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Outside the Octagon: Diego's Dream Fight

Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from UFC.com editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia. 

As the UFC heads into Albuquerque for the first time this Saturday night, it’s important to note that the biggest fight in that city’s history didn’t even take place there.

That doesn’t mean the July 1997 bout between Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero didn’t warrant a spot in the heart of New Mexico, it’s just that it was a fight and a rivalry too immense to be held anywhere but Las Vegas, where the late, great Tapia won a 12-round unanimous decision over Romero.

Both were stars in the ABQ, Tapia the tattooed bad boy from the streets, Romero the squeaky clean kid with matinee idol looks. They didn’t like each other and weren’t shy about telling the world about it. The fight drew battle lines around the city, but when it was all said and done, the fighters mended fences while going in separate directions in their careers. 

Romero would fight on until 2006, winning more than he lost, but never reaching the heights he did leading into that night in 1997. Tapia became a superstar the night he beat Romero, and his story captivated the world for both good and bad reasons. His tragic history caught up to him in 2011 when he died much too young at the age of 45, but no one will soon forget him.

Most certainly not in Albuquerque, which makes this Saturday’s card an important milestone. In the years after Tapia-Romero, a city with a rich boxing history that includes that duo plus legendary light heavyweight champion Bob Foster, a new combat sport began to take the local headlines, thanks in no small part to the mixed martial arts gym run by Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. Countless numbers of world-class MMA fighters were produced by the Jackson / Winkeljohn team, and the city embraced them, perhaps none as much as a native son named Diego Sanchez.

|| SPECIAL COLLECTION: Watch this special Diego Sanchez collection only on  ||

Placed in the co-feature slot against Ross Pearson underneath a main event pitting former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson against Dagestan’s Rustam Khabilov (who trains at the Jackson / Winkeljohn gym), Sanchez may very well be the main event for the New Mexicans in the crowd, and not just because of the popularity of the former Ultimate Fighter season one winner.

It’s because Sanchez is one of them. 

Just like Johnny Tapia was a man of the people, someone with struggles and dilemmas far removed from what happened in the ring, Sanchez is a fighter Albuquerque natives can relate to. Danny Romero was too good looking to be a fighter, he came from a stable family, and he was the All-American kid. Tapia’s mother was murdered when he was 8 years old, and he spent his life trying to overcome that pain. People understood that pain because they experienced it, or at least something similar, in their own lives. Tapia was their guy, and every time he took a punch, they took it with him. 

Sanchez was a “Tapia guy” too, telling me before his March bout with Myles Jury, “I always had a heart for him because I know he had a lot of ups and downs and a really hard life. But Johnny was real. And I apply that same principle. We’re real people, we’re all human beings, and we’re made of the same stuff.”

Sanchez has that same aura, that same all or nothing intensity in his own proving ground, the Octagon. A member of the UFC roster for over nine years, Sanchez joins Mike Swick and Josh Koscheck as the only members of the TUF 1 cast to still be competing in the promotion. But after losses in three of his last four bouts, the 32-year-old needs to turn things around sooner rather than later if he still wants to make a run after the title that has eluded him.

> Check out Fight Night Albuquerque Preview, including a look at Sanchez-Pearson

That makes Saturday’s fight with Pearson the most important of his career. Sanchez knows it, stating that even with a win, this is probably the last time he will fight in front of his family, his friends, and his fans. That’s some heavy stuff right there, and when you give a fighter who always leaves it all in the Octagon more incentive, special things can happen.

It happened in 1997 for Johnny Tapia, and lightning could strike again Saturday night for Diego Sanchez. The only difference is that at least this weekend, the biggest fight in Albuquerque will take place in Albuquerque.

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