UFC's Zen master

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Diego Sanchez walked across a trail of hot coals one time, made it without shrieking in agony, then proceeded to do it twice more to prove the control he has of his emotions.

He's been known to meditate in the rain, to better get in touch with his inner self. He quotes self-help author Anthony Robbins frequently.

He talks to himself as he walks to the cage to fight, repeatedly screaming "Yes!" to no one in particular.

"I'm rigged a little differently," Sanchez said.


But he may be different enough to wrest the Ultimate Fighting Championship's lightweight title from B.J. Penn, one of the most dominant champions in the sport's history.

Sanchez will meet Penn for the belt on Saturday in the main event at UFC 107 at the FedEx Forum, and says simply of the opportunity, "I'm ready."

In late 2006, he was 16-0 with notable victories over the likes of Kenny Florian, Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan. He was a welterweight then, but professed little interest in a title shot.

In the three years since, he's lost back-to-back fights, dropped to lightweight and quickly made himself the most viable contender for Penn's belt. The championship opportunity has arrived at the perfect time for Sanchez, who will turn 28 on New Year's Eve.

"I firmly believe that everything in my career was all learning lessons and preparation for the championship run that I'm going to have," Sanchez said. "I feel I have it on, man. I'm spiritually right. I'm mentally right and I'm just strong right now. Everything is lined up perfectly."

He's facing one of the UFC's most dominant performers in Penn, an intimidating presence who has left a string of top contenders in his wake.

Penn isn't particularly concerned and dismisses Sanchez and his Zen talk as just Sanchez being strange.

"He wants to portray himself as the crazy one, but I think he's just portraying himself as the weird one," Penn said. "We'll find out which guy is more crazy when we get into the Octagon."

Sanchez, though, is hardly intimidated. He says he learned from his experience walking across hot coals that he has few limits. He's not going to show up for a paycheck and hope to take advantage of a Penn mistake. He's going out to win the fight and will instantly put pressure on once the bell rings.

He is convinced he's not only going to unseat Penn, but start a lengthy run of his own at the top.

"The mind and the body can do anything and there are no limits," Sanchez said. "The only limits we have are the limits we give ourselves. That's the mentality that I have going into this fight and that's the mentality I've had in my career. The only person who can stop Diego Sanchez is Diego Sanchez.

"Right now, I'm not going to stop myself. I'm ready for this. I've earned it and I really feel this is my time."

If there has been a chink in Penn's armor, it's that he hasn't always had the greatest conditioning. He has appeared to fix that, however, and was in superb condition in August when he submitted Florian at UFC 101.

He appeared in even better shape at a media workout on Wednesday, but Sanchez is undaunted. Sanchez's style is to always push the pace and make his opponent fight at a quicker pace than he's accustomed.

He's 21-2 and his only losses came in back-to-back fights to welterweights Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch, both of whom are elite wrestlers. Sanchez did little in his loss to Koscheck, though he had a staph infection and probably shouldn't have competed. He said he had the wrong game plan for Fitch, which led him to make wholesale changes in his team.

Sanchez, who won "The Ultimate Fighter" season 1 at middleweight, is an elite fighter, but he's walking down a risky path. It's never good to go into a fight banking on your opponent running out of gas or believing you want it more.

Yet, that's exactly where Sanchez is going.

"I think the mental edge is going to make a difference, but it's going to come down to who wants it more when we get tired," he said. "That's when that mental edge is going to kick in. I know that when I get tired, when I hit this second wind, there is no looking back. I go for the kill. I don't think this fight is going to be a decision. I feel I'm going to finish B.J. Penn."

Sanchez is a gifted, strong-willed fighter who once won a high school state wrestling championship essentially fighting on one leg. He had a severely sprained ankle, but refused to concede and won the match despite the injury.

He's clearly talented enough to win, but talking about it and doing it are two entirely different matters.

He's gotten Penn's attention with his words and will have to be prepared to back them up on Saturday once the cage door is locked, the interviews are complete and it's just he and Penn in the cage.

"I'm a workhorse and I've worked so hard for this my whole life," Sanchez said. "You know, B.J. says he's doing this for fun. Well, I'm doing this for other reasons. I'm doing this to survive. I'm doing this for my livelihood. I'm fighting with my heart and my soul and my passion. I'm going to give it everything I've got. As the rounds go on, I will be stronger and my conditioning is better than it's ever been.

"I do not feel B.J. has fought a guy like me, a guy who puts the kind of pressure I do. One thing I kind of have to my benefit is no one has ever hurt me in this sport. I've fought over 26 fights and no one has ever hurt me. I've never been hurt and that's just a blessing. I have a good chin, a good jaw, and I'm in the right place at the right time. What I bring to the table is going to present a lot of problems for B.J."