Diego Sanchez (left) file photo: Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Diego Sanchez’s recent career epiphany began with a right knee to the face. What followed was some soul searching, a renewed sense of commitment and a homecoming of sorts.
A more focused Sanchez has his sights set squarely on Paulo Thiago in their welterweight showdown at UFC 121 “Lesnar vs. Velasquez” on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
“I wanted the toughest fight I could get coming off a loss,” Sanchez said. “He's number seven in the world right now. He has a knockout over [Josh] Koscheck, a win over [Mike] Swick ... those other two guys [who beat him] -- [Martin) Kampmann and [Jon] Fitch -- they were unable to put him away. I feel a big win in this fight, with me stopping or finishing him, would put me right back where I need to be.”
If one asks him now, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner was not where he needed to be some five or six months ago. He lacked conditioning and discipline in the weeks and months leading up to his bout with British up-and-comer John Hathaway at UFC 114 in May. His return to Albuquerque, N.M., was marked not by a happy reunion with Greg Jackson, his original mentor, but a new fight camp in which Sanchez often had the final say.
“I wanted to try to do it on my own,” Sanchez said, reflecting on the choice.
Hathaway's knee dazed him in the first round, and Sanchez was never the same. The ground-and-pound attack that was a trademark of a 17-fight unbeaten run to begin his mixed martial arts career was nowhere to be found. Hathaway, a heavy underdog going in, won a unanimous decision.
“That last fight with Hathaway I wasn’t disciplined, wasn’t focused and was making the wrong decisions with my personal life. I had this idea in my head that I was gonna go in there and just knock him out,” Sanchez said. “Karma came around and bit me in the ass pretty hard with a big knee in the face in the first round.”
With that loss coming on the heels of a one-sided thumping at the hands of then lightweight champion B.J. Penn, Sanchez decided to make some changes. A third straight loss in the UFC would not reflect kindly upon his fighting legacy.
His rise to stardom began at Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts. He returned there in August and was welcomed back with open arms by coaches and teammates alike.
“When it’s all said and done, I got my life together; I got my act together. I stopped partying. I said, ‘Hell, I don’t want to lose any more fights in my career,’” he said. “The only thing I can tell you is I was very humbled by God, and I had to humble my whole lifestyle. I made a lot of changes. I realized what I want in my life. Now I’m just moving toward the positive. The main thing I learned from my losses was that, in the fight game, you earn the victory.”
Sanchez has since claimed to have improved everything from his cardio to his nutrition. He credits wrestling coach Bart Lujan for getting him to a point where he has “never felt stronger in his wrestling.” Sparring partners Keith Jardine, Carlos Condit and Donald Cerrone have been ever-present in his camp. When asked what he missed about training at the acclaimed fight school, Sanchez’s reply was succinct: “The whole team.”
After the loss to Hathaway, UFC President Dana White speculated that the New Mexico native would be best served by returning to the promotion's lightweight division. Sanchez believes he can succeed at either weight class.
“I know in my heart that was a watered-down version of Diego Sanchez,” he said. “This time around, Dana White is gonna be saying, ‘Holy sh-t, Diego looks amazing at 170.”
Sanchez has not ruled out the possibility of a return to 155 pounds. A move down after the Thiago fight could come if the offer and timing are right.
“I’m going to talk to the UFC and see what fights they offer me,” he said. “I’ll take the best fight that’s gonna move me up the ladder the fastest.”