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Will Diego's 155-lb debut be a 'Nightmare'?

Michael DiSanto, UFC - Diego Sanchez is the best fighter that he has ever met—in his own mind, at least. The brash fighter has said more than once that UFC 170-lb gold is foregone conclusion in his future. He is destined to be great, possibly the greatest. He has uttered those words (or words similar thereto) without pause or regret.

Some might call it hubris. Others chalk it up to an unyielding self confidence—something that every fighter needs if he is going to compete at the highest level.
By Michael DiSanto

Diego Sanchez is the best fighter that he has ever met—in his own mind, at least. The brash fighter has said more than once that UFC 170-lb gold is foregone conclusion in his future. He is destined to be great, possibly the greatest. He has uttered those words (or words similar thereto) without pause or regret.

Some might call it hubris. Others chalk it up to an unyielding self confidence—something that every fighter needs if he is going to compete at the highest level.

Personally, I view it as nothing more than Diego being Diego. Most fighters have similar self belief, but they know better than to verbalize it. ‘Nightmare’ could really care less if his words cause backlash in the mixed martial arts community or place additional pressure on him to perform flawlessly each time out.

Why should he care? He competes to win a championship. Why make any bones about it? And for the first five years of his career, Sanchez was absolutely perfect, defeating every single man who dared stand opposite him inside the cage.

All that came to an end on April 7, 2007 when Sanchez ran into a freight train also known as Josh Koscheck. His former nemesis from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter outfoxed Sanchez en route to a workman-like unanimous decision. That was the first of back-to-back losses for the ‘Nightmare,’ all but ending his hopes of a 170-lb title shot, at least for the short term.

Despite scoring two solid welterweight wins in 2008, Sanchez knew heading into 2009 that he remained well behind contenders Thiago Alves, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch and 155-lb champion B.J. Penn as challengers in wait for champion Georges St-Pierre.

He decided, therefore, to jump on the ever popular ‘drop the weight’ bandwagon and skinny up for a run at a title 15 lbs to the south.

Sanchez’s quest for 155-lb glory begins on Saturday night, and it is beginning in typical Dana White, Joe Silva fashion. He wasn’t given a fading veteran as a ‘test the waters’ opponent. He wasn’t given an overmatched Octagon newcomer.

Instead, he will face fellow TUF winner and former 155-lb title challenger Joe Stevenson.

‘Joe Daddy’ is the quintessential nightmarish matchup for Sanchez. He is a big, strong wrestler with excellent submission skills, brutal ground and pound and better than average boxing.

With that said, I’d take Sanchez over Stevenson every day of the week and twice on Sundays in a 170-lb contest. But this fight isn’t taking place at 170 lbs. It’s taking place at 155 lbs, a completely foreign weight class for Sanchez. And that creates a cloud of doubt for the ‘Nightmare.’

Will Sanchez bring his famous never-ending gas tank down to lightweight? Will he be as strong? Will he still enjoy the speed advantage that frustrates most welters?

Sanchez claimed last week that he has not made a dry run at making 155 lbs. That could prove to be the difference in the bout.

Sanchez probably hasn’t weighed 155 lbs since winning a state wrestling championship as a senior in high school almost nine years ago. That is a long, long time. He has no idea how his body will react to being deprived of calories and water in the days leading up to the bout. He has no idea how difficult it will be to shed those last few pounds on the treadmill or in the sauna. And he certainly has no idea how he will feel 30 hours after weighins, assuming he makes the weight.

Cutting weight is far from a science. It is an art form, and there is no guarantee that the method Sanchez used in the past to cut from 190 lbs to 170 lbs, or any new method, will be successful in going from 190 lbs to 155 lbs with all of his strength, speed and cardio intact.

There are no such doubts surrounding Stevenson coming in to the bout. Despite winning the second season of TUF as a short welterweight, Stevenson realized early in his UFC career that his frame was more suited to the lightweight division. Thus, ‘Joe Daddy’ began competing at 155 lbs inside the Octagon almost three years ago.

During that time, he has been absolutely dominant, stopping everyone in his path in impressive fashion with two exceptions —Penn, the reigning lightweight ruler, and Kenny Florian, the division’s number one contender.

If Sanchez wants to score a win over Stevenson, he needs to come out and put doubt in the mind of ‘Joe Daddy.’ He needs to get Stevenson moving backward. The former TUF welterweight winner is an alpha male. He is a bully who is at his best when dictating the pace of the fight. Stevenson isn’t comfortable fighting while retreating, and he is much less effective as a counter-fighter than he is as the aggressor.

Sanchez can force Stevenson to retreat by charging to the center of the Octagon in typical Sanchez fashion and uncorking an all-out assault. He should unload big power punches to get Stevenson to bring his hands high in a defensive posture so that he can change levels shoot for a double-leg takedown. Though Stevenson has solid takedown defense, it is very difficult to sprawl and brawl while covering up.

Once the fight hits the ground, Sanchez should remain cautiously aggressive. He is a brutal ground-and-pound artist, particularly with elbows. He cannot, however, get too crazy trying to stack up Stevenson and pass the guard. ‘Joe Daddy’ is a submission wizard, so he is dangerous at all times, particularly with leg locks.

I know, I know. MMA is not BJJ with a gi, so leg locks are about as common in the UFC as running into a whale in the Mississippi River, but Sanchez doesn’t want to make a silly mistake that results in him coming face to face with one of those whales.

Instead, he should posture up and fire punches and elbows with calculated precision. The goal is to open a cut and test Stevenson’s heart. As he begins to land shots, Stevenson’s focus will shift from offense to defense, and that is when Sanchez can stack him up and look to pass.

If Sanchez is able to pass the guard, the fight will be all but over. Stevenson is a skilled ground practitioner, but Sanchez is exceptionally brutal from the mount. ‘Joe Daddy’ will not last long trying to defend elbows, so he will likely give up his back in a last-ditch effort to survive, just like he did in his two recent losses to Penn and Florian. Sanchez will quickly flatten him out and slap on a rear naked choke, bringing the fight to an abrupt end.

Of course, the above prediction is a best-case scenario for Sanchez. There is another side to that coin; one that Sanchez dearly hopes does not show itself.

If Sanchez does not have a size and strength advantage after cutting to lightweight, he may very well find himself on the on his back with Stevenson giving him a dose of his own ground-and-pound medicine.

Stevenson’s roadmap to victory is pretty much identical to the one outlined above for Sanchez: come out throwing hands in an attempt to get Sanchez to cover up, which opens the door for a double-leg takedown, and then work a conservative ground-and-pound attack en route to a stoppage or a mistake that allows for a submission.

He will be able to execute that game plan if he is the stronger, more physical fighter come combat time. That isn’t to say that technique isn’t ultra important in this matchup, because it certainly is. Nonetheless, Sanchez and Stevenson are very similar both stylistically and in their abilities to both catch and defend submissions fluidly during transitions. In that regard, I expect that they will cancel each other out on a technical level, so this bout will come down to a physical battle, which is why I love the larger, naturally stronger Sanchez in a 170 lb bout but maintain significant reservations about his chances at lightweight.

Friday’s weigh-ins will tell a tremendous tale and give fans and pundits alike a clue as to how the fight will unfold. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d withhold my bet until watching the weigh-ins.

If Sanchez had to kill himself to make weight, he will appear severely gaunt with a very drawn in face. His muscles will appear flat, if not smooth. Those will all be very bad signs for his conditioning and sustained strength during the fight. If Sanchez looks as if making the weight was a struggle, then I like Stevenson to win.

Similarly, if Sanchez looks thin with a full face, then that is a clear sign that he deprived himself too much in the week leading up to the fight, unnecessarily sacrificing muscle mass so that he did not have to cut much water in the trailing 12 hours. That will severely sap his power and speed, in which case Stevenson dominates the fight.

If, by contrast, Sanchez steps on the scale with hollow, but healthy, cheeks, and extremely low body fat while maintaining some of the roundness of his muscles, then it will suggest that Sanchez cut the weight in a healthy way, which shouldn’t negatively affect him in the bout. In other words, such a weigh-in suggests that he will show up at fight time weighing close to 165 to 170 lbs with all of his strength, speed and cardio intact. In that case, I like Sanchez.

At the end of the day, I lean toward Stevenson in this bout for one simple reason: Sanchez has not yet made the cut to 155 lbs. He has no idea whether he will be able to easily shed 8 lbs of water on fight day or if he can only drop 5 to 6 lbs without negatively affecting his performance. A perfect illustration is former 185-lb champion Rich Franklin. Several months before dropping from light heavy to middleweight, Franklin did a dry run of the cut. During that dry run, he discovered that he could not cut the predicted amount of water in the hours before the weigh-in without adversely impacting his performance, thus he had to recalculate his pre-fight preparation to come in just a little lighter on weigh-in day.

If Sanchez did not bother himself with a dry run, that could result in a ‘Nightmare’ for him come fight time.

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