Diego Sanchez: Enter the Nightmare

Apr 7, 2005
Like Freddy Krueger haunting the dark streets of Elm Street, Diego “Nightmare” Sanchez has kicked, beaten and choked his way to the plateau of world-class fighters. He has haunted the shadows of the arena, taking his victims apart in the cage. He is a young man of strong desire and individuality looking to take center stage in the spotlight of North America’s largest fighting event: the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sanchez began wrestling in the sixth grade and immediately took to the competitive nature of the sport. He competed throughout his high school years, taking the state championship in his senior year.

He was aware of mixed martial arts from watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship on television. “I used to roll with my friends—what we called UFC style,” Sanchez told Sherdog.com. “It was just fun to me. We would try to imitate what we had seen on the UFC.”

Nine months after graduating high school, he felt that something was missing from his life. He needed the drive that competing in wrestling had given him, without the physical duress of cutting extreme amounts of weight. This thirst for competition led him to join Jackson’s, a choice that would change his life.

Jackson’s Gaidojutsu was formed in 1992 by Greg Jackson, a video store clerk who had a strong desire to develop and market a martial arts style like no other. Jackson had a strong wrestling influence from his family (his father was a champion wrestler in the state of Ohio) and he wanted to blend the Western aspects of wrestling and boxing with Eastern techniques and philosophy. Eventually, he quit his job at a video store and opened the first Gaidojutsu gym.

Alone, Jackson most likely would not have developed Gaidojutsu into the highly effective system it is now. While he was the primary developer of the style, and continues to oversee its development, there were several individuals who had a great influence in the creation of the system.

Jackson credits world champion kickboxer and trainer Mike Winklejon with the creation of their kickboxing and stand-up game. Brad Ahrensfield was an Air Force special operations commando who modified Gaidojutsu for applications within law enforcement; he is now an Albuquerque Police SWAT sniper and defensive tactics instructor for many agencies including the Department of Energy. Chris Luttrell, a former NCAA wrestler, current SWAT operator with the New Mexico State Police, and instructor at the Federal government’s Central Training Academy, brought his unique brand of conditioning to the school. Luttrell also pushed to have Gaidojutsu students enter tournaments and compete, constantly giving Jackson the opportunity to refine and improve upon techniques.

Under Jackson’s guidance the four friends began to develop the training system, each lending his individual expertise. Once the system was in its infancy it had to be tested, which led to Luttrell and Ahrensfield fighting in many early no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle fights. Over the years, a team began to develop, and Gaidojutsu would grow.

“I always knew about Jackson’s,” recalled Sanchez, “but I never could afford it.” The young wrestler wasted no time in assimilating himself into his new team. “I started training, and did my first tournament two months later,” he said. “I had my first amateur fight four and a half months later.”

He moved quickly through the various divisions at submission grappling tournaments, competing three times as a beginner, once as an intermediate and from thereafter in the advanced bracket.

The 22-year-old fighter contends that Jackson’s Gaidojutsu, which translates to “Way of the Street,” is not simply a remix of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

“[Jackson’s] style, to me, means being of an open mind,” Sanchez said. “You know, we’re not a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school. We don’t use a gi. We’re fighters. That’s what we train for. We don’t train for the Mundials, we’re not Brazilian. We’re American wrestlers who are open minded, who can fight on our backs, fight on top or we can kickbox.”

Sanchez asserts that Gaidojutsu is an ever-evolving system, with no tradition to weigh it down or limit its progression. He credits his entire team for his success, but especially Jackson.

“Greg is the smartest man I’ve ever met,” the middleweight affectionately said of his mentor, emphasizing that Jackson knows the intricacies of his game better than anyone else could.

Sanchez was undefeated in 11 professional fights prior to being selected for Spike TV’s “The Ultimate Fighter,” with only one bout going to a judge’s decision. He left behind not only his friends, family and team to undertake the challenge of TUF, but also the King of the Cage middleweight belt.

“It was definitely an experience,” he said of his time living in the same house with 15 other fighters. “Not … the most joyful experience in my life. All in all it made me a more professional, more well-rounded person.”

Sanchez used the experience as an opportunity to see what it looked like from the top amongst the best fighters in the world. What happened in the house, however, was not always what was shown on the television.

“The edit monster loved to edit Diego,” the fighter quipped.

On one occasion in particular an inebriated Diego is dragged barely conscious through the house and thrown in bed after a night of drinks on UFC President Dana White’s bill. Cut to the scene of Diego gurgling and screaming incoherently as his teammates hold him down and taunt him about aliens.

Diego shakes his head, taking it in stride. “There are no aliens!” he chuckles. “I had never been on a billionaire’s tab before, and I indulged a little too much. I was spinning … nauseous, I didn’t want to lay down.” Diego reflects for a moment before adding, “I woke up in the morning and saw blood all over the place!”

The edit monster was not the only villain of the production. White threw a monkey wrench into everyone’s plans when he gathered the fighters together to announce that they would have to fight against their teammates to earn entry into Saturday’s live finale.

“I was, like, man, this is the biggest hawk of crap I’ve ever heard,” Sanchez state. “I was like, ‘Who thought of this’?”

It only got worse as Diego learned that his opponent would be none other than his roommate, Josh Koscheck. “I was crushed. He was my roommate, my friend. … I taught him the counters to my submissions!”

The fighters soldiered on, however, and met in the Octagon to decide who would be advancing to the live finals. Koscheck brought his “A” game, and took Diego to the mat numerous times. Once on the ground, however, Sanchez worked submissions and constantly attempted to improve his position. The Albuquerque fighter also pounded his former teammate while standing.

In the end, two judges saw it for Sanchez while one awarded Koscheck the decision. “Did he forget his glasses?” joked Sanchez of the dissenting judge.

Sanchez set himself apart from the norm, not only with his fighting ability but with his personal beliefs as well. He is a devoted practitioner of Yoga, and has been criticized as a Rickson Gracie impersonator.

He nods his head in seeming acceptance of this. “ Rickson Gracie is one of my heroes,” he said. “About two years ago I saw [ Rickson Gracie’s] ‘Choke’ and I had never seen anything like it.”

In Rickson, Sanchez saw a fighter that seemed years ahead of his time, and subsequently adopted many of the things he saw. “He was the best, in my opinion,” the kid said of the legendary Gracie. “I look up to him … if I can take something from him as a fighter so that I can be the best, I will.”

Sanchez shrugs off the criticism he has received for being an individual. “They say, ‘Oh, he’s weird, he does Yoga … he’s weird he does meditation.’ But that’s just me; it’s just what I believe.”

The Ultimate Fighter will reach its finale on April 9 featuring the first live broadcast UFC event on cable television. On this date, Sanchez faces former teammate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Kenny Florian in the Octagon. While others may underestimate his opponent, Sanchez remains firmly grounded.

“A lot of people are telling me, ‘You’re going to smash him,’” he said. “And you know what, I don’t listen to any of it. I know Kenny. I know he has a big heart. He’s a strong individual, very smart, naturally gifted on the ground and on his feet. I think he is a very tough opponent. I am expecting the toughest fight of my career. I am looking forward to a 15-minute battle.”

That said, Sanchez contends that he will be the victor. “God has not given me the spirit of fear, he has given me the spirit of power.”

And so far, that “spirit” has been a nightmare for his opponents.
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