From the moment Diego Sanchez entered the Octagon with a Yes! cartwheel, mixed martial arts (MMA) fans could tell his Lightweight bout against Gilbert Melendez at UFC 166 last night (Sat., Oct. 19, 2013) was going to be special.
"What separates Diego from everyone else is 'crazy'," Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) color commentator Joe Rogan astutely observed, as Sanchez's eyes burned with the unhinged glare of a lifer who just got done shanking his cell-mate with a rusty shiv.
Sanchez's opponent, Melendez, isn't a madman. "El Nino" may share Sanchez's inability to contain his pyromaniacal tendencies around barnyards, but unlike the man once known as "Nightmare," he's not a whirling dervish of raw emotion and primal aggression inside the cage.
Melendez is a calculating matador; Sanchez a raging bull.
For the first 4:40 seconds of their 155-pound contest at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, this was largely how the story played out. True to form, Sanchez charged at Melendez right outside the gate, like a human cannonball bursting with anticipation at the thought of finally being fired at his target.
Melendez played the role of torero to perfection throughout the bulk of the opening round. Where Sanchez would rush in flat-footed and wing haymakers with abandon, Melendez would dig crisp punches to his overeager opponent's midsection with surgical precision.
Speaking of surgery, near the end the round, a Melendez elbow cut Sanchez like a scalpel wielded by a drunken plastic surgeon. The result was a nasty gash above "The Dream's" left eye (see pic here).
Soon after, the complexion of the fight changed. With only 20 seconds or so left on the clock, Sanchez -- rivulets of blood oozing down his face -- went into psychopath-mode. He rushed Melendez and began unloading with a whirlwind barrage of lefts and rights like a human tornado.
Melendez didn't back down. He bit down on his mouthpiece, held his ground and returned fire with an incendiary series of punches of his own. For 10 thrilling seconds, both men blasted one another with punch after punch until the sounding of the bell.
Sanchez's madness was catching.
In the second, Melendez once again connected with the cleaner strikes, but he was starting to allow himself to get sucked into more and more sanity-defying exchanges with Sanchez.
Sanchez came out fired up in the third round thanks in large part to his corner team invoking his daughter into the equation, suggesting that his good friend, Melendez, was attempting to take food from her mouth. In the midst of yet another balls-out sequence that saw both men recklessly stand in the pocket and crack one another with everything they had, Sanchez -- his grimacing face and sweaty chest drenched in his own blood -- began wildly throwing his arms in the air and telling Melendez to bring it on.
Shit, at this point, was beyond real.
According to a "just the facts" account straight out of Mr. Gradgrind's utilitarian academy in Charles Dickens' "Hard Times," what happened next was that Sanchez and Melendez punched each other in the head a lot while the crowd in attendance loudly voiced their approval of said violent spectacle.
But, that's not what really happened. It wasn't the number of strikes thrown, the hard uppercut with which Sanchez rocked Melendez late in the round, the blinding pace both men set, nor any other set of quantifiable statistics that made this round so special.
What made the last five minutes of Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez perhaps the greatest round in UFC history was the prideful unwillingness to back down that caused both fighters throw all of those career-shortening punches like a pair of lunatics. It was the emotion of watching the underdog Sanchez attempt to put away Melendez with a single-minded intensity that didn't just border on insanity, it full on flew over the cuckoos nest without passing "Go." It was Melendez's willingness to rise to the occasion and meet Sanchez on his own terms; to throw the matador's gameplan out the window and scrap like a wounded, cornered bull.
What made Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez so transcendentally great was simply that it was crazy.
Melendez and Sanchez stepped outside the realm of everyday concern and into a direct experience of the ineffable thread that binds us all together. It's the reason fighters so often embrace after spending three rounds attempting to knock one another's heads off:
When we leave our egos behind and surrender to experience -- or when an experience is so intense it temporarily forces us out of our rational minds -- our psychic blinders fall off and we realize all human beings are actually a whole lot more alike than we are different.
What's more, when we stop thinking about all the temporal distractions that occupy so much brain space in our daily lives -- the mortgages, the soul-crushing commutes, and the ball-busting supervisors to name but a few all too typical concerns -- we can more fully experience the joy of being alive.
"You don't feel nothing when you're in here," Melendez sagely observed after the fight. The Dalai Lama himself couldn't have said it better, and I mean that without a trace of irony.
It's a notion that can just as easily apply to everyone who found themselves caught up in the temporary insanity Sanchez and Melendez generated inside the Octagon.
For 15 minutes last night, whether you were in the venue or at home watching on pay-per-view (PPV), nothing else mattered but the spectacle of two fighters playing out man's struggle for survival in the most literal terms possible in civilized society.
It was truly beautiful in a way most art can only aspire to.
For those of us who aren't cool with the idea of getting repeatedly punched in the face for a living, Sanchez and Melendez provided us with a vicarious experience of the heightened sense of being alive, and concomitant feeling of connection, that comes when we push ourselves beyond our physical and mental limits with another human being.
The result was 15 crazy minutes of pure bliss.
Watch full Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez video highlights right here.
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