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Orlando's Magic

At age 26, Orlando Sanchez was an overweight junkie. Seven years later, he is the No. 1 training partner for the UFC heavyweight king -- and ready to make a whole lot of noise inside the cage.

Photo via Orlando Sanchez

The world met Orlando Sanchez in exactly the way it should have. On the mats. Scrambling. Overwhelming. Devouring another lamb led to slaughter. It was late 2014, and with the UFC Embedded cameras in tow, Fabricio Werdum surveyed the Mexican National BJJ Tournament from afar, barking out instructions to an unlikely little brother whose nickname -- "The Cuban Tree Stump" -- managed to both capture and sell short the immense physical gifts of the monster owning the canvas. Things reached an end seconds later, the same way things always tend to reach an end. Werdum, grinning. Sanchez, one arm held aloft in victory.

Call it a precursor of good days to come.

Sanchez hauled his perfect MMA record to 5-0-1 the following spring, pummeling a Nicaraguan giant into a gory pulp far from the gaze of those UFC cameras. Four months later, as a +970 underdog, Sanchez became the first American ultra-heavyweight in a decade to win gold at the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships -- the elite, invitation-only tournament which pits the apex predators of the grappling world at one another's throats. It is the same title which Werdum won twice before, and that same goofy grin stretched across the UFC champion's face as Sanchez raised his trophy skyward, victorious at the highest level of the game.

That all of this happened so quickly is beside the point. That Sanchez reached the summit a mere seven years after stumbling into jiu-jitsu is a nice postscript to the story, but the real marvel is that it had the chance to happen at all. Because at an age when most athletes enter their physical prime, the No. 1 training partner for the best heavyweight in the world was lost, his heart on the verge of caving into his chest, a morbidly obese drug addict staring into the mirror and wondering through his haze whether life would survive the night.

"I had accepted death," Sanchez says. "That was it. ‘I'm 26 years old and I'm about to die.' That day, I said to myself: if I can make it through this night, I have to change something in my life. I have to do something."


Once, Sanchez had been somebody.

A first generation American, the youngest son of a Cuban father and Costa Rican mother, Sanchez found sanctuary in athletics from the start. Blessed with unnatural quickness for a big-man, he blossomed as a 260-pound nose guard in high school, playing his way into a scholarship at nearby Azusa Pacific University. Freed from the tedium of small town life, college became a blur. Then Sanchez tried cocaine during an out-of-state trip and fell in love. The adrenaline and the chemistry, it was everything he never knew he wanted.

Like most of his teammates, Sanchez's dream of playing professional football died senior year. The NFL is seldom keen on employing 5-foot-9 defensive linemen, and the realization of so many wasted days ripped the bottom out of an already tenuous lifeboat keeping Sanchez's world afloat. "I'd devoted 15 years of my life to playing this sport," he says. "The only reason I went to college at the time was to play football. That dream of making it to the NFL. Then you wake up and realize you're not going to make it, and it was a big... well, what the f*ck am I going to do now?"

Sanchez was adrift, but the pull of the chemistry remained the same. Within months of graduating, he became a full-blown addict.

"I had no desire for anything else but cocaine," he says. "At my highest point, I was probably doing about an ounce of cocaine a day, which is like $1,000." To supply his habit, Sanchez began dealing. His weight ballooned up to 360 pounds and the memories of certain parts of his days became forever lost to his fog. This went on for six years. "All I was doing was f*cking eating, doing steroids, drinking alcohol, and snorting cocaine. That was it. That was my early twenties.

"When you're so high, you don't give a f*ck. When you're living that kind of life, and your brain is so fried off cocaine, you have no clue what's happening. You have no clue what's going on. You kind of have this invincibility, man. You're kind of like, well, it's never going to happen to me. Nothing is ever going to happen to me. I was at such a low that I had no idea where I was. I had no idea what the f*ck I was doing. ... Once you're at that rock bottom, once you're at that kind of place, man, you don't care anymore. The risky situations, it just becomes an average day."

'Once you're at that rock bottom, once you're at that kind of place, you don't care anymore. The risky situations just become an average day.'

The night Sanchez knew he lost himself, he was alone and deeply depressed, melting on the bed of his studio apartment in Pasadena, a pain in his chest searing a hole right through his heart. He was high. The face staring back in the mirror was unfamiliar. And he thought he was having a heart attack. "I thought I was going to die," he says. "That night -- it was a f*cking night, I remember it like it was yesterday -- I told myself, looking in the mirror, I said: man, if I get up tomorrow, I have to change my life. That's when I made a decision."

The next day, bloated and strung out, Sanchez told a friend of his desperation to find a new outlet. His friend asked if Sanchez wanted to try hitting a few mitts. Sanchez barely lasted 10 seconds before getting winded, a long way removed from the athletic freak of Azusa Pacific University, but he enjoyed the challenge. He began occasionally training Muay Thai at Sityodtong in Pasadena. Sanchez was so overweight that they couldn't find shorts to fit him, so he cut up a pair of sweatpants. It was embarrassing but it worked. And besides, it was his fault anyway.

Sanchez's life may well have stayed along that uneasy path if not for the day a skinny jiu-jitsu black belt wandered into Sityodtong issuing challenges to any comers. Sanchez understood no notion of jiu-jitsu, but he understood math enough to know that 300 pounds is far greater than 160.

Anyone who has ever stepped foot in a gym already knows where this is going.

Sanchez rolled, and Sanchez got destroyed.

"He f*cked me up so bad. I mean, he f*cked me up," Sanchez says. "Choked me out. Popped my elbows. Twisted everything. And that day, I could not get enough. I was like, what the f*ck is this?

"It was that life or death feeling. That high we chase. That high that I chased as a drug addict. That, ‘man, if I don't tap out, I'm going to get my arm broken or I'm going to sleep.' It was that living in a moment, that sh*t's about to go down right now feeling that got me hooked. You have to be so on-point or your f*cking arm is going to break. That's a dopamine rush. It's the fix that addicts look for."

That night, Sanchez dedicated himself to learning the art of jiu-jitsu. He became obsessed. He won his first tournament within three months. He earned his blue belt within six. He submitted his first black belt within the year. He earned his own black belt after just four years on the mats, becoming one of the fastest Americans to achieve that rank since BJ Penn did it in three.

Along the way, he received an invitation to drive down to Kings MMA for pro sparring practice. Werdum had just beaten the legendary Fedor Emelianenko, and within seconds of the first session, Werdum downed Sanchez with a swift kick to the head. "He came back at me crazy," Werdum says, laughing. "He tried to kill me."

That was enough. Sanchez was sold.

"After practice, (Kings MMA head trainer) Rafael Cordeiro came up to me," Sanchez remembers. "He put his hand around me and said, ‘man, I can teach you all the techniques, but I can't teach you heart. You have heart.' He invited me in to be there. I've been with him ever since."

Fabricio Werdum

(Photo via Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)


Sanchez won't pretend the road to normalcy has been perfect. Both Werdum and Cordeiro insist a piece of Werdum's UFC heavyweight title belongs to Sanchez, but there were relapses along the way. Instances where Sanchez's addict brain got the best of him. Sanchez isn't proud of them, but he is honest with himself that his fight will never truly be won. For the past five years, he has gone to weekly therapy. He is preparing a TED talk on the lessons he has learned and also plans to start a foundation called Champions In Life, which will help individuals battling the same issues.

"The thing is, there's people who are just addicts," he says. "Not even drug addicts. Who are addicts. Sex addicts. Food addicts. Anything. The cocaine, the drugs, the sex, the food, whatever you're doing, that's a symptom of the addictive brain. My brain chemistry is different than the normal person. All of these guys who die from it, we are not like your normal society. There are plenty of people out there who can do some cocaine and then walk away from it. But when you're wired to a certain degree, when you're wired as an addict, and you realize that -- I'll be an addict until the day I die. I'll always have to cope with that.

"Now it's about reaching out to people who are suffering, people who don't know why the hell they're doing what they are doing. There are so many times that I was getting high and doing things, I didn't know why I was. That's what I really started getting out of my therapy. Why am I doing this?"

Sanchez is 34 years old these days, a loving husband and father who owns a pair of jiu-jitsu schools in California, including a new branch in his old hometown La Cañada. Another dream crossed off the bucket list.

His goal now is to reach the UFC. And in truth, he is close. Perhaps one fight away in a heavyweight division starved for new talent. While he may have begun his fighting career late in life, the mileage on Sanchez's body is slight, his grappling credentials pale only in comparison to Werdum's, and five years spent sparring and traveling alongside the best heavyweight in the world have given him supreme confidence in his belief that he belongs.

'I'll be an addict until the day I die. I'll always have to cope with that.'

Plus, when has age been a problem in a division filled with middle-aged men?

"I can't wait for him to get the opportunity to show how good he is," Werdum says. "He's just waiting for the opportunity. That's all, because he's ready for this. He's at the UFC level.

"Always, when I need help, he's there. All the time, he beats me in training. On the ground, he's amazing. His stand-up is good now, too. It's much better. And I know, Orlando, once I beat him in training, that's when I'm ready for the fight."

This past week, Sanchez posted a picture to his Instagram page. On it: an overweight, recovering addict overcome with emotion after winning his first major white belt tournament. It was the moment Sanchez realized what he truly wanted in order to be happy. The beginning of a new life, he calls it. He isn't sure what prompted the post, but he often finds himself reflective these days, so far removed from the stranger he once was.

"I'm most proud of asking for help," Sanchez says. "I'm most proud of being man enough to admit that I'm f*cked up. That I needed help, and I needed to get help and therapy. ... People don't talk about things. People don't talk about feelings. People don't talk about emotions. Men don't talk about vulnerability. No one does. People don't like these confrontations, they don't like to talk about hard issues.

"As a man, all we're supposed to do is f*cking be tough, be strong. Don't cry. Don't be bitch. So a lot of men are afraid to say, ‘man, I feel like sh*t. I'm depressed. I want to cry. I need to talk to somebody. I need to tell you about my feelings.' Most men don't like to do that anymore because society told them that they'll get shut down. You have to be able to talk to people, man. If you hold it in, you hold in secrecy, you hold in all that stuff, you're going to die.

"That's everything to me. Being the voice. Letting people know that it's okay. It's okay if you hurt, if you feel sad or depressed. It's okay to talk. It's okay to be open about things. It's okay to go look for people to talk to. It's okay to talk to therapists. That doesn't make you a bad person. It's okay to f*ck up. We're all human, man, Nobody is perfect. But the more that we can support each other and help each other progress through addictions and mental health problems, the better we become as a society."

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