Bellator MMA’s first card of 2021 is a welcome sight. For too long, the UFC’s biggest competitor has been dormant. Now, the organization is back — on a new home, at Showtime. And kicking off that new relationship with a title fight. Bellator 255 sees the featherweight grand prix return, with Patricio “Pitbull” Freire defending his 145lb title against Emmanuel Sanchez.
The rematch of their 2018 title fight, which saw Pitbull win via decision, has been a long time coming. As has the return of the tournament itself, slowed down by the pandemic, among other factors. “Staying patient, staying hopeful,” is how Emmanuel Sanchez kept his mindset during the long wait between Featherweight grand prix appearances. “Just loving life, man. It’s all peace and live and Hakuna Matata.”
It’s hard for Sanchez, a longtime member of Bellator’s featherweight ranks, to put the grand prix journey into words. It all kicked off in 2019, exclusively on streaming service DAZN. It will finish off nearly two years later on Showtime.
“All I can say is I’m ecstatic, I’m excited, I’m blessed, I’m grateful, just so fortunate to be in this position that I’m in,” Sanchez told Cageside Press recently. Not just to be fighting, but to be able to do what he loves, “given the circumstances the world has been going through and the struggle it has been for every fighter to make it, to be able to provide for themselves, no matter what level they’re on,” he added. Amateur or pro, Bellator, the UFC, or RIZIN, “it’s a struggle,” recognizes Sanchez. “It’s been a struggle, but throughout this whole time, I’ve just been working.”
And, he later proclaimed, “outside everything that’s been going on, I get to go and say I’m a COVID champ, man.”
What differentiates a COVID champ from others? That’s hard to say. But over the past year, the MMA world has become accustomed to empty arenas. Where the only noise is the whip-like crack of a leg kick, the thudding blow of a body shot, and coaches barking orders from the corners. As much as he misses the fans, Sanchez also sees the benefits of fighting without them.
“It’s nice, don’t get me wrong. Touching people’s gloves on the way down there, you can hear people cheering for you, booing for you, yelling ‘rear-naked choke’ when we’re both standing, or ‘flying knee’ when we’re clinched or on the ground,” Sanchez observed, poking a little fun at some of the sport’s more vocal fans. “People just yelling out ridiculous stuff kind of just makes you laugh when I look back and think on it.”
Sanchez enjoyed all that. “Now fighting with no fans, I enjoy that too. Fighting is a very intimate thing, I don’t think a lot of people understand that. Only a fighter knows the feeling,” he continued. “Being in there, feeling every kick, feeling every punch, hearing my opponent, watching him wither away or seeing the pace and the pressure break him down.”
While some people fight better with a crowd, “For me, I kind of always zoned that out. Even though sometimes you see someone in the crowd or hear those ridiculous things, I still was zoned out. Tunnel vision. I’m only focused on that person in front of me, and sometimes hearing what their corner has to say.” Which, of course, Sanchez could use against them. “Now, having no fans, I’m able to hear everything loud and clear. My coaches, their coaches, and seeing my opponent break down and wither away.”
As Sanchez returns to action in the featherweight grand prix, he’s looking for both the win, and the storybook ending. “In this tournament format, me taking out Patricio Pitbull, and everything that he’s done already too recently— the other two grand prix fighters, Juan Archuleta and Pedro Carvalho, and also what he did at lightweight, taking out Michael Chandler — so me being the first man to take out Patricio Pitbull and stopping him, you can’t write a better story than that,” said Sanchez. After that, the plan is “to go on to advance to the final, becoming the first man to stop AJ McKee.”
The storybook part, really, is that Sanchez will be “the fighter who had the hardest run. I’ll be the fighter who had to take out two undefeated fighters to win this whole thing, and two fighters that beat him. You can’t write a better story than that.”
Pitbull is one of those fighters that beat him. Daniel Weichel, who he already took revenge on, is the other. But it’s Pitbull that holds gold, as he did when the duo first met in 2018. Sanchez, however, pointed out that he’s a very different fighter these days.
“I’ve got a lot more knowledge. A lot more wisdom,” he stated. “And I’m stronger. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. All of the above. Having fights like that, win lose or draw, they teach you things. Likewise my last fight with Daniel Weichel.”
Having such a tough durable fighter like Weichel withstand his many blows “and still come at me, they still teach you things, and they still make you a stronger fighter, a wiser fighter, a better fighter. And a martial artist. That’s what I am as a whole.”
“Too many people put themselves in a box,” Emmanuel Sanchez believes. That includes MMA, he added. The MMA world puts itself in a box as well. Just a week before Sanchez is set to face Pitbull, Alexander Volkanovski was expected to meet Brian Ortega for the UFC featherweight title. Two champions, two challengers, a week apart. It didn’t happen, but who the true best featherweight in the world is remains a question fans love to debate.
Volkanovski brought about the end of the Blessed era. Pitbull is the double-champ who finished Michael Chandler — and who looks poised to claim gold in the UFC later this year.
That box Sanchez spoke of? “If it isn’t UFC, it isn’t anything,” said Sanchez, taking note of a common mindset among many casual (and some not-so-casual) MMA fans. “They forget that there are great fighters all over the world. Those three letters, they don’t mean anything. That’s just one organization. Here, you have Patricio Pitbull, who I know for sure could easily go over to the UFC and challenge Volkanovski, beat Volkanovski. Or at least for sure make a heck of a fight with Volkanovski.”
And it goes both ways. “You take any of those guy and bring them over here, whether we go over there or they come over here, whatever. Brian Ortega, Yair [Rodriguez], Khabib [Nurmagomedov], Calvin Kattar, Max Holloway, etc. These would all be exciting match-ups. Any of us.”
Of course, Sanchez is only focused on two names right now: Pitbull, and AJ McKee. And if he does beat Pitbull, added Sanchez, “I belong amongst the best too. They would have to put me in that category as well. For sure, top 10 best featherweights in the world.
Emmanuel Sanchez will get his chance to join the top of the weight class, regardless of promotion, this Friday, April 2 at Bellator 255.