Diego Sanchez and Mike Winkeljohn are back on the same page. | Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Diego Sanchez is saying all the right things as he heads into his UFC Fight Night clash against Ross Pearson on Saturday night.
He says he’s motivated, he’s put on muscle, and that he feels better than ever before. You know, the kind of stuff fighters usually say before each upcoming bout.
Much of New Mexican’s focus stems from fighting in his hometown, an opportunity he has not been afforded since 2004, when he stopped Ray Elbe in 67 seconds at the not-so-creatively named King of the Cage 36 “Albuquerque.”
Plenty has changed since then. Sanchez became a star on the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” eventually challenged for a UFC title and has an enduring reputation as a fan favorite for his brawling tendencies. After putting the Duke City on the mixed martial arts map, fighting in front of friends and family one more time is simply icing on the cake.
“It just feels full circle,” Sanchez said. “I was the first guy from Albuquerque to fight in the UFC, and it’s been 10 years [since then]. As a fighter and as a man I’ve really come full circle. I’ve grown up, made all the mistakes I could have possibly made. I’m very mature, my feet are grounded and I’m fighting for all the right reasons.
“I took this camp very seriously. I feel like this fight motivated me as if I was fighting for a title -- if not more -- because of the passion that I have for my city, but more than that, the passion I have for my family ... I have over 160 family members that are going to be there.”
Sanchez recognizes that, win or lose, this will likely be his last chance to fight in the city where he blossomed as one of Greg Jackson’s first prominent pupils. Coming off a disappointing loss to Myles Jury at UFC 171, where “The Dream” was hampered by everything from Jury’s style to some bad pre-fight beef, changes had to be made.
That started by enlisting the services of longtime Jackson-Wink MMA head striking coach Mike Winkeljohn. It seems like a no-brainer that, as staples of the Southwest camp, Sanchez and Winkeljohn would have worked in tandem consistently over the years, but that has not been the case.
Sanchez honed his standup primarily with assistant striking coach Mike Valle in preparation for Jury, and Winkeljohn says he has not been in the fighter’s corner since Sanchez took on Jake Ellenberger in February 2012. Even then, the coach affectionately known as “Wink” didn’t play a major role in his fighter’s camp. In fact, before the current camp, Winkeljohn says he has not worked with Sanchez on a regular basis since his King of the Cage heyday and early UFC tenure.
Winkeljohn describes their recent relationship as “hit-and-miss.” This time around, both fighter and trainer were on the same page.
“I love Diego, but honestly, where he was at, he just wanted to do his own thing on his own time,” Winkeljohn said. “So we kept missing each other, but he really seems committed to it. I’ll tell you what, I want to help him. He’s got the biggest heart out there in MMA, and I want to be part of what he’s capable of doing.”
For Sanchez, that commitment is a two-way street. With the ever-growing population of fighters inside the Southwest gym, Winkeljohn can often find himself pulled in several different directions. Sanchez picked up on that.
“We just devoted our time and our relationship to each other, and we’re ready to go to battle together,” Sanchez said. “It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this together.’ I commit to you; you commit to me. We’re gonna make the time regardless, because Wink has a lot of guys. That was my only issue with Winkeljohn before was that I wasn’t getting enough time, so I told him, ‘Look, I’ll meet you at your gym any time and we’ll work together. I’ll never be late; I’ll always be wrapped and ready to go.’”
Earlier in Sanchez’s UFC career, the former high school state champion wrestler was able to impose his will through a relentless blend of takedowns and grappling. As time has passed, his wrestling has not been as reliable as it once was. Unable to get his opponents down, Sanchez spends much of his time in the Octagon attempting to draw his foes into slugfests.
When it works, the results are spectacular -- even when doesn’t win. His crowd-pleasing clash with Gilbert Melendez at UFC 166 -- a 2013 “Fight of the Year” candidate -- is a prime example. When it fails, a lopsided loss like the one he suffered at the hands of Jury results.
What Winkeljohn wants to see against Pearson is the tenacity Sanchez displayed at UFC 166 blended with a little more technical acumen.
“That wasn’t the best Diego we saw against Myles Jury,” Winkeljohn said. “A little more aggressive Diego but being smart with what he does is what we’re going to see in this fight... Diego in the past has been able to overwhelm people, but it’s going to be a little harder to do that with Ross Pearson because he’s so talented. I think everybody is going to see a new and improved Diego that understands being in the right place so he doesn’t have to get hit and can finish his takedown.”
When Sanchez talks about everything coming full circle, maybe he doesn’t mention Winkeljohn directly, but the same rationale applies. Winkeljohn, along with Greg Jackson, helped Sanchez develop into the fighter he is today. In turn, Sanchez’s rise to stardom put the Jackson-Wink gym on the fast track to becoming an international MMA hub.
Without him, that process could very well have taken much longer.
“I think a couple [more] years, no doubt,” Winkeljohn said. “Diego’s a big part of why we’re here. I think people want to see what this is all about. This kid had this endless energy and determination, and [everyone] wanted to be a part of that. Keith Jardine was on the next [‘TUF’] and Rashad Evans came with him, but Diego started it all.”