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Diego Sanchez explains move into bare-knuckle fighting, no plans to retire from combat sports any time soon

Diego Sanchez has already cemented a memorable legacy from his mixed martial arts career but that doesn’t mean that he’s finished adding accolades to his resume.

At 41, the Ultimate Fighter season 1 winner and UFC Hall of Famer just recently inked a deal to join the roster at BKFC where he will make his bare-knuckle debut on Feb. 17 against former boxing champion Austin Trout. According to Sanchez, the move wasn’t made out of necessity but rather a desire to try something new after he spent the majority of 2022 preparing for a boxing match against Dan Hardy that never happened.

“First and foremost, it’s new and it’s different,” Sanchez told MMA Fighting. “I like new and I like different. It’s combat sports, still, so it actually adds a level of value to my legacy. It goes to show that I wasn’t just a MMA [fighter].

“The show [with Dan Hardy] fell through the first time, they rescheduled and it actually fell through in total. I just trained all year and the boxing promotion was cool. They paid me to do the camp. I got paid to do the camp and start training all year. Now we’ve got the BKFC fight. It’s about damn time.”

While Sanchez insists that he’s fighting for himself because it’s what he wants to do, there is still an inherent desire to make a statement with his move into bare-knuckle fighting.

“It’s hard for me the criticism that I’ve got throughout 17 years of a UFC Hall of Fame career to get the criticism that I can’t stand up, that I can’t strike when I knocked out Joe Riggs,” Sanchez explained. “I had great fights with Joe Stevenson, I stood up with Nick Diaz. I went with B.J. Penn. I slung these hands with the best of them.

“So I don’t know why people still don’t credit me for being a technical fighter. Maybe because in the beginning of my career, I was a bull. I didn’t know how to counter fight. I didn’t know how to measure the distances. I didn’t know how use my vision to see shots coming at me. But along the learning curve of taking some knees and some punches to the face, I learned in the end.”

The bigger concern surrounding Sanchez in recent years wasn’t about his striking ability but rather his overall health after he absorbed a lot of punishment in his final few fights in the UFC.

Of course it’s been well documented that the 44-fight veteran also had a tumultuous relationship with his now former coach Joshua Fabia, which played at least some small part in his release from the promotion. Sanchez bounced back from that with a three-round battle against fellow UFC veteran Kevin Lee at Eagle FC 46 this past March where he looked rejuvenated despite ultimately losing a unanimous decision.

Now as he approaches his first ever bare-knuckle fight, Sanchez promises that he’s in a much better place, especially now that he’s been able to put his full focus on training again and that’s when he’s at his absolute best.

“This is the life that I’ve known for the past 20 years,” Sanchez said. “This is the most happiest that I’ve ever been is when I’m training. It’s in between the fights when I was a little up and down with the anxiety, flirting with alcoholism because I wasn’t in the gym.

“Now that I’m 40, it’s like the Tim McGraw song, I’m on the next 40 years. I’m about love for family, time, energy and making the most of my life these next 40 years.”

While Sanchez definitely has a lot of miles on the tires, his toughness, heart and durability have never been questioned and he’s not afraid to lean on that during his biggest fights.

That said, Sanchez promises that his best days aren’t necessarily behind him but he’s also cognizant about the pitfalls for those who might stick around too long.

“I was one of the rare, few fighters that went out on my shield,” Sanchez said. “I went out on my shield in the UFC. You see a lot of these guys, legends of the sport like Chuck [Liddell] and Frankie Edgar and most of these guys, they’re going out on stretchers. If they’re not going out on stretchers, they’re going out with brain damage and knockout losses and just a loss of confidence while stepping out of the UFC limelight. I didn’t want to do that.”

In many ways, Sanchez might actually feel better suited for the second stage of his career as he turns his attention towards bare-knuckle fighting and even the potential for a boxing match in the future. He’s not putting his body through a hellacious training camp like he would for MMA and stylistically, Sanchez believes he’s been built for these kinds of fights.

“With the strengths that I have with the state championship wrestling background, the experience of fighting with open hand fingers my entire career and just being able to be strong in the clinch,” Sanchez said. “I know that space. I know that area. It’s actually where I’m better. My best punch in my MMA career was my uppercut. My lead right uppercut. I did a lot of damage to [Clay] Guida, I did a lot of damage to Karo Parisyan, I fought a lot of guys with that punch and I had a lot of success with that punch.

“In bare-knuckle it’s even better because you don’t have that huge ass octagon where the guys can run from you so much. Some of the guys were faster than me and I had to play the chase the rabbit game a lot in the UFC. Now we’re in bare-knuckle where you get docked if you don’t throw down. You get docked points. On top of that, you toe the line. You start three feet away from each other. One meter away and I get to rush this vato.”

With a fight already booked on Feb. 17, Sanchez isn’t looking past that date, although he’s got designs on staying busy in 2023 with the potential for fights across bare-knuckle, boxing or possibly even a return to MMA if the right opportunity comes along.

Sanchez says he’s still got a deal in place with Eagle FC, although he hasn’t heard anything from the promotion in recent months. He’s also interested in crossing over to Triad Combat, which uses a hybrid set of rules between MMA and boxing with fights taking place in a three-sided ring.

More than anything, Sanchez is just ready for a fresh start and he appreciates all those who have stuck by him through the good times and the bad.

“Everybody knows the last three years were hard for me,” Sanchez said. “I went through what was a trial and a tribulation of soul, spirit and mind and I came out on the other side. I came out on the other side stronger, better tougher and more grateful for everything that I have. More grateful for the good people that I have in my life. I just have a better understanding of my circle and who I let into it.

“I’m living simple, I’m living pure for my family for God and my faith has always been up and down but in this final episode what went down with Joshua Fabia on the spiritual aspects and dimensions, I was saved by my lord and savior Jesus Christ and I know my purpose now. I’m not fighting my purpose anymore. I’m living for it and that’s why I look good and I feel good.”

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