UFC 171: Examining the Future of Diego Sanchez and the Issue of Fighter Safety

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

Oct 19, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Gilbert Melendez (red gloves) fights against Diego Sanchez (blue gloves) in their lightweight bout during UFC 166 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

Having lost comfortably to Myles Jury at UFC 171, the question facing Diego Sanchez is where should he go next?

Stick around in any sport for long enough and the competition will eventually surpass you. This fact is so well established that one might as well categorize it as law.

Has Sanchez really reached that point in his career? It’s difficult to say.

Unlike many fighters who compete past their primes, the original winner of The Ultimate Fighter remains somewhat competitive. His chin appears no less robust, his passion remains undiminished and his body continues to serve him relatively well.

However, it would be delusional to think that Sanchez can still challenge the sport’s elite. Should he be content to function as a gatekeeper for the younger generation?

The fan in me would love nothing more than to watch the former “Nightmare” compete in a series of barnburners for the next several years, yet my conscience leads me elsewhere. I have no desire to see any fighter reduced to a figurative punching bag for my entertainment.

I have no doubt some will argue that Sanchez is still good enough to hang around just outside of the lightweight division’s top 10, and I’m inclined to agree with them.

But how long do we expect that to last? One or two more years? It’s impossible to say, but I’m not entirely sure that it actually matters.

Must a fighter’s decline become glaringly obvious before our thoughts turn towards retirement? It has always struck me as odd that the cumulative effects of repeated concussions must manifest as an unconscious heap in the middle of the cage before health becomes our primary concern.

We know enough about brain injury to realise that its deficits may go unseen for years, remaining latent while damage continues to accumulate. If you haven’t already, I would recommend setting aside half an hour to read Scott Harris’ piece on the subject.

Even as I write this, it’s hard not to experience a certain amount of discomfort when speculating about the health of a fighter who isn’t in the midst of a serious career decline. That’s part of the problem, though.

It is taboo to even hint at retirement unless the fighter in question has been knocked out repeatedly in recent fights. Preventing the fighter from actually deteriorating to that point should be our priority.

In the case of Diego Sanchez, we must also consider his style of fighting. Throughout his career, the 32-year-old has habitually engaged in precisely the kind of career-shortening contests that lead to serious conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

It would be easy to brush off such concerns, particularly with Sanchez blaming a bout of food poisoning for his performance at UFC 171.

However, I saw no real indication that he was struggling physically against Jury. What I saw was a fighter past his prime being outclassed by a talented young prospect.

Ultimately, the question of when to retire lies with the fighter. We can respect that while discussing the issue of fighter safety honestly.

Sanchez may very well be able to compete safely and justify his spot on the roster, but that shouldn’t prevent us from questioning the wisdom of that choice.