Diego Sanchez is perhaps the UFC’s pound-for-pound most likable fighter.
At least in interview settings, the first-ever The Ultimate Fighter winner comes across as one of MMA’s true nice guys. He’s thoughtful and honest—forthcoming to a fault—with a gentle demeanor that belies the ferocious, swing-from-the-heels style that has made him one of the company’s most popular and dependably exciting attractions.
When he takes on undefeated up-and-comer Myles Jury on Saturday at UFC 171, it’ll be his 20th appearance in the Octagon and fight No. 31 of his career overall.
He’ll do it as one of just three members of that original TUF cast who remain active. Even as fellow TUF 1 alumnus Chris Leben hung up his gloves in January and TUF 6 winner Mac Danzig called it quits last week, Sanchez appears to have no intention of slowing down.
Maybe that’s what worries us a little bit.
“I’m going in there headstrong,” Sanchez said on Tuesday of his fight with Jury, via MMA Junkie's Ben Fowlkes. “I believe I’m better than I’ve ever been in my career.”
That he is one of the last men standing from TUF 1 should surprise no one. Since winning the show’s inaugural season a bit less than nine years ago, his life has been an open book to fight fans.
We’ve witnessed his triumphs and his heartbreaks both in and out of the cage as he grew from 23-year-old prospect to steady veteran. Though he’s been through some personal calamity and has been slowed by injury in recent years, he’s remained the consummate fighter.
Six times during his last nine appearances, he’s won Fight of the Night bonuses. Two of those were eventually honored as the best fights of the year, and in his last bout—a slobberknocker loss against Gilbert Melendez—he reaffirmed that he can still throw down with the UFC’s top lightweights.
His never-say-die attitude has made him a thrilling talent to watch in the Octagon, earned him a lot of money and won him a vast legion of fans. It's also subjected him to large amounts of damage, raising more and more concerns about his future health the longer he carries on.
If you read his recent comments about the Melendez fight and don’t feel a little concerned for him, you may want to drive directly to the ER and undergo some tests to confirm you have a heart.
“Hell no,” Sanchez said, when Fowlkes asked him if he thinks fights like the Melendez brawl take a toll on him. “Hell no, that s--t don’t take no toll on me, that just makes me better. That’s just experience, that’s being under the bright lights. That’s learning to find who you are as a true warrior, learning to find that true warrior spirit within.”
It's exactly that attitude that we love about Sanchez, but it also spikes our fears.
This is a natural consequence of using a reality show as a marketing tool for professional fighters: We become attached to them on a personal level. Especially concerning the star-studded cast of the first The Ultimate Fighter, UFC fans have built strong emotional connections to the personalities they saw on the show.
Frankly, we feel like we know these guys—even though we really don’t. We like and respect them and don't want to see anything bad happen to them.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s painful to see a proud fighter like Leben struggle during the early days of his retirement. That’s why it stings to see Mike Swick hampered by injuries or Josh Koscheck saddled with an uncertain future after three consecutive losses.
And it’s why the prospect of Sanchez fighting Jury this weekend tugs at our heartstrings. He’ll come in as a slight underdog, according to BestFightOdds.com, but this seems like a winnable fight for him against a comparatively inexperienced opponent who has never fought someone of Sanchez’s caliber.
With losses in two of his last three, this is a must-win. At the same time, it’s unclear where a victory over Jury leaves Sanchez, except right back in the mix fighting the world’s toughest guys for a future shot at the UFC lightweight title.
That’s what he wants, and we will support him in it, because we like Sanchez and want the best for him. We want him to capture his dreams.
We just want him to be OK when it’s all over.