Diego Sanchez is no stranger to controversy. Once a rising star on season one of The Ultimate Fighter, Sanchez has become and continues to be one of the most talked about fighters in the sport of MMA.
As his undefeated record started to reach mythical proportions, Sanchez seemed destined for welterweight greatness. Thrilling victories over top welterweights Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan (and a devastating KO against Joe Riggs) further cemented his status as the future of the division.
And then it all came tumbling down.
Just days before his fight with Josh Koscheck at UFC 69, Diego was diagnosed (improperly) with Hepatitis C. While it was later learned he was suffering from a staph infection, the illness affected his performance and the usually ferocious Sanchez trudged his way to a unanimous decision loss.
Add to that his subsequent departure from the Greg Jackson camp, and a displaced Sanchez found himself on the losing end once again against Koscheck teammate and welterweight contender Jon Fitch at UFC 76.
Now finally settled at the University of Jiu Jitsu (UNIJJ) under Saulo Ribeiro and his team in San Diego, "Nightmare" looks to get back to his winning ways - and his destiny to become the UFC welterweight champion.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Diego thank you for taking the time to speak with us at MMAmania. Let's start with UFC 82. Tell us how you ended up fighting newcomer David Bielkheden?
Diego Sanchez: He's the one who stepped up to the plate. Joe Silva called everybody he could and nobody wanted to take the fight with me. I think it's well known that I'm a very dangerous fighter - maybe even more so amongst the fighters.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Since pounding out Brian Gassaway at UFC 54 back in 2005, five of your last six fights have gone to a decision. How important is it to you - especially as a fighter who wants to keep the reputation of being dangerous - to finish a fight?
Diego Sanchez: It's very important to me. But fifteen minutes is not a lot of time and there are so many factors that can influence the outcome. Those fights were also very tough match-ups. You had Karo Parisyan, Nick Diaz who is as tough a dude as there is, these are tough guys and sometimes it goes to a decision no matter what. Some guys have styles that make them very hard to finish.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): But you didn't have that problem against Joe Riggs.
Diego Sanchez: That's the only KO of my career but man it felt good.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): You mentioned your opponent's styles. Critics have accused you of having an identity crisis inside the Octagon. Tell us how you transition from ground 'n pound coming out of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) show to strictly boxing against Koscheck to jiu-jitsu against Jon Fitch.
Diego Sanchez: I'm evolving as a mixed martial artist. I have to evolve at a higher speed than my opponents in order to be a world champion. I may have had two bumps in the road but make no mistake about it I'm here to be the world champion. I'm learning man, just like everybody else. I'm training now under Saulo Ribeiro -- a legend in the sport. Training in the Gi has totally taken me to another level.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): But you did go into the Koscheck fight with the intention of keeping it standing? Did the Riggs KO have any influence on that decision?
Diego Sanchez: I wanted to knock out Koscheck but I was sick and I wasn't myself. That fight was a nightmare. My mind wasn't there and most people who know me know that I wasn't there for that fight. He didn't even do anything. He tried to throw some punches so that he could score his points and get out of there. He was too scared to try and finish me. Throw some punches, score some points and retreat. He could have tried to engage like Karo. Look at the Karo fight and see what happens when two guys try to finish each other the whole fight. You get fight of the year.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): For a guy who is known for exciting fights, how hard was it to hear the fans boo the end of your fight with Koscheck?
Diego Sanchez: That being my first loss was difficult enough to deal with, but I did try and look at it in a positive way. It humbled me and I had to learn from it. I was starting to lose my way. I was enjoying the lifestyle a little too much. I would collect my paycheck and then go off and do some traveling. I would go to Miami and party and meet different people. That's not what a champion does and that's not what got me here. That's not me but I got sucked into it. It was nice, I was living the dream, but then I realized wait a minute I'm not the champion. I have unfinished business inside the Octagon. My career is not over yet.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Explain the motivation behind the Koscheck shove at the weigh-ins for UFC 69. Was it mind games or do you just flat-out hate the guy?
Diego Sanchez: Me and Koscheck have personal issues. He was talking mess to my family, doing whatever he could to get a rematch with me. It worked because he pissed me off. I didn't need the fight but Dana approached me about it and I took it.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): And after that you had your second loss to Jon Fitch. I'll bet that didn't help ease any of the pain from loss #1.
Diego Sanchez: My life was in transition then. I changed teams, I changed camps, my training was different, my drills were different, everything changed. I still went into the fight and attacked. I may have had the wrong strategy. I probably should have kept it standing more but I was always going for the finish. He held position. He didn't once try to pass my guard or do any kind of damage. He hit me with two punches and glancing hammer fists. If the guys over at American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) are happy with just squeaking out these wins then let them have it. To me winning with as little effort as possible is nothing to be proud of. If you want to be proud, be proud of a war - win or lose.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): So you feel that the Fitch strategy was like the Koscheck strategy? Score enough points to get the win and go home?
Diego Sanchez: Exactly! He didn't do anything. He wasn't in one position to finish me and he hit me with no clean shots. He couldn't even pass my guard! Where are the points? In his lay 'n pray? I don't understand the judges sometimes, it's like they don't understand jiu-jitsu but I guess holding top position is all it takes. I knew they were giving it to him but all I can do is accept it and move on. I give Fitch credit for the win because he is strong but he also taught me that I need to be stronger too. I need to get back to weightlifting and work on my power.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): So having said that we can assume you plan to stay at 170lbs indefinitely?
Diego Sanchez: Oh yeah, I'll never go down to 155. I did consider it but it's hard because my true weight class for my body type would be 163. I'm too big for 155. If I made that drop I would have to sacrifice too much muscle. Right now I'm walking around at 177, but a very lean 177. I was very real with myself after the Jon Fitch fight and I knew that I had to make these adjustments.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Can losing a high profile match or back-to-back matches make a fighter question whether or not he belongs in a certain weight class?
Diego Sanchez: I don't know, I think it depends on the way that you lose. Look at some of these other guys getting their jaw knocked into the fifth row. You have this guy who is supposed to be unbeatable, an MMA God and Matt Serra went in there and knocked him around.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): That tone leaves me with the impression that you're not entirely sold on GSP's immortality.
Diego Sanchez: Oh no. You know what? I respect him, he's a great warrior who is very strong, but I don't fear him like some of the other guys at 170. He's just a man. I could have went down to 155 to avoid him but my dream started at 170 and I'm gonna see it through. He's out at my old camp now.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): He's now with Greg Jackson and you're not. Based on what you've said thus far I'll assume that's more than just a coincidence?
Diego Sanchez: I have so much respect for the Jackson camp. Keith Jardine, Nate Marquardt, all those guys, they're still my boys. My loyalty was very strong. But GSP could have gone to any camp he wanted. He knew that place was my home, my dream. That took a little something out of my heart. He's training in the cage that I bled in, that I sweat in and cried in.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Did you feel pushed aside when he arrived?
Diego Sanchez: Put yourself there for a minute. You're an undefeated fighter coming off two of the biggest wins of your career (Parisyan/Riggs). Now they're bringing in the champion of your weight class to train with your guys? For three months I was telling Greg that my heart wasn't feeling it. Greg kept telling me "Trust me, trust me, you guys are going to make each other the best" but I kept feeling like their true intentions were to make me go down to 155. I mean most of the Jackson fighters cut a lot of weight and that's not me. I wasn't going to do it. I wasn't bowing down to Georges St. Pierre. I ain't riding nobody's coattails. I'm Diego Sanchez and just because I had two decision losses - one while I was sick and one controversial to a top five welterweight - does not mean that I'm gonna give up on my dream, my dream to be welterweight champion. Maybe me and GSP will throw down in Albuquerque somewhere in the future. Dana told me there is going to be a show in Albuquerque. I don't want to fight him unless it's for the title. I want him for five rounds.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): What would you do to prepare for that fight?
Diego Sanchez: The way GSP destroyed Matt Hughes I said to myself the only way I'm gonna beat this guy is to outwork him. I have something in my heart that he doesn't have. Maybe he has something that I don't, but you know what? That's what we're gonna put against each other in the ring. I just pray that it's a five round fight. I don't want it to be about points. I want him to be the champion at the time and have to fight me for five rounds. Believe me if Koscheck and Fitch had to go five rounds things would have been different. I'll never get tired. It's genetic with me, all in my DNA. I'm here to fight.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Assuming you're able to get past David Bielkheden at UFC 82, what's next for Diego Sanchez?
Diego Sanchez: I want a rematch with Koscheck. I've already talked to Dana about it and he understands my situation. Dana and I talk about this stuff. He was ready to announce my retirement after the first fight because of the Hepatitis test. That was scary. I thought my career was over. I had no back-up plan.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): You don't seem to be in any hurry to fight for the title. Is that by choice? Take us back to Fight Night 7. You KO Joe Riggs and have an undefeated record including 6-0 in the UFC. Why then does the UFC present Koscheck? Why not fight for title contention?
Diego Sanchez: I've never been in a rush for a title shot. I'm still improving, especially in my striking. It's all good. When Joe Silva and the UFC say it's time to fight for the title then it's time.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Would you consider yourself a top five welterweight?
Diego Sanchez: Of course man! Who else is there? GSP, Matt Serra, Matt Hughes...
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Do you put Fitch up there?
Diego Sanchez: Yeah, of course, even though he didn't do anything to me! Who else after that? It's not BJ Penn, he's a lightweight.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Koscheck?
Diego Sanchez: Yeah, I guess then Koscheck.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): As a TUF pioneer, how do you rate the recent crop of fighters to come from the show? Has the quality gone down or have the standards gone up?
Diego Sanchez: That's a hard question to answer. There are some good fighters coming through, but for season one they had to take mostly real fighters, pros. If the quality has gone down it's not by much.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): How do you want to be remembered as a fighter?
Diego Sanchez: As one of the most exciting fighters ever. A fighter who always pushes the pace. Most of all I want to be remembered as a champion. I've never had this kind of focus. I'm grown up now and ready to win.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): And your relationship with Ali Sonoma?
Diego Sanchez: Oh man we're in the deepest love ever. She's truly the one who helped me grow up. Once you fall in love you settle down. We're better than ever. We rushed into an engagement but that was the la-la land part of the relationship. We know we're going to get married someday but we both have to take care of our business first. We totally back each other. She's awesome.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): When you're not training and not fighting what do you do?
Diego Sanchez: Snowboarding. It's my passion. It's the only thing that gets me off more than fighting. But I'm a calm snowboarder now. I just kind of cruise down the mountain. I don't hit the 780's or half-pipes anymore. Dana would kill me if I got hurt. Now it's just for meditative purposes.
Jesse Holland (MMAmania.com): Diego thank you for taking the time to speak with us at MMAmania and we wish you the best of luck at UFC 82.
Diego Sanchez: Thank you!
For more on Diego Sanchez check out his official website or MySpace page.
For the rest of the UFC 82 fight card click here.