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Still Some Scares Left in the "Nightmare"

“I want to be the best and I want to continue to get better. I’ve made some mistakes in my career, I’ve made some bad decisions, and there’s been multiple times where I was growing up and I got sucked into the limelight. But right now, I realized in my last fight that when it’s all said and done, it just comes down to earning the W."

The return of Diego Sanchez to the welterweight division in May wasn’t supposed to go this way. But sometimes, all it takes is a well-placed knee to the head to change everything, and no one knows this better than Sanchez, who was the recipient of said knee, delivered by England’s John Hathaway in the first round of their UFC 114 bout.

From there, it was all downhill for the “Nightmare.”

“That was basically a 10-8 round because I got dropped with the knee and he got on top,” said Sanchez, recalling the shot that sent him on the road to a three round unanimous decision loss to the then-unbeaten Hathaway. “I came back right away and I was able to defend myself, but from the guard he had some legit ground and pound, he stayed real busy, and it was just karma catching up with me.”

Karma, in the form of believing that simply being Diego Sanchez was enough to beat a youngster with talent, but not nearly the world-class experience he had. And on paper, this should have been Sanchez’ fight. He sprinted out of the gate in his pro career, earning an Ultimate Fighter season one title and getting up to 19-0 before back to back losses to no slouches in Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck. Following those bouts he won two in a row before dropping to 155 pounds and winning two more, with his streak only getting stopped by BJ Penn in a December of 2009 title shot. In other words, going back to 170 pounds and beating Hathaway should have been a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, Sanchez thought the same thing, and Hathaway wasn’t buying it.

“I took him lightly,” said Sanchez. “I said I’m gonna dominate this guy, and knock him out on the feet or take him down. I just totally underestimated my opponent, made that mistake, never gonna make it again, and it was hard to come back from that (knee) because it forced me to become desperate. I was trying to force the knockout, force something to happen, and I couldn’t just find my flow and my rhythm. I had to really be desperate and try to come back and knock him out or find some way to win, and then it was too late.”

And in 15 minutes’ time, Sanchez went from contender to question mark. But the questions about the 28-year old’s viability in the welterweight or lightweight divisions all came from the outside. Internally, the New Mexico native knew what he needed to do, and the first step was to go back to his first coach, Greg Jackson.

“Greg had told me that the door was always open and they always treated me like a family member, with open arms,” said Sanchez, who split with Jackson after his first loss to Koscheck. “And I was just being stubborn. I wanted to try to do a camp myself, but I was still in the process of moving. I went to do my camp in New Mexico (for the Hathaway fight) because I felt I needed to do that, but I still had my place in San Diego, still had ties to my previous team, and I wanted to do it right when I made my return to Jackson’s. Right now, everything’s perfect.”

And if you hear the word coming out of the gym on Acoma Road in Albuquerque, it’s that it is pretty good to have Sanchez back in town. Yet while it’s obvious what benefits Sanchez gets from being around Jackson, Mike Winklejohn, and some of the best fighters in the sport on a daily basis, what does he bring back to the already stellar fight camp?

“I’m a leader and a motivator and I love to get in there and work hard,” he said. “That’s what I like to do and when you’ve got great guys around you, like all the guys on the team, it’s great. When we’re in there training and it comes to the wrestling and the grappling, I bring a high-paced, relentless style and I keep everybody on their toes when it comes to that scramble, because that’s my style. I’m a scrambler and that’s probably the main thing I bring back to the camp, but I also bring my love and my positive energy and my hard work ethic.”

Sanchez has also developed a new attitude for his upcoming bout this weekend against Paulo Thiago, one that he can thank John Hathaway for.

“I want to be the best and I want to continue to get better,” he said. “I’ve made some mistakes in my career, I’ve made some bad decisions, and there’s been multiple times where I was growing up and I got sucked into the limelight. But right now, I realized in my last fight that when it’s all said and done, it just comes down to earning the W. So my mentality now is, I’m just gonna earn it. I’m gonna earn the victory, work hard, and when I go in that gym, I want to be the hardest worker in there. That’s my whole new mindset on mixed martial arts and my career – be the hardest worker and earn the victory. John came in there, he worked harder than me, he earned the victory, he was more disciplined, and that’s the way it goes in MMA.”

Thankfully, in MMA, what’s also par for the course is that you’re only as good as your last fight, so come Sunday morning, should he get by Thiago, Sanchez will once again be the flavor of the week in the sport. Beating the tough as nails Thiago is no walk in the park though.

“He’s a tough guy,” said Sanchez of his upcoming foe. “I think his striking’s good, but I don’t think it’s great. I think he kinda got lucky with the Koscheck knockout and I don’t think he’s some flashy standup guy. I see a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guy; that’s his base, that’s his foundation, and that’s his strength. As far as his wrestling goes, he’s been outwrestled in the past by several guys so I see holes in his game. I think he’s very tough and I think he’s the perfect opponent for me right now in my career.”

Given the fact that Sanchez has never shied away from tough challenges in his over eight year pro MMA career, it’s not surprising to hear him say that. But what did come as a surprise was his next statement.

“And just for the record, I do plan on dropping back to 155 after this fight,” he said. “Me and Greg (Jackson) and the team are just gonna work together and see what (UFC matchmaker) Joe (Silva) can get lined up for me. And like I said, my whole mindset is to earn the victory and that’s it.”

Is this a permanent move south for Sanchez, who is currently 2-1 at 155 pounds, or will he bounce between the two divisions?

“I think it’s gonna depend on the fight,” he said. “For now I think it’s basically gonna be permanent, but that all depends because I feel like I can fight in both weight classes. There’s 125, 135, 145, 155 – I wish we had a 165 and a 175 (pound division). That would make it a lot easier for me because I could fight 165, but we don’t have that yet and I’ve got to make a decision. So now it’s 170, after this fight I’m gonna get down to 155 again, try to make a title run, and there will be time later down the road where I can make something happen at 170. For right now, I’ve got my mind set on beating Paulo Thiago, but I am looking to the future and seeing my drop back down to 155.”

It’s a risky move, not only planning your future before a pivotal fight that’s on your plate in a few days, but going back to a division where you’ll basically have to start over after losing a previous title shot. But when it comes down to it, you get the feeling that Diego Sanchez likes the challenge, likes the fact that there are doubters out there, and likes that he will most likely get the opportunity to silence them. More importantly though, he loves this sport, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to be successful in it and one day hear the words “world champion” in front of his name.

“It’s my blessing,” he said when asked for his thoughts on fighting and its place in his life. “I feel like I was blessed with the fighting ability and that’s my calling. It’s what I love to do and it’s my passion. You’ve heard me say this way back in the beginning of my career that I feel it’s my destiny to fight and to be champion, so I’m not letting go of that. I’m gonna continue to work hard, and I really feel like I’ve got my head on my shoulders finally after so many trials and tribulations. I’ve got my feet digging down in the ground, I’m standing firm, I’m working hard, and I’m gonna show everybody how hard work can pay off, because talent can only take you so far.”