Two serious mixed martial arts (MMA) veterans will test their mettle this Saturday night (March 2, 2013) as former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 155-pound title challenger Diego Sanchez takes on former Pride FC Lightweight champion Takanori Gomi on the UFC on Fuel TV 8 main card in Saitama, Japan.
Sanchez had a failed experiment moving back up to the Welterweight division, absorbing a pair of pretty heavy beatings. He has decided to return to 155 pounds for the first time since losing a lightweight title shot back in 2009. In his path is a ferocious striker hell bent on giving him a harsh welcome back to the division.
Gomi was once considered one of the best lightweights on the planet, but after a ho-hum run in the UFC, he finally seems to have found his stride, recently putting on one of his most complete performances inside the Octagon in his last fight, a unanimous decision victory over Mac Danzig. "The Fireball Kid" is looking to keep that momentum rolling against Sachez.
Will Sanchez's return to lightweight be a "Dream" or a "Nightmare?" Can Gomi play spoiler to The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season one alumni's 155 pound homecoming? What's the key to victory for both men?
Record: 23-5 overall, 12-5 in the UFC
Key Wins: Nick Diaz (The Ultimate Fighter 2 Finale), Paulo Thiago (UFC 121), Clay Guida (The Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale)
Key Losses: Jake Ellenberger (UFC on Fuel TV), John Hathaway (UFC 114), B.J. Penn (UFC 107)
How he got here: Diego Sanchez got his start primarily in the King of the Cage circuit, winning his first 11 fights and becoming champion after defeating Jorge Santiago. He entered the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter and became a fan favorite with his unique personality and some crazy antics.
After winning the first season as a middleweight, he dropped down to 170 pounds, defeating the likes of Nick Diaz, Karo Parisyan and Joe Riggs to become a contender, although he was brought back down to earth after consecutive decision losses to both Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch.
Undeterred, "The (then) Nightmare" dropped down to lightweight and after two impressive victories over the likes of Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida, he was given a title shot against B.J. Penn. Sanchez gave it his all, but he was outclassed in nearly all areas, losing via fifth round doctor stoppage to "The Prodigy."
Afterwards, he returned to welterweight and things didn't go quite as planned. "The Dream" lost badly to John Hathaway.in his 170 pound return, destroyed Paulo Thiago, barely squeaked out a controversial decision over Martin Kampmann and put on a fight of the year candidate against Jake Ellenberger in a losing effort.
After a year away from the Octagon, Sanchez is returning as a lightweight and is hoping a victory over Gomi will set up him for a run as a contender again.
How he gets it done: To win this fight, Sanchez is going to have to rely on two of the things that he has an advantage of against just about everyone he faces, pure heart and incredible conditioning. "The Dream" can't afford to sit back and fight Gomi's fight. He's got to be highly aggressive, get in Gomi's face and force the native Japanese fighter to play more defensive.
If Sanchez can get out of the first round, and he's never had an issue with that before, the fact that he can make "The Fireball Kid" work extremely hard might be enough to put him over the top. Expect constant aggression, takedown attempts and a high volume of ugly-looking punches getting thrown in the direction of his Japanese opponent.
What matters isn't that he connect or do a significant amount of damage, it's that he makes Gomi work to avoid them and tires him out. By the midway point of the second round, if Gomi isn't gasping for breath and looking at the clock, then Sanchez will have failed.
Wrestling is going to be very important as Sanchez wields a fighting style very similar to Clay Guida, a man who had his way with Gomi both on the feet and on the ground. Once Gomi's loses a step on the feet, expect Sanchez to be relentless. "If at first you don't succeed, try at least another 40 times" should be Sanchez's motto for this fight.
Record: 34-8 (1 No Contest) overall, 3-3 in the UFC
Key Wins: Mac Danzig (UFC Macao), Tyson Griffin (UFC on Versus 2), Jens Pulver (Pride Shockwave 2004)
Key Losses: Nate Diaz (UFC 135), Clay Guida (UFC 125), Kenny Florian (UFC Fight Night 21)
How he got here: At one point, Takanori Gomi was the most feared lightweight on the planet. He began his career 14-0 primarily as a freestyle and catch wrestler. Despite his current reputation as an incredibly powerful striker, "The Fireball Kid" only scored two knockouts in his first 14 fights.
He ran into his first roadblock with consecutive losses to Joachim Hansen and B.J. Penn in late 2003 but would bounce back in impressive fashion, famously winning 10 straight in Pride including first round stoppage victories over Jens Pulver, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Hayato Sakurai. He would also win and defend the Pride lightweight championship during this period.
The heavy-handed Japanese striker would famously compete in one of MMA's most legendary fights, brawling with Nick Diaz at Pride 33 and nearly knocking out the elder Diaz brother before gassing out and getting caught in a slick gogoplata. His loss to Diaz was overturned, but the memory of that fight is forever burned into the minds of hardcore fans everywhere.
Gomi has gone 7-5 since the Diaz fight including a 3-3 stint in the UFC in which he was dominated by Kenny Florian, Clay Guida and Nate Diaz but managed a knockout of the year candidate against Tyson Griffin and stopped Eiji Mitsuoka. He scored perhaps the biggest victory of his current UFC run in his last bout, a solid showing against TUF season six winner Mac Danzig.
He'll be trying to halt put a damper on Sanchez's lightweight return this weekend.
How he gets it done: While Gomi looked like a one trick pony in his first few UFC fights, "The Fireball Kid" showcased "Gomi 2.0" against Mac Danzig, impressively taking the TUF winner down, beating him up and even passing guard.
Now don't expect Gomi to easily be able to pull this strategy off against Sanchez, especially because he's a pretty solid grappler in his own right.
Gomi still has that insane knockout power and as long as he doesn't telegraph his shots with ridiculous looping hooks, uppercuts and more, he will at least have a puncher's chance. Hurting Sanchez is one thing, but actually halting him is a horse of an entirely different color. If Gomi hurts Sanchez with his strikes, he needs to enter "Hulk Smash" mode and tear the former title challenger to pieces.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight has to be how seriously Gomi is taking his training and whether or not Sanchez can take away "The Fireball Kid's" weapons via his superior grappling. Gomi looked a man possessed and extremely motivated against Mac Danzig. He'll need his 100 percent A-game against Sanchez or he's going to find himself not only dumped on his back but potentially worse. It's a known fact that Sanchez gets stronger a a fight goes on so if Gomi can't secure a first round finish, he could have a rough night.
Bottom Line: Standing or on the ground, this fight is going to be amazing. Every time Sanchez steps into the cage, he's got potential for a "Fight of the Year" bout and securing a battle against Gomi is just icing on the cake. These are two very talented and dangerous lightweights and they could either slug it out on the feet and see who is the last man standing or they could suck it up and test their mettle on the canvas. Regardless, this one should have some serious fireworks.
Who will come out on top at UFC on Fuel TV 8? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!