For four minutes, 30 seconds on Saturday in Mexico City, our worst suspicions about Diego Sanchez’s fighting future seemed confirmed.
Sanchez spent nearly the entire first round of his co-main event bout at The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America 3 Finale a step behind UFC newcomer Marcin Held. The veteran looked plodding and stiff, unable to catch up with Held’s quicker, crisper punches.
When Held caught him in a standing guillotine choke near the end of the opening stanza, it appeared Sanchez was about to suffer the first submission loss of his storied UFC career. But then he backpedaled miraculously up the fence, squirmed out of the choke and flung Held violently toward referee Mario Yamasaki.
Suddenly—somehow, some way—The Nightmare had arrived.
During the bout’s final 10 minutes, Sanchez subjected Held to an old-school clinic. He outworked the highly touted 24-year-old prospect, punishing him with ground-and-pound and grinding him into exhaustion en route to a unanimous-decision win (29-28, 29-28, 29-27).
Eleven years and 25 fights after becoming the first man to be dubbed "The Ultimate Fighter," Sanchez proved he still has some new tricks ups his sleeve. Even as he winds toward retirement, he still blazes his own trail on the UFC’s wild side.
“It feels good,” Sanchez told play-by-plan announcer Jon Anik in the cage when it was over. “I’m my worst critic, so I always want to give a better performance than I did.”
The critics will likely be fairly kind after this one, though it’s important to avoid cliches here. At 34 years old and as the last member of the inaugural The Ultimate Fighter cast still fighting in the UFC, Sanchez is probably not “back.” He’s not as good as ever. Despite his declarations to the contrary, he’s probably not going to make a run at the title.
But he’s also not completely finished. He hasn’t dipped as low as our darkest fears headed into this fight.
Sanchez is just 4-5 dating back to 2012 and has fought in three different weight classes while trying to reinvigorate himself in the UFC. If nothing else, this victory reminds us what he’s still capable of when he doesn’t totally chuck his game plan and turn every fight into a wild slugfest.
In recent years, Sanchez has become known as one of the UFC’s most game, if outlandish, brawlers. He’s had Fight of the Year-caliber slobberknockers with people like Gilbert Melendez, Martin Kampmann and Clay Guida. At times, he's adopted that style so enthusiastically that his willingness to go out on his shield will likely be the defining characteristic of his career once it’s over.
But the truth is, Sanchez has always been best not as a reckless slugger but as a relentless pressure fighter with superb ground-and-pound and some of the more underrated submission skills in the UFC.
In fact, it was that style—more focused but just as ruthless—that typified his early career when Sanchez won the middleweight tournament on the first season of TUF while sprinting to a 17-0 start.
It has always been the style of fighting that suits him best. When his boundless energy manifests itself into bursts of creativity—like that wall-walk choke escape—instead of simply thrusting him heedlessly into the teeth of his opponent’s attack, he can still be an effective fighter in the UFC’s most competitive division.
Held learned that the hard way Saturday.
The Polish submission expert came to the UFC after a modestly successful 14-fight run in Bellator. He lost to championship-level opponents Michael Chandler and Will Brooks (and also, weirdly, to Dave Jansen) but had been good enough to justify himself as one of the more exciting UFC debutants this year.
His first Octagon appearance opposite Sanchez was worthy enough to stand in as this well-regarded fight card’s co-main event, especially after a proposed bout between Kelvin Gastelum and Jorge Masvidal was scratched and Gastelum was rebooked against Donald Cerrone at UFC 205.
According to Odds Shark, Held entered as nearly a 3-to-1 favorite and was indeed thought to be a good possible candidate to force Sanchez to tap out for the first time. Things started well for Held, as he crafted a surprising advantage on the feet in the early going—even landing a cartwheel kick to the side of Sanchez’s head in the first round.
But the failure of Held’s guillotine-choke attempt just prior to the first break seemed to invigorate Sanchez. Long known for his bottomless cardio, he turned up the heat in the later rounds as Held wilted and occasionally even seemed to help Sanchez’s case by shooting for takedowns.
Regarded as a leglock specialist, Held appeared incapable of adjusting his own game plan once it was apparent Sanchez was too wily and flexible to succumb to one of the newcomer’s favorite techniques. Held also looked unprepared for the Mexico City altitude and wore down as Sanchez came on down the stretch.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible the veteran opponent, the altitude and the grueling fight were all too much for Held to handle in his UFC debut. The outgoing impression of him was as a fighter who needs more seasoning, though he’ll retain a modicum of prospect status moving forward.
In another exchange that felt telling in retrospect, Held ended a first-round striking combination by landing a glancing knee to Sanchez’s head. Instead of being stunned or in any way deterred by the blow, Sanchez merely backed up and waggled his finger at the UFC rookie as if to say, Don't you know how long I’ve been doing this?
Indeed, Sanchez’s superior wind and veteran savvy won the day. He finished the fight with Held on his back near the fence in front of Sanchez’s longtime cornermen from the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As Sanchez peppered Held with elbows and punches during the final seconds, small, satisfied grins began to spread across his coaches’ faces.
When the final horn sounded, Sanchez left Held drained and beaten on the canvas and being checked over by ringside medical staff.
The victor, meanwhile, walked to the center of the cage, raised his arms in victory and then pointed at his heart.
As a final statement, it was more classic Sanchez.