One sentence summary
Phil: The Nightmare meets the Immortal, but mortality is very much present
David: Shopworn meets popworn in this battle of the soon-to-be-retired.
Record: Matt Brown 20-16 Diego Sanchez 29-10
Odds: Matt Brown -340 Diego Sanchez +310
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: For a fighter with Brown's reputation, it's always disorienting to look back at how he got here. After being beat with jumping high kicks against Burger King rep, Amir Sadollah, Brown rose from the TUF ashes, and just started kicking ass. There was very little rhyme or reason except that Brown seemed to will his way to victory with pressure, and a rural accent. He's 1-5 right now, against ridiculous competition. However, I think it's worth asking whether or not the degree of quality competition would make a difference in proportion to the degree of his own deterioration. Phil: For a long time Matt Brown was provided with inadvertent camouflage to hide the very good fighter that he was becoming. His fantastic fight with Wonderboy Thompson (to this date his only clear loss) was chalked up to Thompson's struggles acclimating to MMA, and for a while Brown would have strong performances where he'd take his eye off the ball and then get suddenly finished by a power or submission specialist, culminating in his loss to Seth Baczynski. Then he went on that huge seven fight run, where everyone gradually realized what a unique and dangerous offensive tool set he had. Although he struggled of late, it's a compliment to the respect that he's earned that everyone was so shocked that he got beaten by Jake Ellenberger.
Phil: If Brown's early career was camouflage of a sort, then Diego's career of late has something similar, albeit working in reverse. Looking at his recent record, it looks... fine. He goes win-loss-win-loss and the wins are respectable and the losses are understandable. It's the how of it that's been more concerning. Near-infinite willpower and cardio are still carrying him forwards, but increasingly encounters with any kind of speed or power are causing terrible things to happen to him. This combined with the way that he hasn't really looked "good" for a long time. What was the last time I really felt Diego was still an elite fighter. Paulo Thiago, perhaps? The way he got flatlined by Iaquinta and Lauzon was a sad inevitability that's been coming for years. What’s at stake?David: Not a whole lot. Fans get an action fight. Writers like us talk about our concerns. But for the most part, Tyron Woodley’s world will continue to turn, and neither Brown nor Sanchez’ struggles will wield any influence.
David: I don't know what there is to say we haven't already addressed. Diego has led an otherwise respectable career, mired in the disrespect of those who took advantage of a TUF star when that phrase really did mean something for the UFC world at the time. His loss to Al Iaquinta was predictable. It's just a matter of styles. Put Diego in there with Guida-style wrestlers who can't box, but will throw, and he'll put on a show. Throw him in there with power punchers who can wrestle, and it's hard to watch. Despite this narrative, I do think Sanchez has actively avoided a more disastrous fall. With his change in lifestyle, and general demeanor, things could have been worse. As is, he's not in a good place fight wise. But his mind is in a good place, which is not only more important for him personally, but critical to maintaining that last breath of cage celerity.
Phil: Brown has said this is his retirement fight. I wouldn't be sad to see both men hang up their gloves, to be honest. They've given this sport a great deal, and I'd like to see them walk away before it takes too much more from them.
Where do they want it?
David: Despite Brown’s reputation, he’s a skilled fighter before he’s anything else. His work in the clinch is sublime - concocting pressure out of elbows, knees, and doing it with aggressive entries from his loose boxing. From afar he closes distance with straight and angled punches, utilizing his reach to keep the blast template around the man in front of him at all times. Following TUF, he made a real commitment to improve his grappling. Defensively, he’s still a little porous. Some of that has been aided by improved takedown defense, but also his general skill set. He’s better at swiveling around in guard to keep raining down five knuckle bullets from above. Brown’s blue collar mobility helps round out his game into something more efficient than his raw skills should allow. Lately he’s been getting cracked by one hitter quitters. In Sanchez, he doesn’t have to worry about that.
Phil: Brown is a fighter who funnels his opponents down to dark places. While he's not the cleanest outside striker, his overhand right, hooks and body kick serve double duty: keeping opponents corralled in place for him to get into his beloved clinch, where he lands slapping elbows, knees, uppercuts, dumps, sweeps, and basically anything else you could possibly think of. It's difficult to think of a more purely variegated and mean clinch game, and testing him there (as per Tim Means) has traditionally been a recipe for disaster. Brown's success has often been almost directly proportional to how effective he is at pushing his opponents back. Those who march him down, and counter his punches early before they feed into the clinch, or neutralize him with takedowns before he can get rolling have always been problematic. Diego's pure aggression and wrestling game both feel like they were once things which could have given Brown some serious issues. Is that true any more though?
David: Diego’s game has become so fragmented over the years, it’s hard to know what to expect. He went from scrappy scrambler, to bar room brawler, to scrappy technician, and ended somewhere in a hyperspace that inhabited none of the above. His desire to be more patient has never sustained itself except against opponents he could muscle around. Like a coach playing a system that doesn’t mesh with the profile of the team, Sanchez has just never had the tools to be anything other than a pressure grappler. When he was fighting Nick Diaz and Jon Fitch, that’s who he was, but his game ended being lost in the shuffle of well-roundedness. I always felt like Diego had one weapon that could work as a top-down approach to pressuring opponents on the feet - his left high kick. It’s a powerful strike, but he chambers it at random times without much purpose. It’s just one of those uppercuts you throw in street fighter when you’re playing either a scrub, or someone too talented to get hit by a wake up hail mary blow. Even B.J. Penn had to respect it a little. He’s become a clone of Clay Guida, minus the hair, but plus the finishing skill set on the ground.
Phil: Diego has been a case study in working hard not smart. While he's always been obsessed with his latest new-age pathways to enlightenment, or finding crazy ways to train, he's never really looked like he's followed any kind of structure in how he's approached the fight; he just did what felt right, and simply tried incredibly hard at whatever that happened to be. Perhaps the worst long-term development for him was when he decided that he enjoyed striking. It delivered him a ton of bonus checks over the years, and turned him into a fan favorite, but I struggle to think of anyone that I really thought Diego beat on the feet apart from... Guida? Maybe that was the turning point.
Since then he split his time between angrily pumping hooks at the air and doggedly hanging onto single legs. He's still an absolutely top-shelf scrambler should the fight hit the mat, as BJJ experts like Jim Miller and Marcin Held have discovered, and this is where his unending cardio really gets to shine. It still feels like it's been awhile since he's been able to take the fight there himself, without relying on his opponent to either tire or actively wrestle.
Insight from past fights
David: Best case scenario for Diego is that the bout turns into his contest with Ross Pearson. No, it did not go well for Sanchez, but he has the ability to navigate within the storm when he’s careful, and acknowledges his limitations. If he just froths at the mouth and unhooks his jaw like some panther on bath salts, he’s dead on arrival. As is, I can’t even see how Diego wins unless Brown transforms into Joe Riggs. But I do think, against all odds, that Sanchez has the broad toolkit to avoid being obliterated before round three. Or is this just rosy optimism?
Phil: Brown has still never been the best defensive grappler. He remains the last opponent that Johny Hendricks was able to make his offensive wrestling work against. Diego on his best day is a worse wrestler than Hendricks, but far more effective from top position.
David: Do they have beef in 280 characters?
Phil: You shouted out Diego's head kick, but he also throws it well to the body. Brown has never taken body shots well. Lots have wondered whether this is due to his past heroin use. Jake Ellenberger is not traditionally a man who knocks people out with body kicks.
David: Even in Diego’s prime this would have been an awful matchup. Diego’s best shot is to swing that left leg and crack it against Brown’s ribs. It’s a good strike, and should be a proper gameplan but I don’t see where Sanchez ever avoids getting swamped from distance. In close he has some options to wrestle Brown down, but I just see Brown bullying him the clinch in these scenarios. Matt Brown by TKO, round 1.
Phil: Diego has some pathways to victory, but I'm just not sure if we see them. I think he could have won this fight in the old days, with his old durability, but it's just not there any more, and if Brown connects he will hurt him very badly. Matt Brown by TKO, round 1.