Closing in on 30 years of age, Diego Sanchez is still intensity personified. | Daniel Archuleta/Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- For all intents and purposes, the morning’s training sessions have ended, yet Diego Sanchez remains in the gym. As many professional fighters begin to make their way out of Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner adjusts the radio.
With Rage Against the Machine blasting through the sound system, Sanchez’s grunts and yells resonate throughout the dojo as he labors through an intense workout. Willie Parks, who has been living with the Albuquerque native, alternates sets with him.
“Let’s do this, Willie,” Sanchez exhorts.
A little later, Jackson’s MMA General Manager Ricky Kottenstette gives a tour of the gym to prospective members and changes the music to something more visitor friendly. Undeterred, Sanchez continues to toil away through an exhausting free-weight session. If the music was not going to scare away the guests on this day, it seems possible Sanchez’s intensity might.
“Diego’s very vocal. He’ll start screaming. He’s that emotional type of guy,” says striking coach Mike Winkeljohn. “He lets you know sometimes. He gets going, and it’s always in a positive energy side. It’s never in the gym situation a negative thing at all, but he will yell to help his teammates. Some people get uncomfortable because he’s yelling so loud; they’re not used to that type of intensity.”
About a week and a half stands between the fighter formerly known as “Nightmare” and his meeting with the world-ranked Martin Kampmann in the UFC Live 3 main event at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. Still, Sanchez is driven by the past.
Consecutive losses -- first in a lightweight title bout to B.J. Penn at UFC 107 and then to John Hathaway in his return to 170 pounds at UFC 114 -- raised questions about Sanchez’s standing in the sport. A return to training under the tutelage of Greg Jackson coupled with a high-energy, “Fight of the Night” triumph over Paulo Thiago at UFC 121 seemed to silence some of the doubters. However, beating the then world-ranked Brazilian was not enough to satisfy Sanchez.
“I was injured the whole camp [for Thiago],” he says. “I had a hurt shoulder, [and] I had broke my hand, so I didn’t get to lift at all for that camp. That’s why I wasn’t as big as I am now. I’m lifting again. I’m getting my strength back. I think the UFC is gonna be impressed with the way I come into this fight -- strong.”
The shift between weight classes had everyone from Winkeljohn to UFC President Dana White musing about the ideal division for the 29-year-old.
“His first fight at 170, honestly, I was a little worried that he needed to get back down to 155,” Winkeljohn says. “He looked small. This time he does not; he’s definitely stronger than last time.”
Sanchez estimates his weight has peaked at 195 pounds in the current camp. In that sense, the post-practice sessions with Parks are paying off. As for the intensity that fills the room when Sanchez is on his game? That has always been there.
Sanchez did not need long to make a serious impression on his team of coaches, including Greg Jackson and Jackson’s first black belt recipient, Chris Luttrell. It was just minutes into the first round of his professional debut at a Ring of Fire event in Denver, and the former high school state wrestling champion was, according to Luttrell, “bleeding all over.”
The sense of urgency that followed -- Sanchez applied a rear-naked choke and forced his opponent to tap before the round expired -- forecast a bright future.
“He never worried about the injury. He knew he had to finish the guy before the doctor saw blood [and stopped the fight],” says Luttrell. “I remember talking to Greg about it and Greg saying, ‘This guy is going to be something.’ His intensity was enormous.”
That was the first of 18 straight wins from 2002 to 2006 for Sanchez, whose list of victims over that time included Jorge Santiago, Kenny Florian, Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan. As a kid, Sanchez was drawn to martial arts and wrestling. The UFC’s rise to prominence was something of a perfect storm.
“I used to think Jean Claude Van Damme was the coolest thing,” Sanchez says. “When the UFC first came out, I was wrestling at the time; I was a junior wrestler. I loved Dan Severn because he was a wrestler and I was a wrestler. I just loved the sport.”
As his athletic prowess began to surface, Sanchez found himself believing an extended run of success was imminent.
“Back when Matt Hughes and Carlos Newton were fighting for the belt, I had just started training with Greg doing submission grappling, and I knew I could beat those guys,” he says. “Even at that young part of my career, I believed in myself that I could do it. I always believed. I never stopped believing.”
Luttrell thinks Sanchez’s highly publicized move to San Diego in 2008 to train with Saulo and Alexandre Ribeiro at The Arena gym altered his fighting style.
“There’s certain traits and there’s certain things that get people to a high level. Now, when people leave behind what gets them to that high level, then they go backwards,” he says. “When he left Jackson’s, he went to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy. The foundation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not attack, attack, attack. It’s be on your back and wait and counter and set things up. That’s not Diego. That’s not his style; it’s never been his style. That really set him back. He went backwards. He had a few good fights down there, but it just kind of worked against him.”
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