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Is Diego Sanchez's career barreling toward a nightmare ending? | Opinion

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A little more than four years ago, I spent a couple of days hanging out at the Jackson Wink MMA gym in Albuquerque. Diego Sanchez, who played a considerable role in making New Mexico a mecca for elite fighters, had just lost a one-sided decision to Ricardo Lamas in the middle of a run in which he lost six out of nine fights.

As the camp’s outstanding striking coach, Brandon Gibson, pondered how to go forward with a fighter whose peak appeared past, he said something that echoes in my brain every time I’ve watched Sanchez fight since.

“A guy like Diego, who cares so passionately, they’re going to have to take him from the cage kicking and screaming.”

It’s sure starting to feel like we’re watching Gibson’s prophecy play out in real time.

The aftermath of Sanchez’s disqualification victory over Michel Pereira at UFC on ESPN+ 25 this past Saturday has underscored the notion we may need to corral the Season 1 winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” off the stage with a vaudeville hook for his own good before all is said and done.

If Sanchez had decided to fight on after Pereira drilled him with a blatantly illegal knee in the third round of their fight in Rio Rancho, N.M., there’s a solid chance that right about now, we’d be discussing the UFC releasing the last link to “TUF’s” legendary debut season. 

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Sanchez showed little in his fight against Pereira after an equally listless display in his loss to Michael Chiesa last time out. That was five straight rounds lost under the guidance of the previously unknown Joshua Fabia (after Sanchez had won his previous two fights as a member of Jackson Wink) before the Pereira infraction occurred.

Sanchez copped to making a conscious decision to take the disqualification, which he called a ‘smart, veteran decision,’ and in doing so, got a torrent of social media abuse from the more troll-like people among the MMA fan base. 

For those of us who have followed Sanchez from the beginning, the idea he’s a coward, regardless of the fact his career is on an obvious downward trajectory, is an egregious affront. This is a guy who put his heart and soul into every fight, whether it was “Fight of the Year”-caliber victories over the likes of Karo Parisyan and Clay Guida – the latter landing him in the UFC Hall of Fame – or valiant losing efforts, such as his fifth-round loss challenging B.J. Penn for the UFC lightweight title in 2009. 

Of course, a considerable percentage of fans, the ones made during The Conor and Ronda Era, don’t know this version of Sanchez. Gibson’s comment came just as that era was kicking into gear and just as Sanchez’s downturn was becoming apparent.

For those who legitimately just don’t get it, as opposed to wanting to troll for its own sake, let’s lay out the choices Sanchez had in front of him in the moments after he was kneed by Pereira. Sanchez’s last two previously disclosed show money figures were $99,000 and $103,000. We’re going to round off his base pay to $100,000 for simplicity’s sake.

If Sanchez continued fighting, there’s an overwhelming likelihood he loses, goes home with $100,000 and a good chance this ends up his last UFC fight.

If Sanchez takes the DQ, he triples his guaranteed pay: $100,000 more for the victory and another $100,000 as show pay for his next fight, which the UFC is now contractually obligated to offer him coming off a victory. With a favorable matchup, maybe he even wins next time and continues on.

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Stick around this game long enough, and you begin to realize the cold efficiency with which the conveyor belt that keeps the sport chugging along chews through fighters and spits them out. The Fertitta-era UFC at least tried to do right by those who helped build the company, like Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, who didn’t seem to have many other post-fighting career paths. They were handed ceremonial jobs to keep them employed as long as the Fertittas ran things.

Someone like Sanchez might have gotten a similar offer during the previous regime, but the Endeavor-era UFC has no room for such fighter-and-fan-friendly niceties.

Thus, if you are someone like Sanchez, who does not seem to have much to show for a career of blood, sweat, and tears at 38, taking $300,000 instead of $100,000 from a company that rarely shows sympathy for people in his position is an easy call. 

Will those people who criticized Sanchez’s decision going be there for him down the road when he can no longer reach up and comb his own hair? Of course not. If you’re dogging someone who has given as much to this sport as Sanchez has for not taking a six-figure gift after getting flagrantly fouled, you just might have some issues you need to work on yourself.

Just as the furor seemed ready to die down, though, up piped Fabia. Again, when you follow this long enough, you see all manner of assorted eccentrics come and go. No one had ever heard of Fabia before Sanchez joined up with him. The results haven’t been the best. If you’re Fabia, you better try to change the narrative, and fast, lest your tenuous moment in the sun come to an end, hence his attempts to blame the media.

“I am aware of what you are doing and you will be exposed for your biases,” Fabia said, in part, in an Instagram rant. “Very classy smear campaign.”

Sanchez is siding with his coach’s attempt to deflect blame, but nothing’s going to change the reality of this situation. No one should begrudge Sanchez for making the right call for his family’s bank account and his short-term future.

But the entire sideshow coming out of UFC Rio Rancho, on the whole, is a reminder that the kick-and-scream portion of Sanchez’s decline is well underway, and it’s not likely to get any better from here. 

Gallery

Diego Sanchez def. Michel Pereira at UFC on ESPN+ 25: Best photos

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