There are many turning points Diego Sanchez remembers over his 15-year UFC career. But one that sticks out is his lightweight title fight against B.J. Penn.
At UFC 107, Sanchez absorbed 70 significant strikes, 66 of which were to the head. By the time the fight was stopped midway through the fifth round, he looked like a different person, his face disfigured by cuts, bruises and blood.
That was 11 years ago. He has stepped in the octagon 19 times since then, winning nine and losing 10 bouts. But the damage he sustained against Penn left a lasting impression.
“B.J. beat the f*ck out of me, man,” Sanchez told MMA Fighting. “I didn’t have the heart to go down. I thought I was just doing my job of saving the world and [creating] entertainment by taking these hits, letting these people see another human being get mutilated.”
But now, Sanchez would like to do another job, or at least disassociate himself from the one most people know him for. He is known for being a warrior, often to his own detriment, an eccentric character that marches to the beat of his own drum, and lately, as the student of a controversial teacher that’s assumed the role of head coach. When he steps away from the sport, he would like to be known as a human being with talents beyond giving and taking punches.
In September, Sanchez planned to complete his current contract with the UFC and walk away from the sport. He has since moved up that timeline. He said his next fight will be his last, and he hopes to fight in March or April.
His post-career plan at this point is to take a teaching role in the digital version of the School of Self Awareness, his coach Joshua Fabia’s self-defense and new age training program, star in a biopic about the boxer Johnny Tapia, who hails from his hometown of Albuquerque, and back a variety of small business ventures.
More than anything, he plans to give his body and brain a rest.
“I need to recover and heal, because this fighting is a real traumatizing lifestyle, it really is, and that’s just being real and honest with the world, because I’ve gone through it, and I’ve got the scars to prove it,” Sanchez said. “Somehow, man, god allowed me to come out of the tunnel. And I’m making it out, and that’s why it’s like, fight this last fight, get out, do other things, and be the guy that got out.”
To prepare for his final walk to the cage, Sanchez accepted a grappling bout against former Strikeforce champ and one-time UFC welterweight title challenger Jake Shields at a High Rollerz event. The pot-themed promotion lines up with Sanchez’s belief in plant medicines of all types.
Sanchez pushed hard for a fight with Demian Maia, but he said the UFC nixed the idea because the two-time UFC title challenger is ranked No. 7. He said he’s currently discussing with UFC President Dana White a list of potential opponents. What he wants is not an up-and-coming fighter or an unheralded phenom, but someone like him who has a name and has been up and down the UFC ladder.
“I like Nate Diaz, I like Nick Diaz, I like [Donald] ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys out there that have the mileage. There are guys on the list that have had those UFC wars. That’s all I’m asking for. In my last four fights, three of those guys were 26 years old, and top of their country.
“Jake Matthews is probably the best welterweight out of Australia. And if you want to joke yourself that Pereira ain’t the best welterweight out of Brazil, [except] maybe Gilbert Burns, c’mon man. I’ve gone out there with real killers, and I haven’t gotten credit for it. You’ve seen a smaller frame, smaller size welterweight.”
Sanchez’s most recent fight against Matthews ended in a lopsided loss with unanimous 30-26 scorecards for the younger fighter. He is no longer trying to climb the UFC ladder, and so another one makes no sense.
“I’ve let go of the dream of becoming a UFC champion that I held in my heart my whole life,” he said. “I just want an OG fight. I want an OG that’s already come from wins and losses and had experience. Experience, that’s it. That’s the untold story of the warrior of the UFC. And I’m the one that’s ending this book, because I was the one who started this sh*t when the UFC was $40 million in debt and The Ultimate Fighter was an explosion.
“I was a part of that. I don’t get much credit for being the first Ultimate Fighter. Forrest [Griffin] got a lot more credit than me and that was the big expansion that allowed the UFC to become the $4 billion company. … I’ve been there from the beginning, I’ve watched it happen.”
Also, Sanchez has tried with varying success to keep up. That’s almost impossible given the evolution of the sport since he got started on the groundbreaking reality show, though he’s managed to upset several up-and-comers long after his prime.
It used to be that Sanchez had that drive to keep moving forward. But the physical realities of the sport have finally caught up, and he wishes to preserve his health for his loved ones.
“I used to always say, ‘I’m going to ride this until the wheels fall off,’” he said. “Then you go, ‘Well, maybe I don’t want the wheels to fall off. Maybe I like my wheels. Maybe I’ll shine these wheels up. Maybe I’ll keep this classic car and not throw it in the junkyard.’ That’s with me taking care of myself, because this is a very dangerous sport, and this is not a young man’s sport. The anomalies of Yoel Romero and Anderson Silva and Diego Sanchez are anomalies. You’ve got to look at the whole. Most guys don’t make it until they’re 38 years old, and on top of that, I have some serious injuries that I’ve been fighting my whole career. I had a torn labrum as I exited The Ultimate Fighter, and I was 22 years old.
“So I’ve been fighting my whole career with this torn labrum, and my hip, and I’m probably going to retire, get hip surgery done, and focus on my life outside of fighting, as a human being, and the value that I bring to the world just outside of MMA.”
After his fight with Matthews, Sanchez said he underwent stem cell therapy on his hip and knee, which was a big help. But it’s highly likely he’ll need more medical treatment after he hangs up his gloves. Asked whether he’d like the UFC to provide some sort of long-term health insurance, he said “absolutely.”
“I think without a doubt there should be a number, a tally, the number of minutes you spend in the octagon, and depending on the number of minutes, you should have some type of … consideration for the trauma, the damages and just the punishment that human beings have received in this space that is the octagon,” he said.
In 2012, Sanchez participated in the Professional Fighters Brain Health study at the Luo Ruvo Center in Las Vegas so he could get cleared for a fight. In 2014, he went to Dallas with his old rival Penn for a brain health seminar set up by his former gym, Jackson-Wink MMA.
Sanchez said through natural means, he’s been able to reverse issues with “momentary, short-term memory loss” and his speech. He’s happy to see reported turnarounds from retired fighters like Dean Lister and Ian McCall, who were recently profiled on HBO’s Real Sports for their use of psychedelic drugs to counteract head trauma.
“Through meditation, through self-care, through awareness, and ultimately beating what is the denial factor, because I’m going to tell you, a lot of us fighters are stubborn,” he said. “The most stubborn people in the world. Ask any fighter’s wife, they’ll tell you. We don’t want to accept that we might have been hurt. We don’t want to accept that maybe that did do something to me. What fighter’s ever said that? Well, I’m the first, and I’m letting you know that this sh*t is real. As the UFC says, it’s as real as it gets. The blows to the head, they are as real as it gets.”
Despite the danger, fighters like Sanchez are often pushed back into the cage. He said that won’t be him, and he will use his time to carve out a new identity. He is intent on doing justice to Johnny Tapia when the movie gets underway. He is producing a “Nightmare” branded IPA and rum. He said he is a 10 percent partner in the School of Self Awareness.
Considering where he grew up and what he’s been through, Sanchez considers himself to be in good shape. On New Year’s Eve, he’ll turn 39.
“I used to be in the trailer park with one glove on because I didn’t have two, punching myself in the face saying, ‘I’m Johnny Tapia’ to intimidate the other kids that I would box,” he said.
Maybe down the road, he just might reprise a part of his old role and put on two gloves.
“I’m interested in boxing fights on the celebrity circuit,’ Sanchez said. “Jake Paul, Conor McGregor – I always wanted to fight McGregor. The universe has blessed me with many doors that have opened. I’m going to go through those doors and I’m going to come out better.”