Every morning, before he scraps with the renowned Jackson’s MMA team in Albuquerque, Diego Sanchez goes back in time.
It’s a visit to his roots, to where he first made his athletic name as a state wrestling champion for Del Norte High School. But this is not mere nostalgia.
“I wake up every day and get my morning run in with 17, 18 year old kids that are in prime condition,” said Sanchez. “There are no other MMA fighters that can push me the way these teenagers are gonna push me in conditioning. Nothing can compare to that energy. On top of that, these kids look up to me, so I really have to be the leader. I gotta be coming in first place every time when we run sprints, and that really pushes me in a way that I haven’t been pushed in a long time.”
In pro sports, there’s a lot of talk about “keepin’ it real,” but most of it is just talk. Athletes train in private facilities, interaction with their fans is well-orchestrated, and while the soundbite is snappy, it doesn’t translate into reality.
Yet when Sanchez, an Ultimate Fighter season one winner at middleweight, a world title challenger at lightweight, and a past contender at welterweight, returned to Greg Jackson after seven fights and three fights apart, he left his ego at the door, even though the ensuing process to get back to contender status would break him down completely.
“I’m climbing up the ladder and there’s only one way to do it and that’s to earn it,” he said. “That’s what I realized after my losses to BJ (Penn) and John (Hathaway). I was going through the motions. I always trained hard and I’m not making excuses, but there’s no comparison between my training in San Diego and what it is here. I was in San Diego basically doing jiu-jitsu in the gi and then going to striking. I was putting MMA together and trying to create this style that wasn’t my own style. And when I came back to New Mexico, Greg said, ‘that’s not you. We gotta change a lot of things.’ He analyzed my fights when I wasn’t with him and he broke me down, and we reinvented me to what my style should be, and I came full circle as a martial artist and found my style. It took some time, but we worked on it.”
And about the ego part of the equation, Sanchez shrugs it off.
“That was not hard for me,” he said. “I’ve always been able to look at myself and say ‘remember where you came from.’ It’s not hard for me to put my ego aside because that’s the way you get better. You can’t care what other people think because some days you’re gonna go into the gym and have hard days.”
In the Jackson Gym, hard days are what you sign up for, and you will get more than your share. Sanchez routinely works with the likes of Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, and Nate Marquardt, not to mention a team of middleweights who are pushing the welterweight to his limits.
“I credit a lot of my success right now and where I’m at as a martial artist to my teammates because I wouldn’t be able to excel if I didn’t have those people who are pushing me,” said Sanchez. “And as a welterweight, most of my training partners are middleweights, so I really have to compensate in all areas because those guys are a little bit stronger and a little bit bigger than me and they have a little more reach.”
Plus, if you’re not ready to work hard every day, you’ll be in for a painful night.
“If I don’t get better, if I don’t adapt, then I’m gonna get my ass kicked every day, and that’s not my personality to get my ass kicked, so I’m gonna get in there, get better, and I’m gonna bang with these guys,” said Sanchez, who then follows up his MMA sessions in Jackson’s with a return trip to train his wrestling in the high school gym.
“I went back to my roots in wrestling. I had always worked on my wrestling in an MMA room and I’ve always trained my wrestling, but something I did different in the last camp and in this camp is that I actually got into a wrestling room and got back to real style wrestling and I became a part of a high school wrestling team. I’m there every single day for wrestling practice at 3pm. These are the things I do that most MMA fighters don’t do because it’s a pain in the ass. It’s really, really hard and it sucks, but there is no shape like wrestling shape.”
Always a cardio machine, Sanchez return to prominence took all of 15 minutes last October with his Fight of the Night win over Paulo Thiago at UFC 121, and it was his high-energy, aggressive attack that paved the way for his victory. It was the old Diego Sanchez in Honda Center that night, and he heard every roar that came in his direction.
“To be honest, I never in my whole career heard a roar louder than there was in Anaheim at the Honda Center,” he said. “I never heard anything close to that. There were some good fights that I was in and there were some good roars, but that night, the crowd was amazing, and it was a true highlight and a memory of my career that I will never forget. I’ll take that with me forever.”
The 29-year old Sanchez looked so good in dismantling the talented Brazilian that it made you immediately wonder if things would have played out differently in his 4-3 run away from Jackson had he stayed with his original trainer throughout.
“I look back now and it was a great experience being away, but I never would have appreciated what I have if I didn’t leave it,” said Sanchez, who has also celebrated his return by dumping his “Nightmare” nickname in favor of a new moniker: “The Dream.” “Me and Greg started out together. I was one of his first fighters, and we were on the grappling circuit and had barely started doing MMA fights. I didn’t know what I had. I didn’t even know what I had in my hometown of Albuquerque. Now there’s such a deep appreciation each and every day that I walk into that gym just knowing that I really have something special here.”
Tonight, Sanchez will look to make it two in a row against Martin Kampmann. It’s another tough fight and they won’t get any easier from here on out. But if the hours in the gym have taught Sanchez one thing, it’s that hard work builds confidence. And he’s certainly confident that he will leave Lousiville, Kentucky with another victory.
“I know Martin Kampmann is a great striker and a Danish kickboxing champion, but I don’t care,” said Sanchez. “I’m sparring guys who are legit strikers and bad asses, so I’m prepared and I’m ready to fight anywhere I need to fight in this fight. I’m known for giving the fans the fights that they like, so I’m hoping that Martin Kampmann will get in there and actually fight me and not run away from me. I know he’s kind of a defensive fighter, and after getting taken down in the Jake Shields fight, I don’t know how he’s gonna react in this fight or what his gameplan is gonna be, but I just hope that he goes in there and fights me. I’m ready and prepared to chase him all night, but I like getting bonuses and going out in the streets and having people just shining at me like bright lights, saying ‘oh, I can’t believe your last performance, it was so amazing, and the fight was so good.’ I want that kind of reaction.”
Earning It with Diego Sanchez
"I don’t know how he’s gonna react in this fight or what his gameplan is gonna be, but I just hope that he goes in there and fights me."