Is Diego Sanchez nearing the end?

The UFC's ultimate blood and guts fighter is looking to turn around his fortunes.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The Ultimate Fighter’s season one cast is slowly dying out. With the recent retirement of Chris Leben, only Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck and Diego Sanchez remain in the UFC. Of the trio, Swick didn’t fight in all of 2013 and Koscheck has lost his last three, leaving only Sanchez as a current divisional threat. The question is, for how much longer? 

There are signs he is already in decline. Since the start of 2010, he’s 3-3, but two of those decision wins could have and probably should have pointed in the other direction. When he snuck out a split-decision over Takanori Gomi a year ago, not a single media outlet among the 12 surveyed by MMADecisions.com scored the fight in Sanchez’s favor. When he edged out Martin Kampmann a year before that, the story was similar — five of the seven media outlets saw it for Kampmann, as did the statistical analysis of FightMetric.

But wins and losses aside, there is another story that is being told by Sanchez’s recent performances that paints a troubling picture. In a sport where damage accumulates, Sanchez has been badly, decidedly out-landed in his recent fights.

According to FightMetric data, in his last seven fights, Sanchez has been out-struck nearly 2-to-1, with opponents landing 649 strikes to his 330. Opponents landed a stunning 50.3 percent of thrown strikes, while Sanchez landed just 32.2 percent. 

To be fair, these numbers are somewhat skewed by B.J. Penn’s lopsided beatdown of Sanchez at UFC 107. During that fifth-round stoppage victory, which is highly underrated as one of the most prolific shutdown outings in MMA history, Penn thoroughly dominated Sanchez, out-landing him by the staggering total of 149-8. He also stopped every single one of Sanchez’s takedown tries. All 27 of them. This, in a title fight.

In some ways, Sanchez has never been the same since, as that fight was the beginning of the current stretch where six of Sanchez’s last seven opponents landed more strikes than he did. Sanchez’s last time outworking an opponent was his defeat of Paulo Thiago in October 2010. Final strike count for that one: 73-49.

The problem with writing an obituary on Sanchez’s fight career is that the man is all heart, as evidenced by his late-fight barrage against Gilbert Melendez last October that made an otherwise lopsided fight appear much closer than it actually was.

Don’t ever stop snarling, Diego. (But a little defense wouldn’t hurt.)

While in any given second, Sanchez’s warrior roots can create those magical moments, over the course of a standard 15-minute fight, he has struggled to keep up, which brings us to his UFC 171 matchup with Myles Jury this weekend. Generally, Sanchez has fought top 10 level opposition through the last 6-7 years of his career, but the 25-year-old Jury, who is undefeated at 13-0, has yet to crack the UFC’s top 15 rankings. He’s 4-0 in the UFC with his best win a dominant decision over current No. 11, Michael Johnson. Yet the oddsmakers see Sanchez’s downward trend continuing. They installed him as +160 underdog. 

As noted, Sanchez has had big problems connecting recently, and he could be in for a nightmare against Jury, whose opponents have whiffed on 78 percent of strikes they’ve thrown at him. In addition, Jury has a major wildcard in his preparation process as his current boxing coach Tony Palafox mentored Sanchez for some time. That’s invaluable knowledge to have in your corner before going to battle. So Jury has been defensively excellent, likely knows Sanchez’s striking inside out, and has also shown a strong wrestling game as a fallback option.

Sanchez’s one big advantage then, is experience. He has faced down every possible scenario in the cage, from title fights to five-round wars to grinding wrestlefests. From euphoria to abject failure. He also features a level of physicality and wildness that Jury has yet to experience. For a while that Sanchez storm was impossible to avoid but his recent opponents have shown a blueprint for surviving it and turning his aggression against him. Whether Jury is composed enough to follow their lead remains to be seen. Still, it seems that more people than expected believe it’s his fight to win.

There is more than one school of thought when it comes to a fighter’s best years. Some say they are in the mid-to-late 20s, when a man is in his physical prime; others say it is in the 30s, when knowledge and experience play an expanded role in planning and execution. The reality is that it differs wildly among individuals. At 32, Sanchez isn’t old, but there’s little debate that 12 years of his wild style has to have taken a toll on his body, and as his last fight with Melendez indicates, he is disinclined to change it.

So then what are we looking at? Perhaps like his old friend and TUF 1 castmate Leben, he will one day realize that the younger generation’s technique has passed up his indomitable heart. Maybe not against Jury, but maybe. There are worst realizations to face down. Whether it’s sooner or later, the original Ultimate Fighter will eventually leave knowing he put every ounce of soul into every round he fought.