The first split-decision loss of Emmanuel Sanchez’s career may have been the catalyst for his transformation into a world title contender.
It’s not as if Sanchez wasn’t already making waves in Bellator’s featherweight division. He won six of his first seven fights for the promotion, with his lone loss coming at the hands of two-time champion Pat Curran, and looked to be one or two victories away from a title shot before running into Daniel Weichel in July 2016.
Sanchez went on to lose a split decision to Weichel at Bellator 159, a judgment that he disputes, but has learned to live with. After all, Sanchez was on the winning end of three consecutive split calls himself, and though he truly believes he beat Weichel, he realizes now that something had to give.
His next four fights saw him defeat former World Series of Fighting champion Georgi Karakhanyan, former Bellator bantamweight champion Marcos Galvao, former Bellator featherweight champion Daniel Straus, and 12-fight UFC veteran Sam Sicilia. Sanchez actually managed to submit both Straus and Sicilia, and those convincing finishes propelled him to his first title shot and first headlining spot in Bellator.
Sanchez challenges Patricio “Pitbull” Freire for the featherweight championship Thursday in the main event of Bellator 209 in Tel Aviv, Israel, and it’s an opportunity that may never have come about if the loss to Weichel didn’t force him to step up his game.
“I think a big jump was after losing to Daniel Weichel, another split decision,” Sanchez told MMA Fighting. “Looking back on it, I’m glad I lost to Daniel Weichel. I don’t believe I lost to him, I truly, wholeheartedly believe I beat him and he knows I beat him. But I’m glad the judges gave it to him because had I won another split decision I probably would have been doing the same thing and had the same mindset, same mentality. Also, who the hell wants to set the record for most split decisions? That’s a bunch of bulls**t.
“After that loss, I had to really re-think things, look back and watch myself, and have a big, major change.”
Though he didn’t get into specifics as far as what needed to be changed, Sanchez said he had to “take out the weeds” and suggested that some of the trappings of fame and success were having a negative effect on his fighting career. Coincidentally, Sanchez just celebrated the 10th anniversary of that career earlier this month.
Sanchez recalled taking his first amateur bout on Nov. 1, 2008, which he won by unanimous decision. Even as his hand was being raised, Sanchez was hoping that the judges would give him two more rounds to work, that’s how enamored he was with the sport at the time. He turned pro three years later, also in November, and though he started off with an 8-1 record before joining Bellator in 2014, Sanchez realizes that his reach was always exceeding his grasp until now.
“I wanted to be world champion at 21, who doesn’t,” said Sanchez. “Who doesn’t want to be the youngest champ to ever do it? Youngest, best guy out there to ever do it. But I’ll stand here and tell you that I was not ready for it then. I thought I was. Everyone thinks they are, you want it that bad, you have that desire and that passion, but I know I wasn’t ready for it.
“I wasn’t ready for the limelight, wasn’t ready for the money, wasn’t ready for any of that stuff back then. Now, almost 30 years old, I just turned 28, I can honestly say that I believe I’m ready for it. It’s taken this long to make it happen, for all of it to come to fruition, what a blessing.”
After defeating Sicilia in April, Sanchez was in prime position to get the next featherweight title shot, but he had to wait on the result of the “Pitbull” vs. Weichel rematch at Bellator 203. Freire retained, and though Sanchez would love to get the Weichel fight back, he believes his fight with Freire is one fans have wanted to see for a while.
Sanchez is hoping that a championship win leads to more title fights overseas (Bellator 209 marks his first time competing outside of the United States) and maybe even a boost to his Q-Rating. Currently honing his talents at Roufusport in Milwaukee, Sanchez didn’t shy away from the possibility of someday following in the footsteps of teammate and current UFC commentator Paul Felder when asked if he’d consider a career in broadcasting when his fighting days are done.
“Maybe I should, in Portuguese or Spanish, because I study a lot and I watch a lot of MMA in Portuguese or in Brazil, and a lot of Spanish boxing and MMA. I would love to,” said Sanchez. “I think I have the charisma and I’m animated, I don’t think I’m too ugly for TV and screen time — too beat up I should say, from fighting. But yeah, that’s something my coach says too. Having the charisma, having the attitude, being able to be in front of the camera, having the microphone on you. For me, that’s how I’ve always been. ...
“Yeah, in the future I should talk to Paul because that is something that I wouldn’t mind doing as a guest or eventually being able to do it full time. Something to have after fighting, for sure.”