By his own admission, Diego Sanchez was displaced, unfocused and very nearly down and out just a couple of years ago.
Now, the newly rebranded “Dream” can add another adjective to that list: Overlooked.
Few people are giving Sanchez much chance of pulling the upset on Wednesday when he meets Jake Ellenberger in the welterweight main event of UFC on Fuel 1. Oddsmakers see him as more than a 2-to-1 underdog to the streaking Ellenberger, who’ll be fighting in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., and is currently riding high on a wave of publicity after a first-round knockout of former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields in September.
People are already putting Ellenberger in the front row of potential challengers for interim champion Carlos Condit -- depending, of course, on whether or not Georges St. Pierre’s injured knee heals at a pace deemed acceptable by company brass. All Ellenberger needs is one more win, over a fighter who has been inconsistent and slowed by his own difficulties (both physical and mental) recently.
For Sanchez, the stakes are somewhat less concrete. Unlike Ellenberger, he may not be a single win away from a title shot, but -- at 30 years old and 27 fights deep in his MMA career -- he needs this fight to prove he can still hang with the elite at 170 pounds.
The “Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner has been back training with Greg Jackson’s vaunted MMA team since 2010, but is still very much mired in the process of proving he’s returned to full strength after a couple of lost years elsewhere.
He split with Jackson in 2007 after the Albuquerque-based trainer began working with St. Pierre, who, at the time, was the dominant titlist in the weight class where Sanchez had championship aspirations. What followed were difficult times, where he says he bounced around gyms in southern California and New Mexico and succumbed to the allures of drugs and alcohol. He also vacillated between two weight classes, suffered three of his four career losses (including a career-defining beating at the hands of B.J. Penn at UFC 107) and has made veiled references to losing $150,000 to a bad investment deal, running afoul of the IRS in the process.
Sanchez is 2-0 since reuniting with Jackson, but perhaps because one of those wins was a razor-thin decision many believed rightly should have gone to Martin Kampmann, people aren’t quite buying into the renaissance just yet.
A victory, or at least a good showing, against Ellenberger could go a long way to changing their minds.
Even if Sanchez can’t grab the upset over the hard-hitting “Juggernaut” (who arguably does most of the same things Sanchez does, only better) it’s imperative that he doesn’t get run over in this fight the way Shields did five months ago. If not an outright victory, he at least needs a repeat of the too-close-to-call battle he had with Kampmann to prove his brightest days are still ahead of him.
If Sanchez were to somehow force his way back into the title picture, it could present something of a logistical nightmare -- no pun intended -- for the Jackson camp, as Sanchez, Condit and St. Pierre are all teammates there. Jackson has already said he’ll recuse himself and let his assistant coaches handle prefight preparations for Condit versus GSP. At least St. Pierre can do most of his prep at TriStar Gym in Montreal. No telling how Jackson’s crew might handle having Condit and Sanchez in the same room together.
At this point though, that seems like a good problem to aim for if you're Sanchez.
And he’s a guy who already knows a thing or two about problems.