It was Sept. 5, 2002. That night in the room, they discussed an ambition they shared: to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the big leagues of MMA. Both would realize that goal after following parallel paths through the fight game.
Those were the dark days of MMA, when regulation was minimal and fighter safety wasn’t protected as rigorously as it is today. On the positive side, this was before 2009 when Juárez earned the dubious distinction of the highest murder rate per capita of any city in the world. The Aztec Challenge “was actually a pretty organized event,” recalls Condit. “It was more well put together than events I’d competed at stateside, honestly.”
MMA had not yet evolved to the point where fighters incorporated a mix of styles in their repertoires. It was the heyday of questions like: Who would win a fight between a Muay Thai master and a karateka?
“There were a lot of quick fights,” Condit says of the first Aztec Challenge. “At the time, you’d get a guy who was trained in karate or boxing fighting a wrestler. So you know, there were some mismatches.”
Both Condit and Sanchez took care of business quickly. Condit forced Nick Roscorla to tap to a rear naked choke just 52 seconds into their fight, while Sanchez took 100 seconds longer to knock out Jesus Sanchez. It was Condit’s first professional fight, Sanchez’ second.
At the time, Sanchez was fighting as a 185-pound Middleweight, while Condit was fighting as a Lightweight, 155 pounds. Now at 170 pounds, they're both Welterweights and contending for the UFC title.
Their paths to a title belt could pit Sanchez against Condit in the near future, but at the moment they're training side by side at Jackson-Winkeljohn Mixed Martial Arts. Neither one seems concerned about the collision course they might be on. Each has a fight of his own to prepare for.
“As a kid I was into Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, Ninja Turtles, all the early ’90s ninja flicks and stuff like that,” Condit says. “Now, basically I get to train all day. I really enjoy that. I get to travel all over the world and meet all kinds of people ... and, you know, fight.”
Condit was 9 when the UFC started, which puts him in the first generation that grew up with MMA.
“When I was about 15 years old I was already a UFC fan and had been watching it for years," he says. "I decided that I wanted to start training. I wanted to learn how to fight for real." He looked in the phone book and found Jackson’s. As a teen, he had to rely on his dad to take him to practice. (That dad, by the way, is Brian Condit, who was later Gov. Bill Richardson’s chief of staff.)
The branch closest to Condit’s house went on to become the independent gym FIT NHB run by Tom and Linda Vaughn.
Condit won the Welterweight title in the World Extreme Cagefighting organization in 2007 under the Vaughns’ coaching. He defended his belt three times before the WEC was absorbed by the much larger UFC. Condit decided he needed better training partners, but the Vaughns, he says, didn’t want him training at their old partner’s gym.
He moved to Phoenix, where he trained and lived for about a year. While in Arizona, he was 1-1, both split decisions. He decided to come home and showed up at Jackson’s.
Since returning to Albuquerque he’s been on an undefeated streak that landed him a shot at the UFC’s interim Welterweight title against Nick Diaz.
The "interim" qualification is because UFC Welterweight kingpin Georges St- Pierre suffered a knee injury that left him unable to defend his title for an unknown period of time. Condit and Diaz will fight for the title, and perhaps defend it against other challengers, depending on when St-Pierre recovers.
“I wanted to go see what else was out there in the world. I was very curious,” Sanchez says. “I experienced California. It was nice. But Albuquerque, N.M., is my heart, my home." His family's here, he says, and he loves the mountains, the Chicano culture and the training advantage of the thin air. "It’s where my heart belongs and where I’ll be for the rest of my life.”
It was Sanchez who first hit it big when he knocked out Kenny Florian to win the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show as a Middleweight (185 pounds) in 2005. This happened right as the sport was emerging from the underground.
Since then, Sanchez has dropped down in weight and made an unsuccessful bid at the Lightweight title before settling in at Welterweight. He is preparing to take on Jake Ellenberger in a match that, depending on when St-Pierre is ready to fight again, could be an eliminator for the division's next title shot.
At Jackson’s one afternoon, they practice variations of the rear naked choke, the same move that sealed Condit’s first win in Ciudad Juárez. So what's it like, training so closely with a possible future opponent? Sanchez seems unconcerned. "We're just letting it be," he says. “It is what it is. I have plenty of respect for Carlos. He has plenty of respect for me. We both want to be the champion. That’s our dream. That’s our job.”
Greg Jackson has set up a system for a situation where two of his fighters are forced to face off. There’s a team-wide understanding that such a fight would happen only with a title on the line. The issue was forced in the spring, when it looked like then-teammates Jon Jones and Rashad Evans would have to fight. That fight has been postponed twice but is scheduled for April 21 in Atlanta. Evans no longer trains at Jackson’s. Still, the specter of that matchup spurred the camp to confront the issue of teammate versus teammate showdowns.
“If we have to fight, we’ll have our own little camps, and Greg will not take part in it,” Sanchez says. “It will be interesting, but that’s what we got to do.”