and intensity. In garnering wins over established veterans Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida, he looked right at home at 155 pounds. For nearly five rounds, Penn gave Sanchez the impetus to seek out a new division to rule. It began early, as the champion buckled Sanchez with a right hook and appeared to have the fight finished with a flurry of follow-up punches. Sanchez somehow managed to return to his feet but would absorb plenty more punishment before the frame expired. At the end of what was clearly a 10-8 round, Sanchez initially attempted to go to the wrong corner.
Though Penn would never have Sanchez in as much trouble again, the rest of the fight was pretty much rinse and repeat. The Hawaiian’s punches continued to find their mark while he fought off every takedown attempt from the resilient challenger.
Penn’s first kick of the fight came in the final round, and it opened up a huge gash above the left eye of Sanchez. Undaunted, Sanchez tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get Penn to the canvas for a final time before the doctor examined the cut and stopped the fight. The final numbers were telling: Sanchez landed just eight strikes all night and was a resounding 0-for-27 on takedowns against Penn.
“B.J.’s a great champion. He came in the best B.J. that ever stepped in the ring. I did my best. He came out on top. I’ll be back,” Sanchez said.
It remains the only time that in 27 professional fights Sanchez has been stopped in defeat; he has yet to tap out or be stopped by strikes.
“He recovered quick, and he kept going,” Penn said at the UFC 107 post-fight press conference. “He never totally gave up the fight; he always felt he was in it.”
Most other Sanchez foes would have to agree.
Finish Reading » Much like Rocky Balboa in the movies, Sanchez’s face seemed to have lost a battle with a steamroller, while his Danish opponent looked relatively unscathed.