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Diego Sanchez recalls heart scare that led to his new nickname ‘Lionheart’

The evolution of Diego Sanchez’ nicknames has been an interesting story to follow in mixed martial arts, and recently things got more fascinating with his latest transition to “Lionheart”.

Sanchez, who's been competing professionally in MMA for 15 years, first burst into the mainstream MMA scene as “The Nightmare.” Under that nickname, Sanchez won the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and eventually worked his way to fight for the lightweight title in the UFC. Following his loss to then lightweight champion B.J. Penn, Sanchez returned to the welterweight division, where he changed his nickname to “The Dream” only to change it back to “The Nightmare” a few years later.

Today, Sanchez is no longer “The Nightmare” nor “The Dream”, as he now calls himself “Lionheart.” The story behind the latest transition in nicknames involves a heart scare, which Sanchez claims was caused by medical marijuana, in the lead-up to his lightweight fight with Al Iaquinta at UFC Fight Night 108 in Nashville, Tenn.

“I started the first week of training camp and I was training super hard,” Sanchez told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “It was a Friday and I already had wrestling practice in the morning, went around the mountain in midday, and I was like, ‘you know what, man. I feel good. I’m not that out of shape, so I’m going to do grappling tonight. I’m going to finish off this week hard, I’m going to crush it, and I’m going to go as hard as I can.’ I had a little bit of that Dan Gable mentality, but at the same time, Dan Gable was like 19 or 20 when he was doing all his wrestling, and you know, I’m 35.”

That day, Sanchez ended up going to the night class at JacksonWink where he was paired up with former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.

“We were grappling hard,” Sanchez explained. “The first five minutes we were going so hard, like it evolved from just grappling practice to then we were doing full on wrestling and grappling. Then it evolved into the next thing and we started throwing kicks, not to knock each other out or anything, but we were going hard, and then we started adding body slaps, and we were just having fun like two little kids. The first five-minute round ends and we were having so much fun that we decided to keep going and not stop during the break, while everybody else was stopping, we were still going.”

After the round with Jones, there was another break, but Sanchez decided to push himself and run sprints while everybody else was resting. Then, the 35-year-old fighter went against a wrestler from Dagestan, followed by another round with the gym manager, who’s a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That’s where things took an unexpected turn for Sanchez.

“I went for this like jumping armbar on him, and when I hit the ground, I felt something in my heart,” Sanchez said. “I was like, ‘what the hell,’ and I felt something inside my heart, and it wasn’t a muscular injury, it was something internal. I was like, ‘oh sh*t,’ but I didn’t want to make a scene, so I told [the gym manager], ‘I’m done for the week.’

Being one of the most experienced fighters in the UFC, Sanchez thought he could deal with his heart pain just like many of the injuries he’s dealt with before in the past. So, trying not to alarm anyone, Sanchez snuck out back of the gym and laid on the grass for 20 minutes while using yoga techniques to try to calm down and bring down his heart rate.

“I was like, ‘okay, alright, breathe, calm down, let’s just analyze this,’ but I just had the feeling that something was in there,” Sanchez said. “I knew I wasn’t having such a bad heart attack to where I had to be rushed to the hospital or I was going to die, but I had something going on in me, something had happened. But whatever happened, it was serious and I could feel something going on, and I was very, very terrified that if I got my heart rate back up, that I would, like, die or something."

That night, Sanchez chose not to go to the hospital and just went home instead, where he prayed and fasted for seven days, hoping his symptoms would go away. On the eighth day, and with the symptoms still persisting, Sanchez came to the conclusion that it was time to get his problem checked out at a hospital, but he made sure to have a final moment with God before making the visit. That’s when “Lionheart” was born.

“People will call me crazy for saying what I'm about to say, but it’s real, this really did happen to me, and this is how the ‘Lionheart’ came about,” Sanchez said. “I was in this state of fasting, in a career-ending situation, and I was being real with myself and God. I felt like God told me that my nickname should define me as a fighter, and even if the person is a believer or non-believer, they have the choice to believe whatever they want of this story. But me as a believer, I felt it was the Holy Spirit talking to me.

“I basically was like, ‘what defines me as a fighter? What truly defines me as a fighter?’ And I remember laying in bed, and I was so deep in my mind that a video was playing in my head of all my fights, and I was watching to see what defined me as a fighter. I remembered all the great, bloody, and dominant fights, but the ones that really defined me was [because of] my heart, my corazon.”

In his time of solitude, the JacksonWink product recalled how the fans in Mexico described his fighting style, saying he had the heart of a lion. So, not knowing if he was going to fight again — as he had yet to see the doctors — Sanchez made the decision to switch his nickname from “The Nightmare” to “Lionheart” regardless of the result.

Later that day, Sanchez went to the hospital and had an electrocardiogram done to see what was affecting his heart. According to Sanchez, when the doctors came in with the results and he was told that his heart was completely healthy — and that his heart pain was probably some sort of muscular injury — his pain immediately went way. Sanchez believes he received a miracle that day and calls the experience supernatural.

“I knew this wasn't a muscular injury,” Sanchez said. “It is what it is. I know it was one of those supernatural stories, either you choose to believe it or not. But this is the thing, come Saturday night, the ‘Lionheart’ is getting in the cage for his 37 professional fight and I'm going to bring this lion heart in that cage, and there is nothing Al Iaquinta has to stop this lion from pounding his chest.”

Just days removed his fight, Sanchez is still not fully sure what caused his health scare, but he believes it had to do with smoking medical marijuana, which he obtained a license for after his fight with Marcin Held back in November.

“My lungs were being affected," Sanchez said. "And I still had the mentality to train like a warrior, so when this happened to me, that day at the gym, I was still experimenting with medical marijuana, and I was even high on medical marijuana. So whatever happened to my heart, I don't know, but the moment when I laid down on the back of the JacksonWink gym, I instantly knew it was because of medical marijuana. I’m not saying marijuana is not for everybody, I'm just saying it’s not for me, I know for a fact.”

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