LAS VEGAS – It didn't take long for Diego Sanchez to establish himself as a legitimate threat for the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title after beating Clay Guida in one of the most dramatic fights in company history at the Palms on Saturday night.
Sanchez noted that Kenny Florian, who faces B.J. Penn for the title on Aug. 8 in Philadelphia was the same fighter he defeated easily in 2005, in the finals of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, at a time when both competed as middleweights.
"He's had two title shots and I owned him," said Sanchez (23-2), who won his second fight in a row after dropping down from welterweight. "If he wins, it's a natural rematch. The only other top contender for the winner would be Gray Maynard. And Nate Diaz beat Gray in the Ultimate Fighter, and Clay Guida beat Diaz and I just beat Guida."
Sanchez was at the time primarily a grappler, known for using his conditioning and relentless style to compensate for so-so striking.
But he's a completely different fighter today, mixing punches, kicks and knees with his already strong submission game. He bloodied Guida badly from the first exchange, rocked him several times, and put him down with a kick, all in a frenetic first round.
The onslaught would have finished most fighters. But Guida (25-10) is not most fighters.
Guida, the human Energizer Bunny, barely got out of the first round, yet came back to win the second round, and came close to taking the third, leaving Sanchez with a split-decision win on scores of 29-27, 28-29, and 29-28.
About an hour after the fight concluded, when Guida came to the press conference after being stitched up, Sanchez went up to him and told him how much he respected him.
"We're blood brothers now," Sanchez said.
"I just got tremendous respect after tonight for Clay Guida," said Sanchez. "I hit him with punches, kicks and knees right on the button and he kept coming. He's known for his conditioning and he came prepared. I was prepared, but I wasn't prepared for him to survive the onslaught I gave him."
"If you can't go 15 to 25 minutes, you're in the wrong line of work," said Guida. "I never felt tired. I was ready to go two more rounds."
Guida, smiling, despite having a fat lip, a bloody nose and stitches above the right eye, didn't seem down in the slightest over losing a split decision in what would have been the biggest victory of his career had he pulled out the fight.
The match drew natural comparisons to his Dec. 2007 showdown with Roger Huerta, a fight-of-the-year caliber affair that Guida lost in the third round. That match was also the main event of an Ultimate Fight Night card at the same venue. "This will be a learning experience just like the fight with Huerta," said Guida.
"It was similar," said Guida. "It was in Las Vegas. It was a night with some great fights. And he got a bloody nose on the third punch. This time I got a bloody nose on the third punch. The Roger Huerta fight taught me about the fine line between relentless and reckless. And I'll learn from this. I still feel I'm the top fighter in the division and I want to win the strap."
Guida, one of the most popular fighters in the company despite having only a 5-4 record, saw the crowd explode as he opened the second round with a takedown and kept Sanchez on his back, winning the round on all three judges' cards.
Sanchez said he learned from watching last year's Kenny Florian-Joe Lauzon match where Florian was able to open up Lauzon with elbows from the bottom en route to victory. While on his back, Sanchez threw elbow after elbow at Guida's face, trying to open him up, to the point his right elbow was hurting after the fight. Guida responded with punches and elbows from the top.
The third round saw Guida connect with some good punches, although Sanchez still had the advantage. Sanchez's best offense was working for a choke, as well as a Kimura, although the latter never came close. The fight ended with Guida on top throwing down blows, but Sanchez had done enough earlier in the round to win it on two of the three judges cards.
Even though Guida was the favorite to the majority of the crowd, the crowd seemed to accept Sanchez winning as the right decision.
"I don't know how many stitches I got," said Guida. "I don't think it was that many, but when I asked the doctor, he said he lost count. I don't like the blood. It's the first time I've been cut since I was 18 and I graduated high school."
For the first time in UFC history, company officials decided to give three best match of the night bonuses. Along with Sanchez and Guida, also getting $25,000 bonuses were Joe Stevenson, Nate Diaz, Kevin Burns and Chris Lytle.
Lytle (37-17-4) survived being knocked down in the first round and being in trouble to win rounds two and three over Burns (8-3). In the third round, Lytle threw a punch that left a huge gash over Burns' right eye. He targeted the cut and won the decision on straight 29-28 scores.
Stevenson vs. Diaz was more a grappling match. Stevenson used his superior wrestling to take the first two rounds, but was unable to finish the elusive Diaz with his pet move, the guillotine, sunk in tight in the first round. Stevenson kept control for most of the second round to clinch the decision provided Diaz couldn't finish him in the third. Stevenson (35-10) survived both a choke attempt and a guillotine by Diaz (10-4) and took the decision on straight 29-28 scores.