Since he made his first appearance on The Ultimate Fighter more than 12 years ago, Diego Sanchez has been one of the most beloved competitors in the organization.
Combining a quirky personality with a ferociously competitive style, Sanchez was in many ways the embodiment of what fans expected from mixed martial artists.
And for a time, he was among the sport's best. He started his career with 17 straight wins and eventually challenged for the UFC lightweight title, losing to B.J. Penn in a bloody battle.
It was as close as he ever got to claiming UFC gold. Still, several Sanchez moments live on in UFC lore; his crushing defeat of Kenny Florian to become the first TUF winner, his gunfight with Gilbert Melendez and the "Yes" cartwheel.
Recent times have been leaner, however. Since the start of 2012, Sanchez has gone just 4-6.
Just as troubling: his legendary chin seems to be compromised. He's been knocked out in two of his last three fights as the career strikes against him pile up. According to MMAJunkie's Mike Bohn, going into his fight with Al Iaquinta on Saturday, Sanchez had absorbed 1,117 head strikes in his UFC career, third all-time behind Penn and Tito Ortiz.
That's not a stat you want to be a leader in, and the resulting damage he's incurred along with his recent results suggest it's time to consider an ending to a storied career.
For his part, Sanchez doesn't appear to be ready. Just a couple days after the Iaquinta fight, he posted on Instagram all but confirming a return.
Is it time for the UFC to step in? Joining me to discuss is Bleacher Report MMA lead writer Chad Dundas.
Mike Chiappetta: Chad, this is one of those conversations that no one wants to have, that is easy to avoid until it's far too late. It might already be too late, I fear. Yes, MMA is a sport in which the risks of damage exist from the beginning, but as we have all seen, the ability to absorb a strike diminishes over the years.
Not only has Sanchez been hit an extraordinary number of times during his career as Mike Bohn points out, but those strikes have come from some crushers. Penn, Jake Ellenberger, Melendez, Takanori Gomi and now Iaquinta.
There has to be a point of diminishing returns, where the potential glory and riches are no longer worth the risks. Sanchez has probably reached it.
To be sure, this kind of outsider perspective says more about the person offering it than the subject. To me, it has become uncomfortable to watch Sanchez, and it's a function of his style as much as the results.
According to FightMetric, Sanchez has only landed 36 percent of his career strikes. By contrast, his opponents have landed 43 percent. During the course of one fight, a seven percent swing is not huge; over the course of a career, it's enormous.
To put that lack of accuracy into context, he has only outlanded an opponent in significant strikes in one of his last 11 fights. That's not a simple trend, it's an expectation at this point.
And in this day and age of improving skill sets, how is that a winning future formula?
That's not to say Sanchez can't win fights. He still fights with an intensity that can overwhelm someone who isn't up to the task. He still has his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt to draw upon on the ground. He still has that Lionheart.
And in the end, that's part of the problem with telling Sanchez it might be time. For someone who has basically embodied competitive spirit throughout his career, asking him to abandon that must be something like asking him to surrender a limb.
In the past, the UFC has broached these kinds of difficult conversations, much to their credit. But this is a different era, and a different management team, and their approach is yet to be seen.
Chad, how do you think they handle it, and how do you think they should handle it?
Chad Dundas: It certainly wouldn't be unprecedented for UFC brass to step in and tell Sanchez he's already given enough of his life to this sport. Remember, company president Dana White essentially shuttled Chuck Liddell into retirement in 2010, after the once-ferocious former light heavyweight champion had gone 1-5 and suffered four knockout losses over the course of roughly three years.
White and Liddell share a special bond, obviously. The two have always been close friends and "The Iceman" was one of White's managerial clients in the days before he became UFC boss. I'd like to think the UFC and Sanchez share a similar relationship, considering his own 26 fights in the Octagon since 2005.
But we're living in a new era now, Mike. The enticements the UFC used to use to talk longtime fan favorites into walking away before things got truly ugly just don't exist anymore.
Since WME-IMG took over the UFC last July, the company has been in very public fat-trimming mode. The cushy front-office jobs the fight company used to use to entice people like Liddell and former welterweight champ Matt Hughes into hanging up the gloves were among the first on the chopping block when the new owners started hunting for savings.
In addition to that, we're dealing with an altogether different marketplace today. The success of Bellator MMA's senior circuit and the emergence of more circus-minded promotions like Rizin Fight Federation give aging fighters expanded options these days, for better and worse.
So, even if the UFC did step in and declare that it won't give Sanchez the opportunity to suffer further physical trauma, you can bet there would be somebody willing to pay him to keep fighting.
Case in point: Both Liddell and Hughes are currently hinting at comebacks in organizations outside the UFC.
Perhaps this seems like an obvious point, but now more than ever the impetus for retirement has to come from the fighters themselves, not any external forces.
To date, Sanchez has given zero indication he's feeling that pull. That hardly makes him unique in MMA history, but to me it does raise some vexing questions.
Mike, do you think there should be better plans in place to make retirement seem like a more viable option for older fighters? Pension plans? Lifelong health insurance? Organizations to aid in the transition?
Is there anything we can do so these veterans don't want to fight too long?
Mike: The very thing that wires these men and women to want to fight in the first place is the biggest problem here, even more so than money.
As we know, most of them make very little during their careers, particularly when you factor in risk versus reward. Instead, fighting is a kind of personal quest in finding their best selves. Some people climb mountains, others run marathons or jump out of airplanes. To the vast majority of us, those seem like risky and painful ways to pass time. To others, it is as natural as a heartbeat.
Sanchez is an outlier, even to that group. He is probably the most competitive, most ferocious fighter the UFC has ever seen, and so I understand his perspective when he views his recent struggles in that prism rather than that of the average Joe watching at home, working a 9-5 to pay the bills. He has as much trouble grasping our worldview as we do grasping his. We're almost two different kinds of humans.
At some point, Sanchez will be able to look at himself more objectively, but while he's in the moment, and what he feels is still the midst of his career, that's somewhat impossible.
It's hard to blame him. Imagine if you had something you love to do more than anything in the world, something you're good enough at to make money and earn a spotlight while doing it, and the world tells you that at 35 years old, you can never do it again. Would your first instinct be to agree with them? To entertain that possibility?
Few would, and that's why having some kind of financial parachute isn't the solution. Don't get me wrong: it would be wonderful and just if the UFC offered pensions to veteran fighters like Sanchez who gave so much of themselves to the promotion, but that's not a solution to the problem of getting fighters out of the sport before it's too late.
Even in sports like baseball and basketball, where athletes bank millions and have generous pensions, they have trouble walking away when the sport tells them their time is up. Most are eventually forced out the hard way after their sport informs them they simply have no further value.
The difference, of course, is that in MMA, the stakes are much higher. We have these conversations because we appreciate the contributions that fighters like Sanchez make, and fear that he might give too much, more than he can ever get back.
Chad, who is ultimately responsible for offering the fighter the candid feedback he needs to make such a decision: is it his coaches, his family, or the promotion? And how do fans play into this? In the day and age of social media, fans have a voice. Just the way they offer praise in times of success, do they owe fighters more honest assessments in times like these?
Chad: Probably all of the above—and I hope in the case of somebody like Diego Sanchez, he can understand those assessments come from a place of love.
Most everyone I know in this industry likes Sanchez, both as an athlete and on a personal level, and any handwringing over his future as a professional fighter comes because nobody wants to see bad things happen to him.
I've only interviewed the guy a few times, but once was for a magazine career retrospective on him, so it was pretty extensive. For that story, I also interviewed Sanchez's wife, Bernadette, and a handful of his coaches. Here's the thing: They're all lovely, perfectly normal people. Sanchez himself is personable, insightful and honest to a fault. I came away from our interactions feeling like he was one of the sport's true good guys.
One of the things he's got going for him is that he's surrounded by a terrific support system. Bernadette Sanchez has known Diego since high school. The coaches at his longtime training home of the Jackson-Winkeljohn fight team are among the most cerebral and respected professionals in the sport.
Despite the fact Sanchez and his trainers have been through at least one high-profile falling out during his career, I can't really think of a better group of people to have watching out for you. Hopefully all those people can have some frank conversations with the guy in the coming weeks, when the sting of this loss to Iaquinta isn't quite so fresh.
But, ultimately, you're right, Mike. These decisions always come down to the individual fighters. They are difficult, maybe even heart-rending for people who've never really known any other life.
Diego Sanchez has been a UFC fighter since he was 23 years old and made his professional debut at age 20.
He's 35 now and the last active contestant from the landmark inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter.
From the outside looking in, it's easy to see his accomplishments and say he's got nothing left to prove in this sport. But I also understand that it may be impossible for him to see it that way.
I also understand that money, fame, fear and familiarity always complicate these things.
No matter how you or I may feel about watching Sanchez continue to ply his trade, he's welcome to do it as long as he has the desire and can find someone wiling to pay him to do it. Something tells me that's going to go on for a bit.
There's nothing the rest of us can do about it but continue to hope for the best.