ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At the top of the Hill of Tears, the first Ultimate Fighter raised his hands in victory. A group of the top mixed martial artists in the world, athletes with nicknames like "The Karate Hottie" and "Big Rigg," raced to the top five times, simulating a five-round fight.
Each time, Diego Sanchez beat them to the summit, more than 9,000 feet above sea level.
"It's a mental exercise," head coach Greg Jackson says. "They were so exhausted. You can't move. When they feel that feeling in the fight, people will panic. But after you do it a bunch, it's not a big deal anymore. You're just normalizing suffering, so when they feel that feeling in a fight, they are just like 'Oh, we do that every week.'"
The fighters start at the bottom of a steep hill, high in the Sandia Mountains. Halfway up, Jackson lurks. Just as they begin to slow, lungs begging for air and muscles filling with acid, Jackson bursts onto the trail, chasing and cajoling them to the top.
"It's just a job," Jackson says once everyone has scrambled their way up. "We're warriors. It's our job to not break when we're tired. That's it. It's just a job. Some people go and do computers. Some people pick up trash. Your job is to push to the limits and not break."
At the peak, some fighters collapse. Others lose their lunch. Some barely make it at all.
Sanchez, well, Sanchez is different. At the top he shadow boxes—hard—or delivers long soliloquies filled with equal parts advice and anecdote.
"Tia," he yells to a young fighter struggling to make her way up the hill, catching his breath after each word. "If you want to get up this mountain, you say, 'My intention for this sprint is left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.' No emotion. When you start putting emotion into it, you're going to gas out way faster.
"There's nothing like it," Sanchez says. "No elevation mask. No strength and conditioning program. Nothing compares."
After the final sprint, there's time to relax and reminisce, as talk turns to other training camps and fights now just distant memories.
"Do you remember when I first met you, Diego?" Michelle Waterson, The Karate Hottie, asks. "You're like, 'Do you know who I am?' I was like 'I'm sorry, I don't.'
"And you were like 'You will soon.'"
Everyone laughs at that, both at the hubris of youth and the truth of it. Sanchez has written his name in MMA history in the years since. They both have.
"It was like 11 o'clock at night," Waterson continues, every word torture on her taxed lungs but the story worth the struggle. "And he's all, 'You guys wanna go for a run?'
"I said 'No! Who goes for a run at 11 o'clock at night?' He goes, 'Sometimes I like to pretend that monsters are chasing me.'"
Sanchez doesn't remember their first meeting, but he has a theory about his impromptu invitation.
"I probably just thought you were hot."
The ice bath that followed the run, at the University of New Mexico's athletic facilities, was far from hot.
The fighters gathered in what is essentially a hot tub filled with ice cubes, keeping the temperature a steady 54 degrees.
"Every moment," a University of New Mexico football coach tells me as the fighters slowly submerge themselves into the water, "is a misery."
"Recovery is such a big deal," Jackson says. "And it's especially important for fighters. Their inclination is to say 'F--k it.' Get up and go train—that's what they do. It takes discipline to say 'No' and accept the things you need to do to recover and have a great week. I see people do a hard workout and then have a terrible week. Because they didn't do the things they needed to do to get the inflammation down."
The old-school ice bath is one of many treatments the 35-year-old Sanchez uses to hold off Father Time. He has a chiropractor, an acupuncturist and a doctor who removes 30 milliliters of his blood, uses a centrifuge to isolate the platelets, and injects it back into his body.
When told about the "blood boy"—who transfused his young, healthy blood to rich tycoons in an episode of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley—Sanchez was immediately intrigued about real-life applications.
"That's pretty smart," he says. "Get some young blood in you. That's interesting. Anything that's legal and could help, I'd think about it. It's like getting an oil change."
Sanchez is a self-taught expert in many areas of natural healing, a proponent of the internet's leveling power and the ability to study an issue without being limited to mere books. Cryotherapy mixes with hot yoga in Sanchez's world, shots of alcohol replaced by gulps of turmeric and wheat grass. Acupuncture is everywhere, even to the head, all of it followed by pounding Alkaline water with pink Himalayan salts.
"All Diego is looking for is the edge, the new thing, and then he believes in it 100 percent," Jackson says. "Sometimes it's crazy. Sometimes you're like 'Nah, that's not gonna work.' But it doesn't matter because so much of it is just the power of belief."
After 20 minutes, the shivering athletes drag themselves out of the tub. Jackson, the first in, is also the last out. While everyone else hits the showers to warm up, Jackson prefers to live with the discomfort.
"That's my head coach," Sanchez whispers with awe. "A total badass."
When we part ways, Jackson immediately asks if he can turn the heat up in his truck. Way up. It's not that he wasn't cold. Of course he was. But he wasn't going to show any weakness in front of his team. It's why, after more than 15 years, he can still demand Sanchez's attention—and his respect.
The first time Sanchez stepped into Jackson's dojo, a 19-year-old former state wrestling champion, Jackson already knew he was special. Sure, Sanchez didn't have much formal training in hand-to-hand combat. But the streets had taught him he had a gift.
The first time Sanchez got in a real fight, he was in the fourth grade. Some kids in the mobile home park where he lived jumped him after he got the better of one of them.
"I remember an old lady saved me," Sanchez says. It was the last fight he'd lose for some time. That wasn't due to a lack of opportunities.
"There's a reason Albuquerque develops such great fighters," Jackson-Winkeljohn striking coach Brandon Gibson, a high school contemporary of Sanchez's, remembers. "It's almost culturally acceptable to be getting into fistfights on a weekly basis in this town.
"Diego was highly regarded and respected as a street fighter when we were in high school. Diego was one of those guys who would never back down. I remember one incident very vividly. We were in the parking lot of a pizza joint, and there was supposed to be like a rumble and everybody kind of backed down except for one guy. Diego went and handled that swiftly and decisively.
"Once he started building that reputation, he got that many more callouts from tougher guys, older guys, bigger guys. They always wanted to test themselves against Diego."
His fighting future was sealed during a party at New Mexico State University the year after he graduated high school. Someone was playing Nelly over and over again, and Sanchez went over and changed songs.
The song was the official jam of the football team. Star running back Walter Taylor, Sanchez remembers, took issue with his actions.
Looking to cool things off, Sanchez went outside to the patio. Nursing a beer, he shared a bit with a little dog who had joined him outside.
Mistake number two.
The dog, it turned out, also belonged to Taylor. Soon, surrounded by the running back and his offensive line, Sanchez knew trouble was imminent. He apologized and tried to make an exit only to be hit in the face with a Bud Lite, the bottle arcing high in the air and leaving Sanchez with a cut over his left eye.
It was too late to walk away.
"Those linemen were big. If they wanted to hold me down, they could hold me down," Sanchez says. "I started yelling 'one-on-one!' as loud as I could. One of my homies reached his hand in his waistband like he had a gun and screamed, 'If any of you jump in, I'm shooting all of you.' He's bluffing them so good, I was wondering if he had a gun too. He didn't, but he probably saved my life."
Taylor took off his shirt. "Muscles on muscles," Sanchez remembers. His giant gold chain was next. The delay gave Sanchez time to clear his head and devise what passed for a plan.
"I remember thinking about Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock," Sanchez says. "I knew he was bigger than me. I knew he was the starting running back, and running backs can take a hit. And he was strong, so I knew he probably gave a good hit himself. So, I said to myself, 'This has to be the best double-leg takedown of your life.'
Sanchez put his hands behind his back, daring the cocky football star to charge at him. What happened next felt like a movie, one with Sanchez as the star.
"I swear, it was like slow motion, like The Matrix. He charged at me, and his fist is coming. I lowered my level, shot in on him perfectly, and I wasn't letting go, bro. I lifted him up and I ran him, bro. Boom! Slammed him hard."
Taylor yielded after a couple of knees to the head and, once again, Sanchez tried to walk away. A sucker punch followed, and Sanchez only knows what happened next based on witness reports. He was in a blind rage and remembers coming back to his senses with each hand grasped like a vise onto Taylor's ears, pounding his head into the ground.
"I'm lucky I didn't kill the guy," Sanchez says. "Thank God he was a durable guy too. But I ruined his football season. I grabbed both of his ears and started shaking the blood that was pouring off my face onto his face. Then I started headbutting him.
"Everywhere I went, people whispered, 'Isn't that the guy who messed up Walter Taylor?' I was a legend after that."
While word of his prowess on the streets may have spread throughout Albuquerque, it was Spike TV that spread his name around the world.
Before The Ultimate Fighter, mixed martial arts was a fringe sport on the precipice of disaster. Afterward, it was a global behemoth, a little more than a decade away from a $4 billion valuation. Sanchez and his fellow reality television pioneers were a big part of that success.
The show made it clear that MMA was much more than bar fighting, requiring a diverse set of skills and extraordinary courage and will. It also revealed a sport full of interesting characters, with Sanchez, who would rush outside in a thunderstorm to be at one with nature's energy, among the most eccentric in a collection of delightful weirdos.
While Forrest Griffin's fight with Stephan Bonnar received the bulk of the attention after the show was over, Sanchez was actually the first "Ultimate Fighter" in UFC history, beating Kenny Florian in a fight he still calls his best-ever performance, mostly because of all he had to overcome.
"I was sparring with Dan Christison, a big heavyweight," Sanchez says. "I threw a leg kick and broke my fibula. Before the Florian training camp."
Sanchez told no one. Only Jackson and his chief sparring partner Keith Jardine knew. He walked with a cane and told anyone who asked about his limp that he had rolled his ankle. The smart move was going to a doctor, living to fight another day.
Sanchez never considered it.
"I didn't know what I was going to do, but I told Greg 'I'm not giving this fight to [reality show archrival Josh] Koscheck.' I didn't have to go to a doctor. I knew it was broken. Every day I taped it up. I couldn't do any cardio. The only training I did was in Keith Jardine's guard."
By fight night, six months after the reality show had wrapped, Sanchez was able to move around with ease again. The result, in his mind, was never in question.
"From the moment I walked out, I knew I was going to win," Sanchez says. "I was very calm; I put it all together and was one step ahead. It was so clean and so pure. I knew from rolling together during The Ultimate Fighter that his ground game was legit. I could tap him out, but he could tap me too. Most often it would be a stalemate. He had more knowledge than me, but I was the better wrestler. And I was a tough-ass son of a b---h."
The victory earned Sanchez a coveted "six figure" contract with the UFC. While that was a good thing on the surface, and a long way removed from the grueling hours he had been spending unloading boxes from sweltering UPS trailers in the New Mexico sun, the contract was a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it allowed Sanchez to pursue fighting as a job and not just a hobby. On the other, it locked him in for nine fights at what became an increasingly unappealing rate as the sport continued to grow and grow.
While his bank account didn't expand like he'd hoped, his celebrity continued to grow. Soon he was surrounded by an entourage, and New Mexico was just a blur in his rear-view mirror en route to California.
"At that time, there were a lot of voices in his ear," Jackson says. "What happens is these guys get to a certain level, and then all these people jump in to get on the bandwagon. Those people just start putting poison in the ears. I don't want to control anybody. I want them to be here because they want to be here."
While he still held fast to his dream of winning UFC gold, Sanchez was soon devoting just as much time and energy to his pursuit of sex, challenging himself to score with as many Hollywood models, ring-card girls and seemingly unattainable women. With fast women came a fast life, each fight followed by weeks of partying.
"My whole life was divided into two periods—in training camp and out," he says. "Training camp was super strict. No sex. No alcohol. No carbs. Out of training camp was all partying. I went from one extreme to another, for purity to the opposite."
In time, even without Jackson's guidance, even while sometimes going weeks without calling his parents at home, success came. A title fight against BJ Penn earned Sanchez $400,000, by far his biggest payday.
But that fight ended with both men covered in Sanchez's blood and Penn licking it off his gloves like a savage. While Penn pounded his chest, Sanchez found himself lost, his dream he was so certain was about to be realized shattered.
"All I wanted to do was just numb the pain of failure," he says. "Failure at your true heart's goal. Partying, drinking, girls, sex. Those are the addictions that I had. Those demons, they got me. I hit the rock bottom."
A lot of soul-searching followed. He remembers vividly bringing a beautiful model home for sex and feeling empty and alone when it was over. His life, he realized, wasn't sustainable the way he was living it.
That was when he lost everything.
Little by little, a member of his entourage was collecting the information he'd need to steal Sanchez's identity. He acquired credit card numbers, set up an eBay account, and eventually drained Sanchez of more than $150,000.
"I wanted to meet with a Mexican assassin to come over the border to San Diego, shank him," Sanchez says. "I could go to New York for the weekend. But, in the end, I realized God doesn't want that blood on my hands."
He returned to what he knew, a fight with a young British fighter named John Hathaway. But he was far from ready—if not physically, emotionally. The hard line he'd drawn between training and regular life was soon blurred by marijuana and alcohol.
"Even in camp I was drinking beers and smoking," he says. "I shouldn't have been in that fight. But I needed the money."
If the Penn loss was a wake-up call, after the Hathaway bout his eyes were wide-open. It was time to return to the gym where it had all begun.
"When you hit bottom that hard, you want to be around family," Sanchez says. "You need to find your roots."
Less than a month before his fight with Matt Brown on Saturday, Sanchez got the scare of a lifetime. A French grappler, new to Jackson-Winkeljohn's, snapped in a practice session and cold-cocked Sanchez.
He immediately turned to his longtime teammate Jardine for a damage assessment.
"It's pretty bad, bro," he was told.
The scar on his nose was still present more than a week later, but it was the damage you couldn't see that frightened the fighter more than a mere laceration.
"I felt a little cognitive decline; I felt my short-term memory was a little off," he says. "And that freaked me out. Because even after all my wars and all my battles, I'd never had that...I probably had a mild concussion."
In the past, an injury like that was considered the cost of doing business.
"We used to train where we would bang and spar all the time, and if you had what we call a boxer's headache, which is just a concussion, you'd just work through it," Jackson admits. "Now we spar hard once a week if that, and even 'hard' isn't like we used to do where you were basically trying to kill each other. People are a lot more aware."
The new Sanchez, a family man with a daughter and stepson, can no longer afford to ignore long-term health consequences. At the same time, losing a huge chunk of his yearly income a month before the holidays is also far from ideal.
"The level of anxiety and stress made it one of the most challenging weeks of my fight career," he says. "It was scary. I didn't know if I was going to have to pull out of this fight. I remember lying in bed worrying about telling my wife I was thinking about pulling out of the fight.
"Christmas is coming up and, financially, this is a fight we were planning on. But I was worried about a TBI [traumatic brain injury]. I had to rest and heal. I couldn't be hit again. The thought crossed my mind, 'What if I can just never be hit again?' Just having that thought come into your head—I was so angry. This guy did this to me!"
It was an odd feeling for Sanchez, whose positive energy is almost omnipresent. He fills any room he enters with it, talking a mile a minute, shifting into different voices as he tells stories, always onto the next self-improvement scheme.
"I wanted to go back to the streets like the old school and whip his ass," he admits. "I was so angry at this guy that I found myself thinking about getting him back. But one of my healer guys, he does my acupuncture, told me the only way I could get true healing was by letting it go. He believes that injuries are not just physical, they're emotional. So, I let it go. I had to be a leader and show the team the right way to do things and let it go. Move forward."
Brain health is a new passion of Sanchez's. In April, he was knocked unconscious for the first time in his career by the slugger Al Iaquinta. That, and a family history of dementia and Alzheimer's, created enough concern that he traveled to the Cerebrum Health Center in Dallas for a battery of tests to ensure his mind was still sharp.
The result has been a reinvention of his training, almost all sparring eliminated in favor of drilling and pad work. He also has a new set of toys, including a cryohelmet to treat his brain injury, and ocular exercises, including chasing a little red ball on a string to treat issues they identified with his peripheral vision.
Jonathan Snowden @JESnowden
A day in the life of @DiegoSanchezUFC https://t.co/i5egp6psvR2017-11-10 05:26:35
"The eyes are the brain," he says, a new mantra flowing easily from his tongue. "And the brains are the eyes."
The new plan seems almost impossible for the Sanchez who has taken home Fight of the Night honors seven times—don't get hit.
"After the Iaquinta fight, I want to minimize the chances of that ever happening again. I know people think I'm just the Diego Sanchez from the Gilbert Melendez fight," Sanchez says. "Hook, hook, hook. A crazy brawler.
"But I realized the best possible fighter would not get hit. He'd close the distance and minimize the chances of the lights going out. I want to fight as long as I can and be as healthy as I can."
Sanchez shares all of this at his favorite Mexican restaurant. The trip there was a harrowing, death-defying drive in his Audi, his phone streaming UFC's Fight Pass. He gave constant advice to teammates Jodie Esquibel and Donald Cerrone, though the fighters were in Poland and not, say, there in the car with us.
Sanchez orders something called "the Ultimate Burrito" and supplements it with a chicken Caesar salad. That's worth noting, if only because most fighters are scrupulously counting every calorie at this point of a training camp.
When he fought at 155 pounds, that would have been true of Sanchez as well. But the Brown fight will be contested at 170 pounds, allowing Sanchez to achieve the moderation he's seeking in his new life as a family man, as the guy who gets up early to take the kids to school.
"Fighting at 155 pounds for the last nine years has taken my drive, taken my passion, taken my love for what I do," he says. "All fight week I was not thrilled about what I was doing. And you should be thrilled. You should be mentally focused on your fight and what you're going to do to win. Not on 'Oh man, I have 10 more pounds to lose.'
"I'm going to war with a full stomach of brown rice, spinach, eggs, salmon. Whatever I want. While he's cutting weight and miserable, I'm eating good. I'm resting easy in my bed not thinking 'I wish I could have had dinner.' I'm going to have that dinner."
At one point, Sanchez even made the cut to 145 pounds for a bout with Ricardo Lamas. He was so dehydrated that he sometimes didn't recall where he was, going four whole days without food before finally stepping on the scale.
"He poured himself a huge cup of coffee," Gibson remembers. "And I said, 'Are you going to drink all that on an empty stomach?' He said 'Yeah, you're probably right,' and he poured me half.
"I drank it, but I though it tasted funny. He had magnesium powder in there, which is a laxative, and crushed black ants. He told me that crushed black ants take out all the BPHs [benign prostatic hyperplasia] from your body from drinking out of plastics. 'The plastics in your body are slowing you down, and you have to get rid of it.' He is a person of extremes."
Weight cutting has been Sanchez's bane for almost two decades. In high school, he cut down to 152 pounds, on a mission to beat the best wrestler in the state, his own Vision Quest. But the sacrifices required turned him off on the sport, and he decided not to pursue a college scholarship.
"In my wrestling days, bulimia was very, very prevalent," Sanchez confides. "It still is in today's MMA. It's an old demon that every once in a while tries to possess me again. I have been able to avoid it through proper nutrition and education. It's kind of a secret thing that is not really talked about. But I struggled with it. Not really as an eating disorder, because I love to eat, but because you have to make weight.
"I've seen some bad, bad cases. Throat injuries and all kinds of things. And the more you do it, the more serious hardcore consequences that can put you in the hospital. I've had to give some talks to some of the fighters. 'I see what is going on.' With cutting weight, it's a part of it. I'm telling you right now, almost every fighter has had their finger down their throat. To the 90th percentile."
Those worries don't exist at welterweight. Instead, Brown is his only concern, which is just the way Sanchez likes it. He knows he will be giving up size. It's a sacrifice he's willing to make in favor of speed, energy and mental health.
This fight is part of what he knows is the final stanza in the ballad of Diego Sanchez. He calls it his exit plan, and it includes goals like "paying off my mortgage" and not things like "impress fans with wild action." After 15 years as a professional, he has nothing left to prove.
"Prove? I'm not trying to prove nothing to you. I'm fighting because I'm a fighter. It's what I do. I worked my ass off to earn the ability to fight for some damn good money. At least it's damn good money to me.
"I'm making an honest living, I love what I'm doing, and I worked my ass off to get where I'm at. Ain't no fans, or anybody else's say so when I'm going to step away from the sport. Except my own."
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's senior combat sports writer and the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and The MMA Encyclopedia.