Up until the end, it was one of those nights for Diego Sanchez. Nothing he tried offensively worked. His defense was a sieve. Michel Pereira was too young, too powerful, too innovative. Time was ticking away on Sanchez with nothing but a prayer left. But Sanchez has built a reputation on a connection to the metaphysical, and so of course he could find a way to leverage the inexplicable to extend his already-legendary career longevity. Of course, he was destined for a bizarre victory in front of his home state.
The plot turned on a blunder, an unforced error that came just as it seemed Pereira was poised to clinch victory. As the wild Brazilian battered Sanchez into a corner, Sanchez dropped to a knee. Pereira then followed with a knee to the head, and with Sanchez a legally downed opponent, referee Jason Herzog ruled it illegal. Amazingly, it was the second such occurrence during the UFC Rio Rancho card, making it all the more baffling.
But the surprises weren’t over yet. After Herzog called a timeout and asked the cageside doctor to check on a deep cut that had formed over Sanchez’s brow, the savvy veteran suddenly had victory at his fingertips. All he had to do was say he could not continue, and a disqualification victory would be his for the taking. The fight world fully expected him to wipe away the blood and fight on.
We have seen similar scenarios play out dozens of times in high-level mixed martial arts. A losing fighter is fouled and can choose to fight on or tell the referee he cannot continue. Almost without fail, the fighter will demand to resume the battle. It happened last March, when Anthony Smith suffered an illegal knee from Jon Jones in a UFC light-heavyweight championship match. Of course, Smith said he would fight on, and went on to lose the match.
That is a noble course of action, and it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Sanchez did the same on Saturday night. He is, after all, one of the UFC’s all-time blood-and-guts fighters, a true warrior who has traded leather with stars like B.J. Penn, Gilbert Melendez, Nick Diaz and Takanori Gomi.
Which is why it was shocking when Sanchez asked Herzog what would happen if he couldn’t continue. Would it be a disqualification? he asked. Herzog correctly would not answer the question, telling Sanchez he would go through New Mexico Athletic Commission protocol if Sanchez could not continue, but by this point, Sanchez had to know.
And if he did realize that he could sneak out of the Santa Ana Star Center with a stunning win after a horrible night, it’s hard to hold that against him.
Sanchez has probably spilled more blood in the Octagon than the rest of last night’s card combined. He’s been a pro for 18 years and has spent 15 of them in the UFC. He is the longest tenured fighter in UFC history, with 5,425 straight days on the roster. He has the second most nightly bonuses all time. He has earned every dollar and victory he’s ever made.
If you are one of those people inclined to criticize him for taking the easy way out, please reconsider everything he’s already suffered throughout his career, and remember that it was Pereira that created this situation, not Sanchez.
So often, we see fighters that are badly hurt in these kinds of instances being put in the unfortunate predicament of having to decide what to do. Honestly, it is a ludicrous situation. The decision should not be the fighter’s to make. In that instance, they are often dealing with the pressure of a very unique circumstance. Sometimes they may be badly dazed; occasionally they may even be concussed.
The fans want them to continue, the promoters want them to continue, the opponent wants them to continue. And even though it is often against the fouled fighter’s best interest to continue, they often surrender to the moment. Sanchez didn’t give in, and in doing so, made the right decision. He was clearly damaged by that illegal blow; he wore it right on his face.
If you want to debate how he looked prior to the foul, that’s fair game. Up until then, he looked sluggish and incapable of breaching the distance between himself and Pereira.
“I really don’t know what he’s doing,” analyst Daniel Cormier said between the first and second rounds.
Between the second and third, it was more of the same.
“Trevor, what’d you think of that last five minutes?” play-by-play man Brendan Fitzgerald asked analyst Trevor Wittman.
“This is hard to watch,” Wittman said.
Yet Sanchez kept fighting on as he always does, eating a flying knee 90 seconds into the third. Everything seemed hopeless until suddenly, grace was sent his way by way of a careless opponent. That was the silver lining for Sanchez on Saturday. He got a win that was part gifted yet wholly earned in blood. If anyone deserves one of those without explanation or criticism, it’s Sanchez.