Sometime in late 2004, after the filming of the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” was completed but before it aired, Diego Sanchez ate breakfast with a reporter at a Las Vegas restaurant.
Sanchez was the same quirky, friendly, charming and easily influenced guy as a nearly 23-year-old that fans would come to know and love during an epic UFC career that put him in the Top 10 in promotion history in both wins and fights.
His career came to an ignominious end on Tuesday when the UFC released him from his contract and left him free to sign with another promotion. Sanchez, who told Yahoo Sports he plans to continue his fight career, deserved much better.
He deserved to walk down the aisle to the roars of the crowd, thanking him for the many great fights he had over a 16-year-plus career. This is a guy who in 32 UFC bouts won Fight of the Night seven times and Performance of the Night once. In a full 25 percent of his matches, Sanchez was honored for his incredible work in the cage.
Instead of him hearing the roars from the crowd and waving appreciatively to the fans who turned him into a star, his career ended antiseptically and coldly with an email advising him that he’d been cut.
The UFC had grave concerns about his trainer, Joshua Fabia, and some of the techniques he’d employed. Fabia also manages Sanchez and requested Sanchez’s full medical history from the UFC that ultimately led to Sanchez being cut.
Sanchez began his career 11-0. He fought on Season 1 of TUF and won the middleweight title in bouts that — except for the finale — were considered exhibitions. He was 19-13 in the UFC, but was 1-2 in his last three under Fabia’s guidance and would have been 0-3 had Michel Pereira not been disqualified for an illegal knee in a February 2020, bout.
Sanchez, 39, isn’t nearly the fighter he once was. There are only so many hits a body can take, and Sanchez has taken more than his fair share. Fabia said he was trying to improve Sanchez’s defense, and told Yahoo Sports during an hour-long interview that included Sanchez that was why he worked knife training with him.
“There are some ancient remembrances, an echo of time of how much humans have killed other humans with swords, knives and metal that our organs are sensitive to it,” Fabia said. “If you look, we have the footage of Diego with his eyes closed and he’s showing that as I move the knife around his body, he can feel it.”
On Friday, Sanchez released a recording he and Fabia made on April 9 of a telephone call they had with Hunter Campbell, the UFC’s chief business officer. Campbell had reached out to Fabia after a person in the UFC’s medical office said that Fabia had requested every medical record from Sanchez’s career.
Sanchez was scheduled to fight Donald Cerrone on May 8 in Las Vegas in his final UFC bout that UFC president Dana White said Sanchez begged him to hold.
Campbell said to Fabia, with Sanchez listening but not speaking, “You stated that the long-term effects of Diego being an MMA fighter were the basis of your request. I went through this with [former heavyweight fighter] Mark Hunt, and here’s the reality: If you’re concerned or he’s concerned that he’s having effects, then we’re not going to fight him and I’m going to pull the fight right now. We’ll release him and he can go do something else with his life because I’m not putting anyone in that cage that does not feel 100 percent or thinks they’re suffering from any medical issues.”
Fabia said he wanted the records so Sanchez would have them to show to doctors when he was examined once his career had ended. He said it was mainly injuries to his joints and muscles he was concerned about, and he assured Campbell he was OK.
Campbell then told Fabia right before the call ended that if Sanchez had issues even after his career ended, he could call matchmaker Sean Shelby and that White, Campbell and Shelby would make certain he was properly taken care of. Campbell then hung up, and it appears that Fabia and Sanchez are laughing to each other before the recording stops.
Sometime after that call, Sanchez got the required medical tests completed. Sanchez, Fabia and UFC executives all told Yahoo Sports that Sanchez passed those tests and was cleared to fight by the doctors.
Sanchez told Yahoo Sports on Friday, “I’m still very healthy. I’m 100 percent healthy and I passed all my medicals with flying colors. I’m looking to do something [in another promotion]. I’m looking to continue my legacy and see what it is like to compete in a real organization that is not pulling strings.”
Sanchez accused the UFC of conspiracies and expressed disappointment that he could not get a meeting with White. He said he couldn’t get fights he asked for, and specifically mentioned wanting to fight Demian Maia and Anthony Pettis. He complained that his warmup prior to his fight with Michael Chiesa at UFC 239 was ruined when members of the Nevada Athletic Commission entered his locker room and questioned him about a technique that Fabia had taught him.
The commission was concerned that Fabia had apparently told people he’d taught Sanchez a choke that, if properly applied, could leave Chiesa paralyzed or dead.
Fabia said he was unhappy with how Mark Smith, who officiated the match, delivered the normal pre-fight instructions to Sanchez in the locker room.
“When the ref comes in to tell me the rules, he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve been here before, blah, blah, blah,’ and then, as he’s about to leave, as fast as he can say it, he turns and says, ‘And if you don’t defend yourself within three seconds, I’ll have to call it,’ and he turns and starts beelining to the door,” Fabia said. “So I go, ‘No. No. No. No. That’s the rig, in and of itself right there. Holy s***. This dude told you to your face that in three seconds, he’s going to call it.’ I’m like, ‘What the [expletive] and I stop him before he gets to the door.
“I said, ‘OK. All good. But you should probably know that we have been doing something in sports that you would call a potentially dangerous move.’ You know, this is combat sports. I said, ‘You probably don’t know this technique, as it has not been done in MMA, but if it goes to a certain point, you need to call it in less than three seconds. Otherwise, that’s on you, ref.’ Remember, this was live on pay-per-views. You want to play games? OK.”
Sanchez said Fabia put Smith in the hold to demonstrate.
Shortly thereafter, a video Sanchez released on Instagram shows Bob Bennett, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission; Jeff Mullen, its assistant executive director; and referee Herb Dean return with Smith to talk to Fabia and Sanchez about the hold.
Bennett begins by saying, “We’re in the hurt business, no doubt about it.” But then someone asks for the camera to be turned off.
They questioned Sanchez to make certain he wasn’t intentionally going to try to injure Chiesa.
Sanchez lost the fight by unanimous decision and said the interruptions impeded his performance in the fight.
“It was huge. Huge,” Sanchez said when asked if the questioning negatively impacted his preparations. "This was a very important fight for me. It was the last fight of my contract, the original contract I signed with the UFC. I’m finally finishing this thing without having to re-sign for extra fights. So I’m thrilled about this. I’m in the zone. I’m in the zone, man. I’m in kill mode. I’m about to go out there and hurt this guy. I’m about to punch holes in his face. We didn’t do training in grappling for Chiesa; I was about to put the hands on him, put the elbows on him, put the knees on him, put the hurt on him the way I’d trained for.
“These guys came in and it felt terrible, I’ll tell you. I felt like a little b**** standing there. They cleared the room; they shut off the camera. Why do you have to shut off the camera? Now I’m standing there as I’m in fight mode, probably about 40 minutes before I’m about to fight. They’re interrupting my warmup process, and I have to b*** out to them because I’m afraid that they’re going to cancel the fight or maybe take my license.”
He lost his contract on Tuesday when Campbell emailed Sanchez’s attorney Charles Lakins and asked for affirmation from Sanchez in writing that Sanchez had no short-term or long-term issues plaguing him. This was after Sanchez had completed his medical testing and passed.
In an April 27 email to Lakins, Campbell wrote that the UFC would pay Sanchez his $155,000 show money, his $35,000 win bonus and the $21,000 he was due under the company’s athlete outfitting policy. Campbell also wrote that “… we would be more than happy to arrange for him, at our cost, to visit the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, here in Las Vegas, where he’ll have access to the very best neurological experts in the country.”
He went on to write, “… the health and safety of any athlete is our top priority, and we cannot ever risk, nor would we ever, promote a bout with a fighter that was unable to represent they are not experiencing any short-term or long-term medical issues.”
Lakins wrote that Sanchez is not a neurologist and hadn’t been seen by one and couldn’t make any representations about his neurologic condition. That prompted the UFC to release him.
Sanchez deserved better, of course. He spilled his blood for the company and deserved to be feted for all that he’d accomplished and the many great bouts he took part in.
But the UFC was absolutely correct in not allowing someone who refused to verify he was fully healthy and not suffering from any ailments, physical or mental, to compete in a fight.
No fighter has ever died in a UFC bout, and part of the reason for that is the UFC’s vigilance to medical issues.
White reiterated to Yahoo Sports his love and admiration for Sanchez, and said that Sanchez could always reach out to him for help if he needed it.
Sanchez called White fake and said he wasn’t able to schedule a meeting with him when he tried.
Hopefully, Sanchez and Fabia will reconsider their plan for Sanchez to continue fighting and opt to take his life in another direction. He’ll be 40 at the end of this year and rarely do good things happen to people who fight professionally in their 40s.
Sanchez should have been celebrated and praised as he ended his career, and not left posting recordings of secretly taped phone calls and videos.
Sanchez was one of a kind throughout his career and, even in the twilight, he remains a little different than everyone else.
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