Rewind back to December 2009 and Diego Sanchez was nearing the peak of his career. After dropping down to the lightweight division, he put on consecutive "Fight of the Night" winning performances against Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida.
They were exciting back and forth wars that personified who he was at that time -- "The Nightmare."
But then something happened or, more accurately, someone. Sanchez was given a title shot against perhaps the greatest 155-pound fighter in the short history of mixed martial arts.
And he got destroyed.
Not just physically, although the scar running along his forehead shows that to be the case, but mentally as well. On the UFC on Versus 3 conference call, he reflects on how the loss devastated him in every way imaginable.
"Taking the BJ Penn fight; it was really hard for me the way I lost, getting cut up and you know getting ... it put on me the way I did, that never happened to me in my career. I hit rock bottom after the BJ Penn fight, I really did. I blew threw all my money, I made some very bad decisions. This scam artist scammed me real bad, I was in debt for a little over $175,000. I really hit rock bottom. I had to come back home, I need my family love and you know, I just was humbled. I was humbled back down to zero. No ego, no nothing -- just humbled."
"The Prodigy" sent Diego right back to where he came from -- the welterweight division. A change in weight class is typically a catalyst for a fighter to attain a fresh start. To let go of past failures and begin anew.
Sanchez, however, was still a troubled soul.
"I was still in a funk for John Hathaway. I was training, I was going to the bar drinking beer after training. I didn't even take him seriously at all. I thought you know, 'I'm going to go in there and I'm going to knock this guy out, I'm going to take him down.' Then first round I got hit with a knee in the face real hard and I couldn't recover from it.
"I wasn't in the physical shape or the spiritual or the mental, you know, I shouldn't have been in the ring for that fight period. After that fight I said, you know what, I'm going to get back to what got me there. And that was Greg Jackson's, high altitude and just earning it."
Alas, home is where the heart is and that's where Diego found his zen, his chi. That's where Greg "Yoda" Jackson gave him the necessary guidance to tame the animal he was and hone the skills of the beast within. Having such a talented group of fighters in camp, all prepping for bouts of their own, doesn't hurt either.
"Now I'm with Greg Jackson and we have a great gameplan. That's something that I never had before, I never game-planned. I never did gameplan, I just get in there and scrap. So we have a great gameplan and we've put together a great camp for this fight and I've been very blessed to have all my training partners have fights too, so I've had plenty of training partners. We all work really hard and I hope they all win and they hope I win."
After reuniting with Team Jackson, Sanchez was put into a match against the always dangerous Brazilian super-cop Paulo Thiago. And while it was bumpy in the beginning, the gritty and determined warrior put an end to his mini-career crisis and came away with the decision win.
He drew on his will and superior conditioning to win that fight but recognized a problem that he felt needed immediate attention. His strength simply wasn't up to par. So he closed the door on ever moving back down to lightweight and brought in the big muscle to help him hulk up.
"The options are closed for me to ever go down to 155-pounds again. Something I did is I brought in an Olympic wrestler, Willie Parks, he's a big 185-pounder but he's about an inch taller than me, and he's real big on lifting weights so we go and lift weights every day after practice. We hit it hard.
"He moved into my house, I'm helping him get ready for his MMA and he's helping me with my wrestling. Just having a big strong guy always around has been real motivating for me. In my last fight, I was really prepared and I worked hard but I wasn't physically strong and that's something you've got to have being a welterweight. That's something I've really worked on in this training camp and I think the fans are going to be really surprised when they see the way I look, the way I feel and the way I'm able to impress my will with my physical strength."
Finally out of his funk, with a win under his belt, Diego has a new-found enthusiasm for training. That's what he says he will draw on to carry him to victory on March 3 against Martin Kampmann.
"Mentally, in my mind, I just feel I've earned the "W." I just work hard. I feel like I've done extra things, like lifting weights after training and going and running the mountain when I don't have to and like, just little extra things that even my teammates don't do.
"Going to wrestling practice with the high school wrestling team. The little small things I do extra on top of my regular training are the things that give me the confidence and mental edge to say, 'you know what, I've sacrificied enough to feel in my heart and soul that I've earned the victory.' With all my fighting experience that I've had in the ring, that's what it is, it comes down to the training."
Most great success stories start with a simple internal realization and this one is no different. After fighting his way to the top, only to be cut down and sent spiraling back down to the bottom, Diego Sanchez realized he no longer wanted to be "The Nightmare."
"I see some negative in it. Nightmare is something that's negative and I don't like it. It's kind of evil and I don't want to represent that. I want to represent positivity and I want to represent the good. I look back on my whole career and I'm like, 'The Nightmare?' The Nightmare was myself. I was the nightmare, I was my own nightmare. All the times that I fell off track and got into drinking and smoking weed and the things that brought me down, the partying. That was my nightmare, I was my own nightmare. I said, 'I'm growing up, I'm going to let that man go.' I just want to be Diego Sanchez, I don't even need a nickname. I'm me and that's it."
Although his career is far from over, it's nearly come full circle. A win over "The Hitman" at UFC on Versus 3 will surely put Sanchez back into contention in the crowded 170-pound division.
Maybe he won't get the chance to challenge for a title again but if he does, he'll go in having had a fresh start in a focused camp with those who love him.
"The Nightmare" is over, indeed.