Fear can be a crippling, inescapable affliction. For Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez, it's a part of mixed martial arts that he conquers through discipline, tenacity and faith. He loses control, however, when he sleeps. A recurring dream in which Sanchez drives off a bridge, becomes trapped underwater and never escapes haunts him.
"I've had so many nightmares in my life," Sanchez says.
That drowning feeling guides Sanchez through his professional fighting career. Once proud of his undefeated status, Sanchez -- who won his first 17 bouts -- lost back-to-back fights against American Kickboxing Academy teammates Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch in 2007. He does not view those defeats as real-life nightmares, even though he fought back from them as if he were waking from a cold sweat; he pounded out David Bielkheden at UFC 82 and then stopped gritty former Marine Luigi Fioravanti in "The Ultimate Fighter 7" finale.
His true fighting-related fear remains fatigue.
"That's the worst nightmare I've had about mixed martial arts, because when you get tired that is the nightmare," he says. "That's why my nickname is the 'Nightmare,' because my goal is to go into that ring, keep such a high pace you get tired, and you're done man. There's nothing worse than knowing you have heart, you're a warrior, but your legs aren't working, your legs are burning, your lungs can't take in enough oxygen, your arms just the muscles aren't working."
Those fears have never been realized inside the cage. The son of a construction worker, Sanchez was a standout high school wrestler in New Mexico before he began training in MMA while working at UPS unloading trucks. After a day's training at Jackson's Submission Fighting in Albuquerque, N.M., he would speed to work with little or no time to eat, often arriving just two or three minutes after he was supposed to punch in for duty. For 10 months, he was "the best worker he could be," working with no air conditioning in temperatures as high as 118 degrees. An avid weightlifter, Sanchez started the job at 202 pounds and eventually dropped to 185. Those days, he recalls, made him "the champion" the MMA world sees today.
As a King of the Cage titleholder, Sanchez tore through the inaugural season of "The Ultimate Fighter" as a young, focused middleweight who had only one goal -- to become a UFC champion. The acclaim from his performances and subsequent victories placed Sanchez on the fast track to a title. But he took to the bottle. He never cheated himself, he says, but the spoils of fame padded his training camps with too much excess.
"It definitely slowed me down," Sanchez says. "I probably could have been the champion by now. It's just life. You gotta grow up, and I think everybody has to figure that out."
In preparing for his UFC 95 tangle with Joe Stevenson on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London, Sanchez finds it easy to appreciate the road he's on now. Settled in a private camp with friend and professional boxer Joey Gilbert in the cradle of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Sanchez follows the usual routine -- trains, eats and sleeps -- but also lights incense, meditates and stretches. No one is watching, and there's no city and no romantic interest -- Sanchez was once engaged to former UFC ring girl Ali Sonoma -- to distract him.
It seemed crazy to leave Jackson's Submission Fighting -- his lifelong gym and one of the top camps in the country -- but Sanchez knew it was the right path for him. He sought out two of the best grapplers in the world, the Ribeiro brothers, Xande and Saulo. The pair of aces sharpened his submission game, and training with Lupe Aquino has helped Sanchez develop a faster, stronger jab. Fighters come in by the week to prime Sanchez.
"You think I'm gonna get better?" Sanchez asks, citing the all-star credentials of those in his camp.
No aspect of the professional fight game is lost on the 27-year-old. He wants to show UFC brass and Spike TV that he belongs in main events. First, he has to make weight, as his bout with Stevenson represents his debut at 155 pounds. He also has a desire to look impressive on the scales. He wants his physique to illustrate that his diet was perfect and his cardio training has no equal.
"It's work, but in another sense, when you love what you do, it's not work," Sanchez says. "I'm just enjoying my life being a fighter, and training in the mountains has always been a dream come true."
Sanchez, a highly touted prospect at 170 pounds, sees his move to lightweight as the quickest route to a championship. It also poses a tougher challenge in his mind, and he wants to seize the opportunity now; he doesn't believe his body can handle the cut to a lower weight class once he reaches his 30s. For now, he believes his strength, speed and flexibility will improve at 155, a weight class in which he won't be competing against opponents with significant weight advantages -- as he did as a welterweight.
The decision to change divisions was divinely inspired, Sanchez says, after a precise shot to his rib knocked it out of place and took him out of a showdown with Thiago Alves at UFC 90 in October. Despite moving to 155 pounds, he hopes to avenge his welterweight losses to Koscheck and Fitch and eventually fight 170-pound kingpin Georges St. Pierre, becoming a multidivision champion -- perhaps even a legend -- in the process.
To get to the next level, Sanchez has worked to develop his wrestling. To that end, he has brought in famed wrestling coach Bob Anderson. Sanchez gave up an opportunity to wrestle at William Penn University because he didn't want to cut weight -- he wanted to fight. Now, he does both.
Of course, he fights for a living now, but he used to do it on the streets. Sanchez once was celebrating a strong showing after Grapplers Quest when he and his cousin were badly outnumbered in a brawl.
"I really thought I was going to die," he says.
The fear of dying still gnaws at Sanchez. Losing a fight now means a relatively minor setback, but at some level he feels it's still a fight for survival. The same could be said for Stevenson. A fellow winner of "The Ultimate Fighter," he has lost two of his past three fights. He'll be hungry for a win, and a hungry Stevenson is something to worry about.
Sanchez knows the nightmares end when he wakes up, though. And in the cage, there are few realities he hasn't conquered.
Danny Acosta is a contributor to Sherdog.com.