Return to roots best move for Sanchez
Success came quickly for Diego Sanchez. It also arrived when he was most vulnerable.
In April 2005, at just 23 years old, Sanchez became "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 1 middleweight champion. That distinction brought him fame and money, neither of which he was mature enough to handle.
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A native of Albuquerque, N.M., Sanchez wasn't used to life in the fast lane. But becoming a highly recognizable fighter in mixed martial arts' grandest promotion (UFC) opened an exciting, new world to Sanchez, and he grabbed onto it with reckless abandon. He met many new people and started to party almost nonstop. Sanchez eventually left Albuquerque and longtime trainer Greg Jackson for a faster-paced lifestyle in San Diego.
The easygoing environment in Albuquerque wasn't the only thing Sanchez turned his back on. He also became less committed to his spiritual beliefs.
Sanchez partied hard in San Diego but continued winning fights. He was quickly moving up the 170-pound contender ladder.
But as is often the case in the club scene, more than dancing went on. In December 2006, after an impressive first-round knockout of Joe Riggs, marijuana was found in Sanchez's system. The California State Athletic Commission suspended him for 90 days. From that moment on, his life would never be the same.
Sanchez dropped his next two bouts, and a few fights later, he moved down to lightweight. Soon thereafter, he learned that a person he believed to be a friend had swindled thousands of dollars from him.
Losing so much money brought Sanchez to his emotional knees. He became depressed and began to drink more often and partied into the early mornings.
"I went through a really rough situation in San Diego, with the emotional depression," Sanchez told ESPN.com recently during a conference call. "That weighed hard on me."
The situation would get worse. Sanchez soon found himself in the Octagon with then-lightweight titleholder B.J. Penn. It wasn't much of a fight. Sanchez was beaten and bloodied until the bout was mercifully called off halfway through the final round.
"I hit rock bottom after the B.J. Penn fight," Sanchez said. "I blew through all my money; I made some really bad decisions. This scam artist scammed me real bad. I was embezzled for a little over $175,000. I really hit rock bottom."
Sanchez had difficulty eating and sleeping. But as a man who took pride in handling his own affairs, he did not seek assistance. That decision would prove disastrous in his next fight. Sanchez returned to welterweight for a May 2010 showdown with fast-rising British star John Hathaway.
Unable to mentally grasp the importance of this fight, Sanchez continued to party regularly, and his training camp was erratic. Sanchez was not very competitive in the fight and lost by unanimous decision.
"I was still in a funk," Sanchez said. "I was training, but I'd go into the bar after training. I was drinking. I didn't take [Hathaway] seriously at all. I thought: 'I'm going to knock this guy out; I'm going to take him down.'
"I wasn't in the right physical shape, or the spiritual or the mental. I shouldn't have been in the [cage] for that fight, period."
But that loss forced Sanchez to realize it could no longer be business as usual. It was time to say goodbye to San Diego and the fast life.
"I had to come back home," Sanchez said. "I needed my family's love. "When I came home, I moved out of the city and to the mountains. That was the best thing I ever did. Being out there, I don't even have cable in my house.
"I feel real spiritual and close to God. I make sure I get my work done, and I rest well. I will have fun after the fight."
He also returned to the coach who made him the TUF middleweight champion.
"After that fight [with Hathaway] I said, 'You know what? I need to get back to what got me here,'" Sanchez said. "'And that was Greg Jackson's, high altitude and just earning it -- and No. 1, my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
"I had let go of the simple life and my belief in Jesus Christ and doing the right things. Now I'm not partying and being on that party-fame bus."
So far, so good; in his first fight since returning to Jackson's Submission Fighting, Sanchez registered a unanimous decision win over Paulo Thiago in October 2010. That win helped the 29-year-old end a two-fight skid and improve his professional mark to 24-4-0.
The change in Sanchez has not gone unnoticed. His teammates at Jackson's have seen a more patient, mature man.
Sanchez is again at peace with himself. But that doesn't mean he will be any less aggressive on Thursday night (Versus, 9 ET) when he faces Martin Kampmann in Louisville, Ky. Kampmann (17-4-0) poses a stiff test for Sanchez. He is eager to get back in the cage after suffering a loss to Jake Shields at UFC 121 in October.
"I'm disappointed in that performance," Kampmann said recently. "I made a lot of mistakes in the fight. Hopefully, I will change things up and come back stronger this time."
During the past few weeks, Sanchez has shown signs of returning to his former emotional self. According to those closest to him, it's the most telling sign that he has fully recovered from his ordeal in San Diego.
"He's very energetic and motivates everybody," former UFC light heavyweight Keith Jardine told ESPN.com. "He's back to being the old Diego.
"He got a little quiet there in the beginning, but now he is very outgoing. He's back to the way he used to be. He has himself together."
Franklin McNeil covers MMA and boxing for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.