UFC 171 in Dallas last night featured an important bout in the lightweight division between grizzled veteran Diego Sanchez and the young, undefeated Myles Jury. Sanchez fights with furious intensity and bad intentions in every match, but that is not enough anymore in the modern MMA fight game, which was clear watching Jury surgically pick him apart on the way to a unanimous decision. Sanchez is the last of a dying breed of fighters who are light on talent and heavy on heart, and it is clear that the best career move going forward for the warrior from Albuquerque is retirement from competition.
Sanchez began his UFC career on the historic first season of The Ultimate Fighter, eventually winning the middleweight tournament to be crowned the inaugural Ultimate Fighter. That title earned him a six-figure contract in the UFC and nine years later, he’s still fighting in the world’s biggest MMA promotion. That season of the reality show was stacked with notable fighters who went on to have successful careers inside the Octagon, such as Chris Leben, Josh Koschek, Mike Swick, Kenny Florian, Stephan Bonnar, and Forrest Griffin.
The alumni of the first cast of The Ultimate Fighter have seen their heyday come and go. Only Swick and Koschek remain in the UFC along with Sanchez, and besides sharing the same origins in the promotion, they also share a more notorious distinction, which is that they all have more losses than victories in recent memory. Koschek, who at one point fought for the welterweight title and lost, is winless in his last three fights, albeit against top contenders in the division. Swick has had health problems and at one point was laid off from fighting for 910 days, which is the longest for a fighter under a UFC contract. Since returning, Swick is 1-1, and was knocked out in his last fight against welterweight contender, Matt Brown, but that was 15 months ago and he hasn’t been scheduled for his next fight. Sanchez, one of the last of the dying breed of original TUF fighters, has now lost four out of his last five matches but continues to duck the retirement conversation.
It is rare when a prizefighter goes out on top. Instead, most combatants keep going to war in the ring or cage until their body or mind simply gives out. As fighters mature they often slow down. Strength degrades, agility diminishes, and awareness recedes. Heart, though, tends to endure. Sanchez is the perfect example of this, but he’s not the first. Chuck Liddell, widely considered to be the most famous UFC fighter, had to be knocked out in four of his last five bouts before he hung up the gloves. Mike Tyson, even after losing twice to Evander Holyfield and once to Lennox Lewis, had to be knocked out two more times in comeback bouts before he quit. Former welterweight champ, Georges St Pierre, has even had to step away from fighting with no confirmed return scheduled due to an accumulation of damage over the years that has left the French-Canadian fighter missing chunks of his memory.
Sanchez looks like he is on the road to similar health issues. He takes an incredible amount of punishment in each contest and keeps coming back for more. It is his calling card – the guy is indestructible in the cage. But his toughness isn’t earning him wins anymore. He now more resembles Chris “The Crippler” Leben, who was a plodding fighter, ever stalking forward and almost impossible to stop, but lacking in skill to close out opponents near the end of his career.
To his credit, Sanchez still maintains more of a heroic reputation rather than one worthy pity, but the tide is turning quickly in the other direction. He has an amazing attitude, often screaming “yes” repeatedly on his way to the cage, and he is a solid wrestling coach who spends much of his time training students at his former high school in California. There is plenty for him to do in the world of fighting outside the cage, and there is a new generation of fighters who are beyond ready to replace him.
It is doubtful that he is done though. His career remains admirably intact if he retires now, but anyone with a sense of prizefighting history knows that Sanchez is of a breed of fighters in the UFC who will die hard rather than wisely step away. However, as much as he does not want to admit it, the dream is over.
Opinion By Matt Stinson
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