In 2007, the 27 year-old Sanchez saw a 20-month run at the UFC welterweight title derailed by two of the American Kickboxing Academy’s stars, Josh Koscheck and Diego Sanchez. After a short period of introspection, Sanchez shrugged off calls to drop to lightweight, defeating David Bielkheden and Luigi Fioravanti in 2008. 2009 brought new perspective, and Sanchez, realizing the possible length of a title run and size of the division’s top competitors, decided he could leap frog the ladder to a belt by going to 155.
In his first fight out, he faces Joe Stevenson, a brief refugee of the welterweight class—and believe it or not, the middleweight class in his early days—who is fighting to keep his spot in the upper echelon of the division after falling short against current champ B.J. Penn at UFC 80 and top contender Kenny Florian at UFC 91. His last appearance was a bad setback, and with a win against Sanchez, Stevenson could do a lot to re-invigorate his UFC career.
Sanchez has come a long way from his days as a scrappy fighter with average hands and a slick ground game. In his last two fights against Bielkheden and Fioravanti, Sanchez’s strikes has gotten far more crisp and deadly. Despite his focus with jiu-jitsu ace Saulo Ribeiro, Sanchez puts better combinations together, and measures aggression with tactics. His kick/knee combination against Fioravanti at the TUF 7 Finale was devastating—he put down a fighter known for his durability in decisive fashion. He also punches well in close, and standing over a downed opponent–a frequent occurence when he bull-rushes them.
Stevenson’s striking has evolved over time as well. Also a decorated grappler—before the Florian fight, he received his black belt in jiu-jitsu from Robert Drysdale—Stevenson’s hands, feet, and knees have played catch-up with his mat skills. Generally, he uses his strikes to set up his ground work, having short arms that prevent him from picking his opponents apart at range. Stevenson has worked hard on developing his footwork to negate his reach disadvantage, particularly on his jab. A looping overhand right often serves as a smokescreen for a shot.
Grappling and Submissions
Stevenson’s best abilities lie on the ground, having won 13 of his 29 wins by submission. His go-to weapon is the guillotine choke, which his thick arms and flawless technique facilitate. However, if a submission is not presented, he tends to use his strong wrestling base to control opponents from the top. He’s smart enough to avoid danger, but lately, he’s been proven vulnerable to rear naked chokes, getting caught in scrambles for position after sustaining damage on his feet. His best weapon is his experience on the canvas, which he uses to negate most submission specialists, and take advantage of fighters without his technique.
Sanchez, while not necessarily a submission specialist, uses the threat of them to keep his opponents unbalanced. One of the best scramblers in the game, Sanchez’s drive on the ground has won him the majority of his fights. When opponents give him a slight opening for reversal, he takes it. So far, his only kryptonite has been technical wrestlers, which only two of his UFC opponents have been (though one, Josh Koscheck, barely spent any time on the mat with him).
Sanchez has tempered his aggressiveness as he’s matured, but still likes to take the center of the Octagon and dictate the pace. If anything, his control is best asserted when he has dominant position on the ground and is throwing bombs from top position.
Stevenson tends not to be overly offensive, preferring to counter opponents and capitalize on mistakes. He’s encountered several foolishly aggressive fighters who try to shoot on him and end up submitted. Of course, his countering style works both ways—recently, the lightweight division’s best (Penn and Florian) have overwhelmed him early and stolen the win.
This area of the fight could be a significant advantage for Sanchez, if he has paid attention to Stevenson’s missteps. Sanchez’s ability to take control early in a fight could be a deciding factor in its momentum.
Both fighters are well-known for their conditioning, so this shouldn’t play a huge factor in the fight. Stevenson has gone the distance nine times in his career, and though he tends to resort to controlling his opponents on the mat when his gas gets low, he never quits. Sanchez’s conditioning is even more impressive, as he tends to keep a higher pace throughout a fight. To the end of his losing effort against Jon Fitch at UFC 76, Sanchez never stopped trying to fend the former Purdue wrestler off him, working for submissions at every step.
The “X” Factor
The elephant in the room for Sanchez is how the cut from 170lbs. to 155lbs. affects his conditioning. Most fighters make “test cuts” before they change weight classes, and Sanchez has undoubtedly done this. But the human body is often an unpredictable thing, especially when it comes to altering its composition. A fighter’s “natural” weight often evolves over time, after a long period of experimentation. Sanchez has stated his cut has been drawn out, not in bulk. He is also jumping time zones to fight in the UK—and a lot of strange things can happen to the body flying overseas. It’s doubtful that Sanchez has left anything to chance in his preparation, but the affect of the weight loss can’t be truly known until the fight.
For Stevenson, the “X” factor is how he’s feeling mentally about the fight. At 26, he’s had the career of two men, and the many ups and downs that accompany it. He’ll train hard for the fight, as he always does, but does he still believe in his abilities? He’s fallen short against the number one and number two fighters in his division—a win over Sanchez won’t end his career, but it may relegate him to UFC undercards for the foreseeable future. That’s a lot of pressure, and so far, his results under pressure have been mixed. Despite his decorated resume, he needs to prove himself like a rookie against Sanchez.
Keys to Success
For Sanchez, it’s to do what others have done—shock Stevenson early and scramble his way to a dominant position. The longer the fight goes, the more difficult Stevenson is going to be to put away. He will need to fend off takedowns, or time a knee as Stevenson shoots in. If he is able to stay on his feet, he will be able to pick Stevenson apart at range.
Stevenson needs to use his strong wrestling base to keep the original “TUF” winner on his back. He has the experience to stay away from submissions on the top, controlling Sanchez—the question is can he get there without taking damage in the process. He would do well to fight fire with fire, matching Sanchez’s aggression on the ground and looking for opportunities to hold the dominant position.