It may seem hard to believe but the stars of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) are some of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) most tenured fighters. After nearly seven years, the likes of Forrest Griffin, Kenny Florian and Josh Koscheck have just about shed their reality TV roots as they have become better known for defeating mixed martial arts (MMA) legends or winning championships.
Another such fighter is Diego Sanchez who like his fellow TUF 1 middleweight finalist Kenny Florian has never quite been able to grab ahold of the brass ring and make the transition from contender to champion. Both "KenFlo" and Sanchez have been to the big dance at 155 pounds but each ran into the (nearly) immovable lightweight object known as B.J. Penn.
Now more than two years removed from his UFC 107 main event, Sanchez finds himself one win away from perhaps another title shot. Possibly challenging for Carlos Condit's newly won interim welterweight title or perhaps tangling with Georges St. Pierre when the French-Canadian heals up could be in the TUF veteran's near future should he pick up the W on Wednesday (Feb. 15).
Standing in his way is Jake Ellenberger who is fresh off an impressive knockout over Jake Shields. A solid wrestler with devastating knockout power, Ellenberger is hoping to lay one of his fists directly on his opponent's chin in the main event of the inaugural UFC on Fuel TV event. But Sanchez is no stranger to heavy-handed opponents. Whereas Florian left his bout with the Hawaiian relatively unscathed -- as much as one can when having stepped inside the Octagon -- "The Dream" was permanently disfigured after hooking up with "The Prodigy," the new bearer of a scar from a chasm-like gash on his forehead.
It was a similar experience the Greg Jackson fighter had when he took on Martin Kampmann nearly a year ago. Let's take a look at that bout, complete with its controversial decision.
Immediately Sanchez begins to press forward while Kampmann, the more accomplished striker, bides his time in search for a counter. They continue to exchange until "The Dream" shoots in for a single-leg takedown which the Dane defends perfectly. As they separate, "Hitman" nails Sanchez with a beautiful knee.
"The Dream" backs up, attempting to get some space between him and his opponent. He launches a looping right hook but a lightning fast straight from Kampmann finds its mark long before the hook can connect. Sanchez drops to the mat but scrambles back up quickly as "Hitman" latches onto a front headlock. The Dane backs his opponent against the cage, delivering knee after knee to the nearly prone Sanchez.
They separate off the cage and the exchanges continue until "The Dream" dives in for another takedown. It -- like the first -- is stuffed and Sanchez also eats a knee for his trouble. By now, his face is a bloody mess thanks to Kampmann's striking. At the sound of the horn, the Greg Jackson fighter returns to his corner looking like a horror movie victim.
Between rounds, Sanchez's trainers implore him to attempt more takedowns; at least five is what they demand. Their fighter doesn't disappoint, going for two in the first minute alone. Unfortunately, neither is a success and "The Dream" is forced to decide the bout on his feet. Kampmann already seems more content to wait for another big counter, hoping to replicate his knockdown of the first round. Sanchez knows the opening stanza is lost to him and presses forward.
A third takedown is stuffed but a small cut has opened under the Dane's eye. Sanchez bullies his opponent against the cage and opens up with a flurry of punches; a few that don't connect, a few that graze Kampmann and a few that nearly drop "Hitman" to the canvas. The once previously small cut has now opened up and blood covers nearly half of Kampmann's face. The Dane is forced to circle away from the onslaught while Sanchez gives chase.
"The Dream" goes for a fourth takedown which, despite the pounding Kampmann just received, is also stuffed. Try as he might, Sanchez is unable to put his opponent on his back. The round closes with another wild slugfest that Sanchez seems to get the better of before losing his footing and slipping onto his back. Between rounds, the camera catches a shot of Kampmann's eye which appears to have a handful of small cuts surrounding it.
The third and final round opens with both fighters cautiously picking their shots. Neither fighter wants to commit a fight-ending error but both hope to win the round as it would likely decide the winner of the bout. Halfway through the final round, neither man has done enough to separate themselves from their opponent. Kampmann has landed a few nice jabs and a knee to the body while Sanchez is walking "Hitman" down and connecting with a handful of strikes but almost three minutes in the round still doesn't have a clear winner.
A takedown finally lands for "The Dream" but Kampmann is able to get vertical seconds later. They continue to exchange strikes, Sanchez in bunches while "Hitman" prefers to deliver one-off counter punches. Sanchez attacks the body while his opponent delivers a knee as we enter into the final minute.
A cut under the Greg Jackson fighter's left eye is busted wide open by a pinpoint accurate counter from Kampmann and Sanchez immediately raises his fist to cover the wound from further damage. More primal instincts prevail however as "The Dream" spends the last 60 seconds exchanging like a madman and Kampmann is more than happy to accomodate his opponent.
When the decision is read -- a 29-28 unanimous decision for Sanchez -- the reaction from the crowd is not pretty. Boos are showered until Sanchez busts out a patented Mick Foley cheap pop by saying he "loves Louisville" and cheers fill the arena when "Hitman" states he felt he won the bout.
MMA judging isn't an exact science and it was evident that night in Kentucky. But Kampmann didn't end up hurting as a result of the loss. On top of a $160,000 bonus, his next bout -- a win over Rick Story -- was on the main card of UFC 139 and he's set to headline UFC on FX 2 in Australia against Thiago Alves.
Sanchez, obviously, tops the bill on Wednesday and will be looking to pick up a third straight win. It's probably safe to say, though, he'd like to avoid getting his face mangled again while picking up the victory. That won't be all too easy considering his opponent.
Does "The Dream" continue? Or will Ellenberger be a nightmare for Sanchez?