Two months from now, the UFC will celebrate the 15-year anniversary of The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale, the landmark night of action at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas that featured one of the most memorable and influential bouts in the company’s history and served as starting point for the first explosion of mainstream interest in both the organization and the sport since it’s no holds barred origins.
While Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar’s battle to determine the winner of the light heavyweight competition became an iconic clash credited with starting the UFC down the road to prominence, that evening’s main card kicked off with a bout to crown the winner of the reality TV competition’s middleweight tournament.
Less than three minutes into the contest, Diego Sanchez collected his first UFC victory and he’s been fighting in the Octagon ever since.
“Here I am, in my hometown, fighting for everything that I’ve got,” said Sanchez, who squares off with Michel Pereira in the co-main event of Saturday’s fight card from the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, a suburb of Albuquerque, where the 38-year-old veteran was born, raised, and continues to reside.
Sanchez was on the first and only other UFC fight card held in New Mexico a little over five years ago, and the opportunity to compete close to home again this weekend feels like it was meant to be.
“Let’s just put it like this: this is my event and this is my destiny,” he said when asked about getting to compete at home for a second time. “I was on the last fight of my contract my last fight and I didn’t know whether I was going to re-sign with the UFC or not, but here we are.
“I re-sign with the UFC, the event is here in New Mexico, and even though I’m coming off a loss, I am still placed in the co-main event. Things could not be more destined.”
As much as this weekend’s event is a homecoming and a chance to start this year’s campaign on the right foot for Sanchez, it’s also an opportunity for the enigmatic fighter — and fight fans ‑ to reflect on the long, strange trip that his UFC career has been.
Few professional athletes compete at the highest level for 15 years, yet while all of his contemporaries have either retired from the sport or are trading on their names on smaller shows, Sanchez has spent that entire time as an active fighter in the UFC. He has fought at least once per year since beating Florian to become the first person crowned “The Ultimate Fighter,” primarily floating between welterweight and lightweight, facing mostly established names and accomplished foes year after year.
His move to lightweight in 2009 sent a jolt of electricity coursing through the division, with back-to-back barnburners against Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida catapulting him into a championship fight against BJ Penn at UFC 107 that remains both the apex of his career and his most memorable setback.
But despite more losses than victories since that night in Memphis, Tennessee, Sanchez has always found a way to remain focused on the future and surprise fans with a vintage performance when they’re least expecting one.
“This week, I will be spending it out in the mountains in Placitas, New Mexico, where I rented an Airbnb,” began Sanchez, who went through a divorce and parted ways with his long-time team at Jackson-Wink MMA last year. “I will be out there, unplugged from Instagram, unplugged from society and everything that is going on in the city, and I’m going to have some time to really reflect on all my ups and all my downs.
“The mission I am on now is no longer for UFC gold. Yes, I see that belt, and I want that belt, and I want that dream to come true, and I truly believe that it will, but now the focus has shifted to the platform, the people who have gone through things and need help. I’m here to create awareness. This is why I’m working with my mentor Joshua Fabia and the School of Self-Awareness.
“At this point in my career, I do reflect and I will be reflecting on this last year and how I went through a divorce, and it was one of the hardest things I ever went through. I will reflect on how many people were truly there for me — how many people really sacrificed their time, their energy, and their love for me.
“There has been so much that has happened to me this past year,” he continues. “Going into 2020, I am focused, I am healthy, and I am trained. I have put the work in. I’m telling you, I have put the sprints in. I’ve been putting the work in, earning this victory and Saturday night, I get to go show the world what I’m about and I’m excited about it.”
Although he has always been one to focus on the future, believing he’s capable of stringing together enough victories to make a run at UFC gold, Sanchez now more readily acknowledges the fact that his career competing in the Octagon is winding down.
Though he doesn’t have any specific timeline in mind for when he will call it a career, he does have a framework in place for how he will go about reaching that difficult decision whenever the time comes.
“I know I’m on my last stretch,” said Sanchez, who inked a new five-fight deal with the UFC in advance of Saturday’s bout with Pereira. “I have a lot of stuff going on, a lot of stuff happening now, but I will fight out these last five fights with the UFC. If I re-sign after that, I don’t know. All I know and all I can tell you is the honest truth and that is that I’m healthier, wiser, and I feel great.
“At the end of these next five fights, we will make a decision,” he added. “We’ll constantly go forward making decisions based on me, my health, my family, and my future, so that when the time comes to step away from the Octagon, I will step away from the Octagon and take my fight in another direction.
But this weekend, he’ll step into the Octagon, primed and ready to put on a show for his hometown fans, eager to begin the year on a high note.
“It’ll be monumentous for me,” Sanchez said of besting Pereira in front of a partisan crowd on Saturday night. “It’ll be the start to a new chapter. It’s going to be a good night; as good as it can get, really.
“Saturday night, the world is going to witness a 38-year-old man who is much smaller than his opponent go in there and do something others think is impossible. They’ve got me as the underdog, but so be it — I’ve been the underdog my whole life and it hasn’t stopped me once.
“And it won’t stop me from getting the victory that I’ve earned and deserve on Saturday night.”