On first glance Diego “The Nightmare” Sanchez might be the young man down the street who once tried to sell carpet cleaning to the other neighbors.
Even when he talks, it’s in a non-threatening, almost school-boyish tone.
Things change, however, inside the octagon.
Since making his debut on the very first Ultimate Fighter reality show, Sanchez has racked up victories and established his name as one of the premier mixed martial arts fighters in the world.
The New Mexico native visited Los Angeles recently to pump up interest for his next fight against Luigi Fioravanti (12-3) at the Ultimate Fighter finale held at the Pearl in Las Vegas on June 21. It will be televised on Spike TV.
It was 2005 when Sanchez (18-2) was chosen to participate in the newly conceived MMA reality TV show. More than a dozen fighters took part in the process, including the Albuquerque grappler.
“I have many memories of that show. It was a life-changing experience,” Sanchez says, smiling. “It was fun and it was hell at the same time.”
During the first season on January 2005, there were two weight classes represented: the middleweights at 185 pounds and the light-heavyweights at 205 pounds. Sixteen guys lived together in Las Vegas on the first of the very popular series.
“At times it was not fun. Living with a bunch of fighters and all that testosterone in one house with no TV, no radio, no nothing,” remembers Sanchez, 26. “Different personalities just didn’t go well with each other.”
In the beginning, Sanchez met a few guys he quickly dismissed, but later learned his first evaluation was incorrect.
“My favorite person at the end of the show was Stephan Bonnar. But in the beginning we didn’t like each other. We almost wanted to fight each other,” Sanchez explained. “But he was the one that was the most down-to-earth, and Kenny Florian was cool, too.”
Several years have passed since that first series when a bunch of MMA fighters were unleashed on each other and revealed to the world. Most remarkable is the talent that emanated from that first grouping.
“All of the guys on the show ended up being big-time fighters with the exception of two or three guys,” Sanchez says. “But they were all good fighters.”
On that same series were Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Josh Rafferty, Chris Sanford, Alex Karalexis, Chris Leben, Nathan Quarry, Jason Thacker, Lodune Sincaid, Mike Swick, Stephan Bonnar, Alex Schoenauer, Sam Hoger, Bobby Southworth, and Forrest Griffin. The team captains were Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and Randy Couture.
Griffin is captaining one of the teams on this season’s The Ultimate Fighter against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s team. The finale will pit the representatives of each team in the middleweight division.
The seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter has revealed several very good middleweights to the world, including the semifinalists, Amir Sadollah, Jesse Taylor, Tim Credeur and C.B. Dolloway. The finalists will be determined on Wednesday night’s show, shown on SpikeTV.
The final takes place on June 21 at the Pearl, located inside the Palms Casino.
Sanchez hopes the fight continues his personal rebound. Sanchez began his career by winning 17 straight fights, including wins over established stars like Kenny Florian, Nick Diaz, and Karo Parisyan. But he hit a career low-point when he lost both of his fights in 2007 -- one to Josh Koscheck, another to Jon Fitch, both by decision. But he returned to his winning ways by defeating David Bielkheden via TKO at UFC 82. He has his hands full with Fioravanti.
“My opponent is really good standing up and on the ground,” said Sanchez, who now lives in San Diego.
The transplanted New Mexico fighter is tutored by Brazil’s Saulo Ribeiro at the University of Jiu Jitsu in San Diego. It’s one more weapon to Sanchez’s arsenal.
“We don’t want to change the fighters,” said Ribeiro, whose school has been in San Diego for two years now. “We just want to add to what they already know.”
Sanchez believes that MMA continues to change rapidly, and despite knowledge of wrestling, boxing and various submission skills, he wants to stay on top of it.
“MMA is still a baby and it’s evolving,” Sanchez says. “The fighters are getting more diverse with their striking. It’s just becoming a more diverse sport.”
Video: MMA from NBC Sports
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