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Emmanuel Sanchez sees Bellator 218 as the start of a new chapter in his career. It will begin with a main event assignment opposite Georgi Karakhanyan on Friday at the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma, where he looks to bounce back from one of the most disappointing setbacks as a professional.
Sanchez, 28, views every year as part of the story in his journey through mixed martial arts. His 2018 campaign was set to end on a high note, as he was granted the opportunity for which he had long worked: a fight for featherweight gold against two-time titleholder Patricio Freire. Over four hard-fought rounds at Bellator 209, champion and challenger appeared to be even on the judges’ scorecards, with Round 5 likely to decide who would walk away with the crown. Going into the final frame, Sanchez had developed some confidence against the best 145-pound fighter in Bellator MMA history. He was surprised at his ability to land strikes while employing his trademark active and aggressive style.
“When I dropped him in the first round, it was almost like, ‘Damn, I thought this would be a lot harder,’” Sanchez told Sherdog.com. “For being the baddest dude in the division, I thought he’d be a lot harder to hit, and I thought he’d hit harder, [too].”
Yet in hindsight, he feels the success he enjoyed may have hampered him. With so much on the line in the final round, Sanchez thought it was a moment that called for more urgency, especially since he believes he had more than enough left in the tank to up his activity level and overwhelm a tired Freire. Instead, he continued with what had worked for him throughout the match. Sanchez regrets the decision now, as 40 seconds into the frame, “Pitbull” shifted the momentum with a vicious left hook and eventually secured the win.
“He was able to land a clean shot, and then he hurled me around a bit,” Sanchez said. With most of the round having gone seemingly in his favor, “El Matador” thinks Freire chose to coast across the final minutes of the fight to avoid giving him any chance to change the math one last time. “Then even after that, I remember he was running away from me. You know, he didn’t want to get tagged and pieced up anymore. He didn’t want none.”
Sanchez, a man known for his high-level conditioning, bemoans not getting more out of his greatest strengths.
“I felt like I left a lot [out there in the cage], but not as much as I could have,” he said. “I think I more than anything [should have] applied my strikes and my will even harder.” The experience taught him a valuable lesson moving forward: “Never hold back, never hesitate.”
For a man that has been in the sport for eight years and fought under the Bellator banner on 12 occasions, feeling like he let such a monumental opportunity slip away was disheartening in the immediate aftermath.
“It sucks, it really does. I’m heartbroken about it,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t let it discourage me. It’s life lessons and learning. It sucks, because I am not world champion because of it, [but] this is what helps one mature as a fighter and grow as a martial artist.”
Continued growth and maturity, along with more wins, are his goals for this year and beyond.
“I’m maturing,” Sanchez said. “People forget to use that word. Mentally, physically, emotionally [and] spiritually, [I’ve] grown and matured. I’ve grown and matured in each and every fight. I’m only 28 years old. I still haven’t yet shown my true [potential] as a man or as an athlete.”
Sanchez managed to quickly recover from the loss to “Pitbull” because he feels his performance vindicated him as a fighter. In his view, it proved to the division and the sport that he can compete at an elite level.
“I am world-champion caliber,” he said, “that’s for sure.”
The Roufusport fighter knows he pushed Freire to his limits, because the champion told him as much.
“After the fight, [Freire] came into the locker room and said that was the toughest fight he’s ever had,” Sanchez said, “and [I could tell] he was feeling it. I don’t think he’s in a rush to fight me again, maybe even ever.”
Sanchez’s road back to title contention starts at Bellator 218. Originally scheduled to face Englishman Asleigh Grimshaw, the Milwaukee native will instead face Karakhanyan on two weeks’ notice. Although he respects Grimshaw’s skills and experience, Sanchez thinks Karakhanyan, a former World Series of Fighting champion, represents a tougher test. However, degree of difficulty has never been an issue for the Duke Roufus protégé.
“That’s been my whole Bellator career,” Sanchez said. “Every single guy that I’ve faced … [they all have been] nothing but killers. I fight the best. I fight the most dangerous guys, [and] I’m not afraid of it. That’s what I want.” During his time in Bellator, Sanchez has faced a number of former champions and contenders, from Freire and Pat Curran to Daniel Weichel, Henry Corrales and Daniel Straus. He encountered Karakhanyan previously at Bellator 170 in January 2017 and won a majority decision. The rematch motivates Sanchez because he appreciates the fact that Karakhanyan comes to fight.
“It only makes for an exciting fight because he comes to bring it, and that’s good because I come to bring it, too,” he said. “It’s a battle of wills and [who gets] broken first, and I’ve never been broken. I’m going out there looking to break him.”
Bellator’s forthcoming featherweight grand prix -- the tournament will feature 16 fighters -- has become a topic of interest for most of the company’s competitors at 145 pounds. Management has already assured Sanchez he will be included in the draw.
“That excites me,” he said. “Obviously, [a 16-man field is] going to be a longer road than these other grands prix have been, but to me, it’s whatever. I’ve got to [think] one fight at a time, just like how I got to the title.”
Sanchez does intend to stay busy following Bellator 218, right up to the start of the grand prix.
“If short-notice fights come up and I can do it before the tournament goes down, I’ll do it,” he said. “I’m hungry [and] ready to destroy and dominate. My job title is fighter. Fighting is what I love to do.”