For the majority of his fighting career, Diego Sanchez trained under the tutelage of head coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn.
The famed Albuquerque, N.M. gym has served as the home to numerous UFC champions over the years including Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Rashad Evans and Holly Holm. Long before it recognized as one of the top gyms in all of MMA, Sanchez was one of the original crew that called that facility home as he worked alongside fighters such as Joey Villasenor and Keith Jardine.
Sanchez first split with the team in 2007 and moved to California. But he eventually found his way back a few years ago. The former “Ultimate Fighter” winner continued working with Jackson-Wink until 2019, when he split with the team and struck out on his own while working with new head coach, Joshua Fabia.
While it’s been more than eight months since he worked with the gym based in Albuquerque, Sanchez will fight at home for the first time in nearly six years when he faces Michel Pereira at UFC Fight Night from Rio Rancho.
The chance to compete in front of a hometown crowd is special to Sanchez for a number of reasons, not the least of which is cutting whatever ties he had left with his former gym.
“This will be a special fight for me,” Sanchez said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “This will be the fight that showcases Diego Sanchez, not Jackson-Wink.”
As much as Sanchez put his grudge against the gym away last year, those wounds were obviously opened up again as he prepared for his fight in New Mexico this weekend.
Sanchez’s issues with his former head coach apparently go further back than just his exit from the gym in 2019. In fact, he says his first real difference of opinion with Jackson came when the UFC offered him a spot on the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
“From the moment that I came into the UFC, I was on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and I was out there for three months by myself,” Sanchez said. “It was no Jackson-Wink. Greg Jackson had advised me not to do the show. He called it a game show. He said that it’s foolish and that I shouldn’t do it.
“I went against his [advice] and I listened to [TapouT founder] Charles ‘Mask’ Lewis. He told me, ‘This is going to be huge Diego, you’ve got to do this, I believe in you. You’ve got to do this!’ And I did it. I achieved my goal of becoming ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’”
According to Sanchez, living in Albuquerque didn’t leave him with many choices when he was tried to find a place to train before arriving in the UFC. Over the years, he says the culture at the gym changed dramatically, and that ultimately led to his split with the team.
“You just need to understand, I was a man with no other option,” Sanchez said. “I had Jackson-Wink, I live here in Albuquerque. I have a daughter that’s here, so there was not another option for me. This was the best that I could get. ... It’s not even about that. It’s about Greg Jackson and [Mike Winkeljohn] not believing in me. Not giving me the time and energy.
“It’s ridiculous that you think that I poured thousands and thousands of dollars into that gym. Not only the money — I always gave 10 percent of my purse. You look back, it’s out there how much I’ve made. I always gave 10 percent of my purse. It ain’t the money, it’s the love that I was given to those young fighters. The love, the time, the energy. The experiential wisdom that I have learned through failures and through my victories.
“I would pour my heart and my soul into these young men, because what else is there to do with yourself than to help others. At the same time they didn’t appreciate me. They didn’t value me. They see me only as another weed in the grass.”
Despite the ill feelings from the past, Sanchez is moving forward with his career, and he’s much happier now working with his current trainer, whom he calls his “guru.”
“I honestly don’t hold no grudge,” Sanchez said. “I’m in a better place now, a better situation with true people who care about me and love me. It is what it is. They’re over there. I’m over here. The line in the sand has been drawn. There’s nothing more to say about that.
“I’m getting real training. I’m getting real time. Real love. Real energy. A lot of people don’t truly know how amazing my trainer is, but the world is going to find out.”
Between fighting at home, competing on a card with his old gym and former coaches a stone’s throw away and the chance to have his daughter in the audience for the first time ever this weekend, Sanchez knows exactly how important this opportunity is for his career.
He became the first ever “Ultimate Fighter” winner and he’s fought for a UFC title. But Sanchez said none of that measures up to the magnitude of his fight against Pereira on Saturday night.
“This is without a doubt the most important moment of my life right now,” Sanchez said. “It goes way more further than a career. Because I’m not just fighting for me anymore. I’m fighting for every single one of the people out there in the world. The people that want to follow me. The people that support me. The people that listen to the transformation as I speak better even though people have the nerve to say, ‘Oh he has CTE. Because he picked this trainer, he must have CTE, he’s brainwashed.’
“Notice the transformation. Notice my eloquent speech that gets better each and every time. Just notice. Notice my health. Notice that I don’t have any injuries. Notice that I don’t have to go see a chiropractor or a doctor anymore because I’m taking care of myself. Notice that I’m not only thinking of myself. Because I am not the same man I was five years ago. I’m not the same man I was a year ago. The transformation has been real.”