Right now Diego Sanchez is in England, carefully monitoring his weight in order to drop the last few pounds of his gargantuan 37-pound weight cut for his lightweight debut at UFC 95. A few years ago it was unthinkable that Sanchez would be cutting weight to escape the minefield that is the UFC’s welterweight division. How did it come to this?
Diego was on of the few fighters to truly live up to his nickname, “the Nightmare,” with his relentless pursuit of takedowns, quick transitions and dominating ground-and-pound. After Diego won the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, he defeated Nick Diaz, Joe Riggs and put on a fight of the year candidate in an epic back and forth three round affair with Karo Parisyan. It appeared that Sanchez was on the fast track to a title shot, especially what some critics saw as favorable judging. But as quickly as Sanchez climbed the welterweight ladders the fall was equally precipitous.
Back-to-back losses to Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch sent Sanchez to the back of the line of top contenders. While Sanchez rebounded with victories over Luigi Fioravanti and David Bielkheden, these two are not exactly rising stars within the UFC. In fact Fioravanti was recently let go by the UFC.
Sanchez holds an impressive record of 8-2 in the UFC with an overall record of 19-2. Yet for all the success the critical question remains, can you see Diego Sanchez fighting for the UFC welterweight title in the near future? The answer is unequivocally no.
Currently Sanchez is, at best, the fifth ranked fighter in the UFC welterweight division, with George St. Pierre, Thiago Alves, Josh Koscheck, and Jon Fitch all above him. Sanchez has already lost to Fitch and Koscheck making it near impossible to claim that Diego could beat or even compete with George St. Pierre, since St. Pierre handled both fighters with ease. Sanchez hasn’t fought Thiago Alves but with Alves’ size, Muay Thai striking and stout takedown defense it isn’t a far stretch to conclude that Thiago would defeat Diego.
With a blockade of fighters above him, plus the recent addition of Carlos Condit from the WEC, it makes Sanchez’s decision to drop to lightweight a smart one. Certainly the road to the title is easier at the 155 pounds, the current number one contender is a fighter that Sanchez dispatched in three minutes in The Ultimate Fighter season one finale.
While it is easy (and rightfully so) to consider Diego’s decision shrewd, it is still important to understand why Diego is in the situation where a drop in weight is necessary. There is more to this issue than simply the welterweight division being too talented.
Perhaps the reason Diego’s path to the welterweight title stalled is due Sanchez’s pedigree. Sanchez’s fighting style could be described as shock and awe. He overwhelms his opponents, taking them to the ground and finishing the fight with strikes or a submission. Constant energy and constant action are hallmarks and his success feeds off the takedown. But when faced with a wrestler of equal or greater skill ‘the nightmare’ becomes less terrifying.
One of the trends we are now seeing in mixed martial arts is the ability to adapt and integrate a multitude of skills according to each fight. Sanchez has a game plan that is successful when matched against a fighter with inferior skill or size, but once matched against a fighter of comparable ability, Sanchez is unable to tap into different skill sets to persevere. Sanchez is not by any stretch of the imagination a one-dimensional fighter, but for the contemporary incarnation of MMA he has fallen towards the middle of the pack. Think of him as Matt Hughes 2.0, able to feast off lesser competition due to his strong wrestling yet effectively a non-factor once his takedowns are neutralized.
That fact makes Diego’s divorce from Greg Jackson camp seem all the more unfortunate. Jackson, and his fighters have claimed a position of prominence within the MMA community. Rashad Evans and George St. Pierre hold titles in the two deepest divisions in the UFC. Combine that fact, with the brilliant tactical advantage that Jackson gives to his fighters, and it is easy to see how the echelon of MMA has passed over Sanchez.
Can Diego’s skills develop? Of course, but that doesn’t change the present result of Diego’s career, a gatekeeper to the top-five at welterweight. Not a bad position, or a position that deserves ridicule, but for someone who aspires to be a champion, the predicament is unsatisfying. That is why the move to lightweight is justified.
UFC 95 is now just two days away and Sanchez is the heavy favorite against Joe Stevenson. A victory in London and Diego may find himself fighting at UFC 100 against Tyson Griffin, Roger Huerta or another top lightweight. Will we ever see Sanchez at welterweight again? It is possible, especially if the weight cut is extremely harsh. But it seems more likely that Sanchez will have found a new home at lightweight, once again on the road to a title shot.