Sanchez returns to his roots

Dave Doyle
Sanchez returns to his roots
Diego Sanchez loosens up at the start of his Thursday workout

ROSEMEAD, Calif. – Public workouts are usually a bit of a dog-and-pony show. Fighters aren't about to give away their strategies in the days leading up to their fights, so a typical open workout on a major-event week consists of little more than a basic sparring session. The sooner a competitor can get in and out of the cage or ring, the better.

Then you have Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez.

"The Ultimate Fighter" Season 1 champion has long been known as one who marches to the beat of his own drummer, even by the fight industry's considerably quirky standards.

While Martin Kampmann, Matt Hamill and Cain Velasquez put on a quick show for the fans at the UFC Gym on Thursday – Tito Ortiz didn't even do that much – Sanchez spent a full hour in the Octagon preparing for his welterweight fight against Paulo Thiago on Saturday night at UFC 121 in Anaheim.

Sanchez first went through extensive stretching and flexibility drills using three-pound dumbbells, then worked on his angles in the Octagon, shadowboxing his way around the cage.

"I was just looking to get a little workout," said Sanchez (21-4). "Just get in the cage, do my thing, do a little realistic shadowboxing. Then when I get in there on Saturday I've already been in the cage, I've already been through what it's felt like, I've already been through some scenarios in my mind."

It's understandable why Sanchez is using every opportunity to prepare for his fight with Thiago, as the Albuquerque, N.M., native is at a pivotal point in his career.

At his best, Sanchez is a thrilling fighter, one capable of going on long win streaks and delivering fight-of-the-year caliber performances, such as his 2006 win over Karo Parisyan and last year's split decision victory over Clay Guida.

But when Sanchez has an off-night, he can wildly miss the mark, as his been the case in his last two fights. Sanchez absorbed a one-sided loss to B.J. Penn last December in challenging for the lightweight title. He decided from there to bump up to welterweight, but looked listless in his return to 170 pounds, dropping a one-sided decision to John Hathaway at UFC 114.

"I'm not going to make excuses," Sanchez said. "My last fight was unfocused. I took my opponent lightly, I went about it wrong and I can't make any excuses. That's why my motto this fight is, 'Just earn it.' [Hathaway] worked harder than me. I didn't deserve it. Losing sucks. I don't want to lose, and I know what it takes to win."

After the Hathaway loss, Sanchez decided to return to his roots. He broke into the sport as a teenager with trainer Greg Jackson in Albuquerque. The duo produced great results, as Sanchez took the TUF 1 middleweight championship and won his first 17 career fights. But Sanchez left the camp in 2007 and moved to San Diego. While Sanchez had his share of success away from home, his career path has led him back to New Mexico and the Jackson camp.

"It was just timing," Sanchez said. "I was a young kid growing up in Albuquerque, I had to leave, had to go out and see what was out there. Now that I've been out there, I appreciate what I have. … I appreciate my team, my coach, all the people out there who support me. It was all timing, a good move for me to leave. I learned a lot about life, jiu-jitsu, striking, martial arts – I learned a lot about everything. I made the full circle, and now I'm back to my roots."

And that's not the only way Sanchez, who started off as a high school wrestler, has turned back the clock.

"I've been getting back to my true core, which is wrestling," he said. "Being in the real, actual wrestling room – not just doing MMA wrestling with your buddies – going into the real wrestling room and working my butt off, getting back to the core. I don't care what anyone says, wrestling wins fights. It's been proven. … I worked hard to become a better striker, all my focus went into striking, and that hurt my wrestling, Any wrestler will tell you, it's not that you forget to wrestle, it's that you don't remember to wrestle."

Much has been made about Sanchez's jumps between lightweight and welterweight. Sanchez isn't ready to commit fulltime to either 155 or 170, saying he simply wants to get through Saturday night's fight first. His UFC 121 opponent, Thiago, is no slouch. The 13-2 Brazilian is capable of beating top-tier UFC welterweights, as his victories over Josh Koscheck and Mike Swick attest.

"Its one opponent at a time," Sanchez said. "I have a lot of respect for Paulo Thiago, he's a strong a opponent, has a lot of strength. No one has really been able to go in there and finish him. I've got one opponent on my mind right now.

"After this fight, we're going to get together, I'm going to talk to UFC brass, I know [UFC president] Dana [White] has made a statement about wanting me to go back to 155. I'm fine with that. I'm fine at either weight. But my thing is, I want to fight big-name fights. I want to fight big fights that will be big for the fans, be good for me and my career, just good for everyone."