Friday, May 28, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
Diego Sanchez returns to the octagon for his bout with John Hathaway this Saturday at UFC 114 a humbled man.
If you needed proof, the scene on Thursday during an open workout session at the MGM Grand would have done the trick.
Sanchez showed up for what typically is merely a warm-up session for most fighters in front of the on-looking public, while working out on the other mat was Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
Along with Nogueira came a cavalcade of the sport's fellow Brazilian royalty, who immediately sent a buzz through the room.
The posse included WEC featherweight champ Jose Aldo, UFC middleweight title-holder Anderson Silva along with light heavyweight Lyoto Machida and heavyweight Junior Dos Santos.
They put on a circus of sorts on one side of the room while Nogueira boxed, messing with the media, joking with each other and hamming it up with star-crossed, camera-toting fans.
Meanwhile, Sanchez treated it like a full-on session in the gym, building up a heavy sweat after going hard for almost a full hour, never cracking a smile and never losing focus.
Sanchez has long been known as one of the most consistently devoted and intense athletes in the world of mixed martial arts, but that persona has added another layer since he lost by TKO to B.J. Penn in a lightweight title bout on Dec. 12, 2009, at UFC 107.
It marked the first time in Sanchez's career in which he was stopped in a fight, as a kick to the forehead in the fifth and final round opened up a gash that required several stitches and took almost two months to fully heal.
"I had never been beat up in my life," Sanchez, one of the UFC's most proven wrestlers, quietly admitted on Thursday. "Even the two fights I had lost prior were both decisions where I had been barely out-pointed. And B.J. put a hurt on me. He landed some heavy shots. Especially in the first round, he hit me with a heavy shot. I had never been dropped in my career, and I look back on the tape and I'm like 'How in the heck did I recover from that first round?'
"Man, it was humbling to fight someone and know that one punch could end a fight."
While unable to train fully as his forehead was on the mend, Sanchez's regimen consisted of power-lifting ... and more power-lifting.
Following three fights in the lightweight division, Sanchez became all about bulking up, and on Saturday returns to his welterweight roots for the first time since defeating Luigi Fioravanti at the Ultimate Fighter 7 finale on June 21, 2008.
"It feels great, man," he said. "I was able to eat, enjoy my camp and not just have fish and salad for three months, so it was good."
Sanchez said another change for him was that he got back to focusing primarily on wrestling and boxing.
Leading up to the fight with Penn, he said the goal was to load up on kickboxing training, as he thought it would give him the best chance to damage Penn.
Instead, it was a mostly one-sided victory by Penn, who was able to shed every single takedown attempt from Sanchez.
Penn then pulled a 180 of sorts in his next title defense, which was a major upset loss to Frankie Edgar at UFC 112 via unanimous decision.
Those two are set to do battle again at UFC 118 in Boston on Aug. 28.
"When I found out that B.J. was going to be doing the camp in Hilo for the Frankie Edgar fight, I kind of predicted that he was taking Frankie a little lightly," Sanchez said. "You know, Frankie's a smaller lightweight. Then again, B.J. didn't even really try to take him to the ground or anything. I feel B.J. is definitely going to win the rematch. I just think he's too much for anybody at 155 (pounds), and that's why I'm going to be waiting here at 170 for him when he comes back up.
"My dream is to get a rematch with him at 170, but I'm taking this career one fight at a time, and right now it's John Hathaway."
When it comes to the Hathaway fight, Sanchez not only feels that once again being centered will help him avenge the third loss of his career, but also his huge advantage in the experience department.
Hathaway is a pristine 12-0 in his career and 3-0 in the UFC, last defeating fellow U.K. product Paul Taylor by unanimous decision at UFC 105.
Sanchez is 22-3, but when comparing his resumé to that of Hathaway, points out his 6-0 career record when fighting in Las Vegas.
Hathaway, a former rugby player, has never fought on U.S. soil.
"When it's sold out, it's something else," he said of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. "The energy is crazy, and Las Vegas is my city. He's definitely going to feel the pressure.
"I don't really know much about him besides watching his fight tapes. I tried to investigate him a little bit, but he doesn't Twitter or Facebook. He seems like a young kid that is definitely tough. He played Rugby. I think in his mind it's a win-win situation to fight me. I'm just happy he came in and took the fight. Every undefeated fighter has to lose a fight some time. I'm gonna be the one to put that one loss on his record."
While humbled, his confidence is clearly still strong.
"My mistakes are my mistakes," he said of the experience with Penn. "It humbled me in terms of my preparation and my evolution as a fighter."