Diego Sanchez personifies intensity.
One of MMA’s most mercurial athletes, “The Nightmare” has been one of the sport’s recognizable figures for more than a decade. Sanchez won his first 17 professional bouts, captured a King of the Cage championship, became a reality show star and has enjoyed success in multiple Ultimate Fighting Championship weight classes. Emotionally charged battles with Karo Parisyan, Josh Koscheck and Nick Diaz are all part of the story arc for the Albuquerque, New Mexico, native, along with controversial encounters with Martin Kampmann, Ross Pearson and former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder Takanori Gomi. Whether the feeling towards Sanchez is good, bad or indifferent, no one can ever question his warrior spirit or his affinity for hand-to-hand combat. The 34-year-old Jackson-Wink MMA rep will return to the cage opposite Marcin Held at UFC Fight Night 98 “Dos Anjos vs. Ferguson” on Nov. 5 in Mexico City.
In a career replete with defining moments, here are five that stand out:
1. Ultimate Ascent
Sanchez was an undefeated prospect when he arrived on the UFC scene at “The Ultimate Fighter 1” Finale on April 9, 2005 in Las Vegas. There, he locked horns with Kenny Florian, a man who would go on to fight for Ultimate Fighting Championship gold on three occasions. The two undersized middleweights were understandably cautious and spent the first minute circling one another. Sanchez forced the issue, entered the clinch behind punches and executed a takedown. It was the beginning of the end for Florian. Sanchez advanced to side control, exited the “KenFlo” guard and rained down with standing-to-ground punches. He later climbed to mount, opened a jagged cut on the bridge of Florian’s nose with an elbow strike and briefly threatened with an arm-triangle choke. Sanchez then settled back in full mount, maintained a dominant position through a series of desperate Florian scrambles and let his punches go until referee Steve Mazzagatti had seen enough. The stoppage was called 2:49 into Round 1, making Sanchez the first winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series.
2. Trucking ‘Diesel’
Though he had won his first five fights under the UFC flag, Sanchez headed into his Dec. 13, 2006 clash with Joe Riggs with plenty to prove. Many saw him as a one-dimensional grappler who offered little in the standup department. Sanchez needed a little less than two minutes to force his detractors to reconsider their stance. Riggs was all smiles beforehand, but his expression soon changed. Crouched modestly and poised to strike, Sanchez bided his time on the perimeter and probed for openings. Riggs was viewed as the superior striker. “He believes that Sanchez’s standup is about three years behind his,” UFC commentator Mike Goldberg said. Reality deviated from perception. Sanchez sat down “Diesel” with a right hook, followed with a devastating knee strike upstairs as Riggs returned to his feet and pounced with unanswered punches. By the time it was done, Riggs was face down and unconscious on the canvas and Sanchez had improved to 17-0. Referee John McCarthy made the rescue 1:45 into Round 1.
A longtime stalwart at 170 pounds, Sanchez earned his lightweight stripes at the expense of Clay Guida. In what was easily one of the year’s most compelling fights, he notched a split decision against the shaggy Chicagoan in “The Ultimate Fighter 9” Finale main event on June 20, 2009 at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Sanchez roared out of the gates. He wobbled Guida with wicked, compact uppercuts against the cage and quickly established a foothold in the match. Later, Sanchez dropped “The Carpenter” with a head kick that would have left lesser men unconscious. Guida, however, refused to go away. He bounced off the stool for Round 2 and employed a strategy that was far more effective. Guida took down the New Mexican early and worked ground-and-pound from the top. He ate some elbows to the top of his head for his troubles, but he kept Sanchez pinned to the mat for much of the middle stanza. Round 3 was almost too close to call. They traded briefly before Guida ended up in top position after a scramble. Sanchez worked for a kimura and an armbar from the bottom, but the blood flowing from Guida’s nose, mouth and head made it virtually impossible to secure anything of consequence against the former Strikeforce lightweight champion. They finished in a stalemate. “He’s a stud,” said Guida, his trademark locks drenched in blood. “I took him down. He cut me up. I think it was a really close fight.”
4. An Exercise in Futility
Lessons oftentimes must be learned the hard way. B.J. Penn introduced Sanchez to a level of excellence with which he was not familiar in the UFC 107 headliner on Dec. 12, 2009 in Memphis, Tennessee. There, Sanchez challenged the popular Hawaiian for the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight crown and endured almost five full rounds of hell. According to FightMetric data, Penn connected on 149 total strikes and denied all 27 of the challenger’s takedown attempts. It turned into an exercise in futility for the outgunned Sanchez, who went an almost unimaginable 8-for-108 in the total-strikes department. Penn brought his misery to an end in the fifth round, where the only head kick he threw the entire fight resulted in an enormous gash on Sanchez’s forehead above his leftt eye. Blood sprang forth, and the bout was called 2:37 into Round 5. It remains the only time Sanchez has fought for UFC gold.
Nothing revealed Sanchez’s character quite like his unforgettable battle with Gilbert Melendez. Tight punching combinations and trademark toughness carried Melendez to a unanimous decision over “The Ultimate Fighter 1” winner in a featured lightweight scrap at UFC 166 on Oct. 19, 2013 in Houston. It was immediately hailed as a contender for “Fight of the Year.” The remarkable 15-minute war was marked by wild scrambles and even wilder exchanges. Melendez was superior in most of them, opening a horrific horizontal gash on Sanchez’s left eyebrow with a standing elbow in the first round. The referee had the cageside physicians examine the cut twice before the fight was done. Round 3 was an extraordinary study in the human spirit, as Sanchez, clearly behind on the scorecards, made his move. “The Nightmare,” who had been dropped to a knee by a right hand in the first round, floored Melendez with a right uppercut. The dazed Cesar Gracie protégé collapsed to the mat, and Sanchez pounced on his back in search of the rear-naked choke. Melendez wiggled free, perhaps aided by the considerable amount of blood that had been spilled, and the two lightweight gladiators resumed their frenetic dance on the feet. They closed with a throw-caution-to-the-wind exchange, forcing a spellbound crowd to stand and applaud what it had witnessed.