Everyone’s favourite UFC oddball is back in action this weekend, as Diego Sanchez returns to the cage and the lightweight division in an intriguing fight with Japanese star Takanori Gomi smack dab in the middle of the main card of Saturday’s UFC on Sportsnet from the Saitama Super Arena.
Watch UFC on Sportsnet: Silva vs. Stann on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on Sportsnet East, Ontario, West and Pacific. Also catch five preliminary bouts starting at 7:40 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.ca.
The last time we saw Sanchez was a little over a year ago when he lost a unanimous decision to Jake Ellenberger in a back-and-forth affair that earned Fight of the Night honours on the first ever UFC on FUEL TV event. Before that, the other man to win on Season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter was last in the cage for his classic battle (and controversial win) over Martin Kampmann.
In March 2011.
It has been a long, disjointed trip for Sanchez over the last three years and change, beginning with his UFC 107 mauling at the hands (and knees, elbows, and shins) of BJ Penn. He moved back to welterweight, and got beaten by John Hathaway in a listless performance, and was headed down the same path in his bout with Paulo Thiago before flipping the switch midway through the fight. Then came Kampmann, a slew of injuries, Ellenberger, more down time, and an announcement last summer that he would once again be changing weight classes.
Poised to make his official return to the lightweight division, Sanchez becomes an interesting addition to the deep and talented 155-pound ranks.
The landscape in the lightweight division has shifted a great deal since Sanchez’ inaugural three-fight stint ended with his loss to Penn at UFC 107. It was in a transitional phase, with veterans like Sean Sherk, Joe Stevenson, and Kenny Florian still hanging around the top of the rankings, while future contenders like Jim Miller, Gray Maynard, and Frankie Edgar had yet to establish themselves as title contenders.
Now the division is a shark tank, loaded with talent to the point that it seems like a new potential contender emerges with each passing event. Edgar has come and gone atop the division, replaced as ruler by Benson Henderson. Maynard and Miller are perennial threats, Nate Diaz is in the mix, and names like Cerrone, Lauzon, and Grant dot the bottom half of the top-10 rankings.
Sanchez will start to give us a clearer indication of where he fits within the current composition of the lightweight division this weekend, but my initial feeling is that he’ll be jockeying for position inside the top 10 by the end of the year, provided he can stay healthy.
For one thing, his nonstop motor and ability to absorb punishment keep him in every fight. After getting controlled and pushed around through the first two rounds of his bout with Ellenberger last February, Sanchez dominated the third. If the five-round main event set-up was in place for the fight — and I don’t recall why it wasn’t — the outcome of the contest could very well have been different.
Despite being on the receiving end of some savage beatings in the past, Sanchez has never been stopped by strikes; his loss to Penn was a doctor’s stoppage due to the gigantic cut that opened as a result of a fifth-round headkick. While he’s always in danger of getting busted up, there is no quit in the longtime Greg Jackson student, and that indefatigable nature is sometimes enough to break the spirit of an opponent.
In addition to his “take a licking and keep on ticking” capabilities, lightweight is simply a better fit for Sanchez in terms of his size and style.
He was physically overmatched at times at welterweight, getting bullied by larger fighters in the early portion of contests until their cardio started to wane, and he was able to turn the tables. That won’t be as much of an issue fighting in the 155-pound ranks. While there are some larger fighters — champion Benson Henderson and Gray Maynard being the most obvious examples — Sanchez is at least on par with many of the other elite competitors in the division, and the way that he uses his wrestling in concert with a high-volume striking attack should produce more consistent results down in weight.
He’s also a perennial Fight of the Night contender.
Sanchez has scored a bonus in each of his last three appearances, and took home both Fight of the Night and Fight of the Year for his 2009 battle with Clay Guida. With the UFC focused on delivering action-packed fight cards and giving greater priority to fighters who “bring it” on a nightly basis, the always-entertaining Sanchez is a perfect candidate to pair with another established lightweight contender atop a smaller televised fight card to act as the opening act on a future FOX event.
One final element that should work in Sanchez’ favour as he once again relocates and tries to climb the ladder in the 155-pound ranks is the fact that he’s an established and recognizable name.
When he first made the move down in weight, Sanchez was immediately thrown into the thick of things, headlining consecutive events on Spike TV in his first two appearances before main eventing a pay-per-view opposite Penn in his third and final lightweight appearance to date. Even though he’s been limited to just two fights over the last two years, the curious and charismatic 31-year-old remains a fan favourite and a fighter the longtime UFC audience has a connection with.
Provided he’s successful, all these elements could combine to expedite Sanchez’ second climb up the lightweight rankings, and help him find a place in the top 10 before the year is out.