Diego Sanchez was not only pulled from his fight with Donald Cerrone at UFC Vegas 26, but on Tuesday released from his contract, ending a business relationship that began 16 years prior with The Ultimate Fighter 1.
Sanchez, 39, was paid for the cancelled bout, one of three remaining on the four-fight deal he signed in late 2019, according to his manager and coach, Josh Fabia. In his release letter, obtained by MMA Fighting, UFC executive Hunter Campbell wrote to Sanchez the decision was made “based, in part, on your last loss” – a decision setback against Jake Matthews this past September.
The UFC’s standard contract gives the promotion the right to release fighters at any time after an octagon setback. But in this case, the letter arrived one day after the fighter declined via his attorney to certify in writing he was not suffering medical issues related to his brain health.
“When they’re specifically asking Diego to provide written confirmation he has no neurological problems, which is impossible for Diego to say that one way or another, [and] the next day after I respond to him going, ‘He can’t do that, it’s impossible,’ they cancel him, to me, that’s a bit suspicious,” Sanchez’s attorney, Charles Lakins, told MMA Fighting.
A UFC official acknowledged a request for comment on Thursday afternoon, but ultimately did not respond to questions about the circumstances around Sanchez’s release. A separate UFC official then confirmed Sanchez’s release shortly after Yahoo! Sports Kevin Iole tweeted confirmation from the promotion on Thursday evening.
On Thursday afternoon, Sanchez wrote “free at last” on his Instagram account and tagged several MMA promotions. He also released a video of his interview prior to the Matthews fight with UFC commentators Jon Anik, Megan Olivi and Paul Felder in which Fabia gets into a heated discussion over Sanchez’s portrayal in the media. The commentators accuse Fabia of making the pre-fight interview about himself, while Fabia counters he is looking out for his fighter.
In the wake of several interactions between Fabia and a UFC staffer who handles medical paperwork on behalf of fighters after the Sanchez vs. Cerrone bout was booked, the promotion had sought assurances that Sanchez was healthy to compete on the May 8 card.
Fabia had requested from the UFC staffer Sanchez’s complete medical records from his octagon career, a response, in part, to the promotion’s assurance that a previous medical bill from his fight with Perreira would be handled after it was sent to them in error and went to collections, he told MMA Fighting.
The UFC collects and forwards certain medical tests to state athletic commissions to assist fighters in getting licensed. But the company is not a medical provider, and it’s unknown whether those records are retained.
Sanchez was notified by the UFC that he was required to undergo additional medical testing to be licensed for the bout per the requirements of the Nevada Athletic Commission, which will regulate UFC Vegas 26 in Las Vegas. Sanchez had not yet completed the testing when he said he received a phone call from the promotion.
In an audio recording obtained by MMA Fighting, alleged to be the call that took place on April 9, a voice alleged to be UFC Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell expressed concern for Sanchez and said the octagon vet would be pulled from the fight and released from contract if there were any questions about his ability to compete.
“I just got a text from someone in my medical department, and you called them for ‘a formal request for all of Diego’s pre-fight medical records,’” the voice alleged to be Campbell said. “But more importantly, the direct quote I received was, you stated that the ‘long term effects of Diego being an MMA fighter’ was your basis for requesting it.
“I went through this with Mark Hunt, and here’s the reality. If you’re concerned or he’s concerned that he’s having negative effects, then we’re not going to fight him, and I’m going to pull the fight right now, and we’re going to call it a day, and he can go do something else with his life. Because I’m not going to put anybody in that cage that doesn’t feel 100 percent, or thinks they’re suffering from any medical issues.”
Fabia questioned why previous images wouldn’t be on file with the commission and said he was trying to care for Sanchez’s long-term medical needs.
“Why wouldn’t an athlete need his medical images of his injuries that he’s acquired over years? I don’t understand what the real problem is,” the voice alleged to be Fabia said.
“There’s nothing, it doesn’t go through us,” the voice alleged to be Campbell replied.
Campbell offered assistance if Sanchez was indeed suffering from long-term injuries. But he asked Diego to officially state he wasn’t.
“I need a confirmation in writing that he’s physically able to compete, he’s not suffered any ill effects of being an MMA fighter, he doesn’t feel like he has any brain issues or cognitive issues,” the voice alleged to be Campbell said. “I’ve got to go through the whole battery with everybody that makes a claim that you – at least they’re telling me you – made in this situation. And if he’s not comfortable doing that, then we pull the fight and move on. It’s very simple.”
Fabia assured him that Sanchez “is 100 percent fine” and would complete be ready for the May 8 event. At that point, Sanchez had already begun training for the fight and had traveled to several different gyms to prepare for Cerrone, visiting multiple gyms in different states.
“You understand my position, right?” the voice alleged to be Campbell said. “I can’t ever be in a situation where, 10 years from now, I’ve got a guy drooling on himself in a hospital, and I’ve got another guy saying, ‘Yeah, we told the UFC before his last fight that he was having all these issues, and they put him in there anyway.’”
“That’s cool,” the voice alleged to be Fabia said. “Everything’s good on our side. I’ve simply have been misunderstood, because when he’s got hands, he’s got little tears and breaks, I need to know to what capacity we need to work on fixing and healing his joints once his career’s over. ... There’s a lot going on, boss. That’s all.”
Sanchez returned to his native Albuquerque to meet the requirement, Fabia told MMA Fighting, and completed and passed “more tests than his whole career.” The tests included an MRI and an MRA, both of which are required for fighters over 38 by the NAC. The MRI is required every five years, while the MRA is a one-time requirement “unless otherwise ordered,” per commission rules.
On April 26, Campbell sent the email where he asked Sanchez to write directly back that he wasn’t experiencing short or long-term medical issues, “and more specifically, those involving his neurological health,” according to the message obtained by MMA Fighting.
In response, Lakins wrote to Campbell that Sanchez isn’t a doctor, hadn’t recently been examined by a neurologist and couldn’t make that assessment.
“What you ask for is not possible for Diego to state,” Lakins wrote.
The next day, Sanchez’s letter of release arrived via email.
“They’re position is that they just can’t risk a fighter being in a bout if the fighter can’t represent that they don’t have any short-term or long-term medical issues,” Lakins told MMA Fighting. “I’m not an expert by any shape or form of what the UFC’s contractual requirements are. But from what I understand, they require UFC athletes to do certain testing in the timeframe leading up to a bout, and Diego, from what I understand, passed them all.”
In a previous interview with MMA Fighting, Sanchez spoke about the physical damage accrued over his decade-plus career. He spoke of MMA as a “real traumatizing lifestyle” from which he needed to “recover and heal,” but looked forward to one final octagon walk. Short- and long-term injuries are commonplace among MMA veterans, and a growing number of fighters have stepped forward to reveal struggles with neurological issues, though very few have done so before a scheduled fight.
“What they asked about specifically was neurological,” Lakins said of the UFC. “I’m just not aware of what kind of requirements they have for that in their contracts, what kind of tests recently done that were required or Diego did. But it begs the question, if Diego’s done all the health tests that UFC required of him, why did they end his contract?”
In 2017, former UFC heavyweight Hunt was pulled from a scheduled fight with the promotion citing “medical concerns.” The move came shortly after Hunt gave an interview in which he discussed memory loss as the price of his combat sports’ career, though in the wake of his removal, he claimed he was misquoted and had passed his medical requirements.
At the time, Hunt was embroiled in a lawsuit against the UFC for what he alleged was a scheme by the UFC and his former opponent Brock Lesnar to allow Lesnar to use performance-enhancing drugs and cheat in their UFC 200 fight. Hunt is appealing the case after his claims were initially struck down.
Sanchez’s booking with Cerrone, his former training partner, was to serve as a retirement fight after a long struggle to find opponents. It came after a heated meeting at UFC headquarters in Las Vegas where Fabia argued with Campbell and other executives over the choice of opponents and demanded to face Cerrone.
UFC President Dana White blamed Sanchez’s situation on Fabia, a controversial figure in the MMA community who once attracted concern from the NAC for claiming to teach Sanchez a lethal choke prior to a fight with Michael Chiesa at UFC 239.
“I have an incredible, amazing relationship with Diego and I like him very much and I hope he is OK,” White told Yahoo Sports. “One of the sad things that happens, not just in fighting but in sports, and I want you to quote me on this, are these creepy weirdos who come from God knows where and leech onto fighters or athletes. They never do any good for them.
“Somehow, this creep got into Diego’s life and has been controlling him. You saw the video of him chasing guys in the Octagon with a knife. How nuts is that? He goes to the commission and tells them that he’s taught Diego this death touch. It goes on and on with this guy. He goes into the production meeting and tells the commentators what they should be saying? The guy is batsh*t nuts. He worked his way into Diego’s life and has gotten control over him. I just want the best for Diego.”