What’s next for Diego Sanchez?

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Updated: May 5, 2015
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Diego Sanchez is 33 years old — hardly an age that is considered retirement time for a professional mixed martial artist.

Sanchez has, however, taken more punishment than a vast majority of MMA fighters do by the age of 33. Bloodied up in the very first fight of his career in 2002, Sanchez was cast on the very first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ after starting 11-0 and capturing the King of the Cage middleweight championship. On the show, Sanchez was somewhat of a loose cannon. Between heavy meditation and drunken blackout rage, he was a character amongst a cast of characters on the inaugural season of the show. However, he was a dangerous fighter, topping Josh Koscheck via split decision before TKO’ing Kenny Florian on the finale to become the very first official ‘Ultimate Fighter’ winner on a night where fellow cast mates Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar would go on to make history.

Along his road during the 10 years since he stopped Florian in his only UFC middleweight (185 pound) fight, Sanchez made entertaining fights his forte. He has had six fights named fight of the night in the UFC and three called the Fight of the Year (2006 vs. Karo Parisyan, 2009 vs. Clay Guida and 2013 vs. Gilbert Melendez). But after starting 17-0, Sanchez has posted just an 8-7 record over the last eight years with three of his victories by split decision. His last fight, one of those split-decision wins, against Ross Pearson has been widely regarded as the biggest robbery in MMA history.

But Sanchez’ name and style have kept him relevant while on the bloody and bruised end of the hands of Melendez, BJ Penn or Martin Kampmann.

Now, with most thinking his career is winding way down or already over, Sanchez has decided to drop down the featherweight (145 pounds) division. After beating Florian at middleweight, Sanchez spent almost four years at welterweight (170 pounds), compiling a 7-2 record in the octagon while only losing to future title challengers Koscheck and Jon Fitch. When dropping to lightweight (155 pounds) in 2009, all it took was back-to-back wins to earn a title shot, where he was ultimately battered for five rounds by champion Penn. He jumped back to welterweight for four fights before returning to 155 in 2013, where he has gone 2-2 in his last four bouts.

In dropping to featherweight, he would join Florian as the only two men to compete in four different weight classes in UFC history. Sanchez, however, has a different goal: to win in the featherweight division and be the first person to win in four weight classes (Florian’s only middleweight fight was his loss to Sanchez). Sanchez has already set his sights on former title challenger and high ranked contender Ricardo Lamas, but that fight doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

Which begs the question, as crazy as it may be for him to drop down in weight, what fights are most interesting for Sanchez at 145 pounds?

Clay Guida

Why not? The two stood toe-to-toe and put on one of the top 15 fights in UFC history in 2009. Guida, just like Sanchez, cares less about wins than about throwing bombs at the guy across the cage. This fight would make for an entertaining affair worthy of any UFC main card. For Sanchez, there is also the draw that Guida is a top-10 featherweight and a win could be a monumental first move toward that pie in the sky title shot he wants to get. In reality, outside of high entertainment value, this match is silly. Guida’s cardio is on another level and always has been. And while Sanchez’ chin holds up with anyone in any division, nobody knows what a weight cut to 145 will do to Sanchez. Could he avoid being knocked out? Yes. But at 145 pounds, is Sanchez’s great cardio enough to keep up with Guida’s superior cardio like it was six years ago at a weight 10 pounds heavier?

Jeremy Stephens

Stephens incorporates a lot of the same game plan that Guida does, without the added cardio. The fact that he and Sanchez haven’t crossed paths yet in their long UFC careers, often at the same weight, is odd. Stephens is coming off back-to-back losses and needs a showcase fight. The plus here to take a Sanchez fight, is he likely isn’t out of work with a loss, which he would be to any of the sub-top 15 guys he would get instead. This fight would be a war, which benefits the UFC and both fighters’ wallets. Meanwhile, it is a very winnable fight for Sanchez and again, one that would immediately see him ranked in the top 15 with a win.

Diego Brandao

The other Diego to win ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ has had an unusual UFC stay. His cardio has been questioned and he promises he is on the right track now. Brandao either looks excellent, like a top-10 featherweight, or bad like a guy who should be headlining the show down at your local armory. A fight with Sanchez would bring out the best in him if he doesn’t want to get knocked cold. For Sanchez, it is a chance to test himself against a young guy who can slug, wrestler and submit. Sanchez could challenge his all-around game at the lower weight class well.

Sam Sicilia

This guy looked like he could be a rock star coming off of ‘The Ultimate Fighter Live,’ but has posted a meager 4-4 record inside the octagon. However, he has a diverse game, a tough chin and is coming off a highlight knockout-reel win over Akira Corassani in January. A fight with Sanchez is a win for Sicilia because it would be the biggest name he has been in the cage with. For Sanchez, it marks another winnable fight against a young guy who is decently established in the division. It unlikely gets him ranked, but would be a decent test for his first fight to get his feet wet. Sicilia doesn’t come across as a legit challenge to Sanchez, but also wouldn’t be a wet noodle sent in to get beaten up by the UFC veteran.

BJ Penn

I will believe the former lightweight champion is retired when he actually stops coming back. He’s been retired more times than ounces of blood Sanchez has lost from his face in his career. Should Penn ever return? No. He’s 1-5-1 since his December 2009 destruction of Sanchez for the 155-pound title. But money talks, and so does the allure of fighting. That allure brought Penn back from a near two-year absence to debut in the featherweight division last summer in a third loss to Frankie Edgar, so why not test himself again against a guy he knows he can beat? Money and chance to truly retire on the winning side would be Penn’s motivation. For Sanchez, it is simple: recover from the most embarrassing loss of your career. Sanchez, as “The Dream” or his former moniker “The Nightmare,” was never the same after Penn whipped him from post to post five and a half years ago. Again, this wouldn’t get him ranked, but if Sanchez were to make a dream list of fights for UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva, there is no reason why another shot at Penn shouldn’t be near or at the top.

Photo cred: Getty Images

Dan Vance

Dan is a MMA writer for Sideline Sports Report. A basketball enthusiast and coach, Dan is a die-hard Duke basketball fan, who has seen MMA quickly become his second favorite sport. Dan is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, attended IPFW and is a designer for Fort Wayne’s The News-Sentinel.

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