A couple weeks before his pro debut in June of 2002, Diego Sanchez went to a party with his cousin. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, he can admit now, but so what? He was 20 years old and had energy to spare. And it’s not like he was there to get crazy. Sure, he had one or two drinks, but nothing that would hinder a 20-year-old’s ability to show up at Greg Jackson’s Albuquerque-based fight gym in the morning. Everything was fine. Right up until the cops showed up.
"We weren’t drunk or anything, but we were underage and we’d had a couple of drinks, so we ran out the back door," Sanchez says. "We were jumping fences, just trying to get away."
Like a bad dream, Sanchez just happened to jump into a backyard with three large Rottweilers in it. The dogs immediately took off after Sanchez, who knew only that he needed to jump the next fence as soon as possible.
"What I didn’t realize was, the next fence that I jumped was like a 20-foot drop down to the ground. I felt like I was falling forever. I landed with my legs locked out. I had those Nike shoes with the air pockets, and when I landed one of the air pockets popped. That’s how hard I landed."
He didn’t get picked up by the cops that night, but by morning Sanchez had a deep bruise on his heel. He could barely walk or put any weight on that foot, and he certainly couldn’t run. Still, he knew that staying home from the gym was not an option.
"Back in the old school days at Greg Jackson’s, there was no not coming to practice if you were hurt," he says. "You went to practice no matter what. If your arm was hurt, we’d tie your arm to your body and you’d go with one arm. That’s just the way we did it. It was, take some ibuprofen and let’s train."
Even though he was limited in what he could do, Sanchez managed to finish up the last couple weeks of his training camp and nurse his heel almost back to full health.
What he didn’t do, however, was come clean with his coach about how he’d injured it. For obvious reasons, he didn’t want to tell Jackson that he’d been running first from the cops, and then from three Rottweilers after having some drinks at a party just before his first professional fight. Instead, he claimed that he’d fallen off a ladder while at work at the Doubletree hotel. It was a harmless lie, he reasoned, and one that kept the peace well enough to justify itself.
By the time fight night rolled around, the sore heel was the least of Sanchez’s concerns. He and some friends had made the seven-hour drive up to Denver for an event dubbed Ring of Fire 5: Predators. By the time they showed up at the Radisson North Graystone Castle, where the fights were being held, the nerves were starting to take their toll on Sanchez. He’d wrestled competitively and trained for around ten months in MMA, but he’d never done anything quite like this.
"I was extremely nervous," he says. "The only way I could think to get past the nervousness was to get crazy. I was extremely pumped up, like this is World War III. I was headbutting the wall before I went out there."
His opponent that night was a guy named (not the same Michael Johnson who currently fights in the UFC) who was also making his pro debut. They knew almost nothing about one another except for a vague idea of what gym the other trained out of, though it quickly became apparent that Johnson knew a little more about striking than Sanchez did.
"Right away, he hit me with a straight right hand. Just, boom! I’d been in street fights, and we did sparring, but we were mainly grapplers. My punches were more like uppercuts and hooks and overhands. I’d never really learned the straight right. This guy hit me with the cleanest straight right. Bang, right on the button, right on my nose. So flush that it cut my nose right on the bridge."
Sanchez recovered and managed a takedown, but Johnson reversed him and got in some good ground-and-pound before Sanchez regained top position. According to records on the internet, this is about where the fight ended, in the first round. But the way Sanchez remembers it, they scrapped back and forth in that opening frame, with his opponent likely getting the better of it, and then the round came to an end.
It was a good thing, too. Bloodied and sucking wind, Sanchez needed the break. Both the ringside doctor and his coach came in to check on the state of his nose, but Jackson assured the doctor that his fighter was fine and the man left convinced.
"After he’s gone Greg looks at me and says, ‘He got you with a good one, huh?’ We laughed, and then I remember saying to him, ‘Greg, am I sure this is what I want to do for a living?’"
It was a joke that had the sting of truth to it at that very moment. There he was, bleeding from his nose and with welts already swelling up about his face, trying to get enough of the thin Denver air to go out there and get some more punishment. Who did this? Who thought this was a good idea?
"At the same time I was like, well, I can’t let this guy kick my ass," Sanchez says.
In the second round they went at it some more, and again Sanchez got the takedown. This time he made the most of it, taking his opponent’s back and sinking in the rear-naked choke for the submission finish. He left the Radisson that night with a perfect 1-0 record as a professional.
"I remember I got paid $600 for that fight, and I went straight to the hospital. My bill was $486.24. I still remember it exactly. My friends drove up to see me fight, and they were all broke. I was the only one who had gas money, so I had to put gas in the car. I had maybe $40 by the time I got home."
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t terribly profitable, but it was, in Sanchez’s words, "a life-changer." After that first fight he felt certain he’d found his passion in life.
"I knew it. I loved it. I loved the feeling. It was such a rush, and it made it so much better that the guy had gotten some good shots on me. He hurt me and I had to come back. It was tough, and it made it that much more rewarding for me. ...Now it’s ten years later, and I’m still doing it, still loving it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else."
Eventually, he even came clean to Jackson about how he’d injured his heel. It just took some time.
"It was about three years later, and I was already in the UFC. But I said, ‘Greg, I have to get something off my conscience,’" Sanchez says. "He just laughed. He probably knew all along. You can’t fool Greg."