The Matador. The term is defined as a “bullfighter who has the principal role and who kills the bull in a bullfight.” In layman’s terms, it’s the crazy individual who waves a red flag at a bull and who narrowly escapes death each time the massive, horned beast makes another pass. The sport has its share of controversy, given the killing of the animal involved. However, it traces its origins all the way back to 711 A.D., and it has been documented that “Spain owes its bullfighting tradition in part to gladiator games,” according to Frommer’s Travel Guide. Gladiators fought for glory and entertainment. Bullfighters fight for pride and honor. “El Matador” Emmanuel Sanchez fights for all of these reasons.
On Thursday, Nov. 15, Sanchez will not wave a red flag at a bull, but rather at a “Pitbull.” Sanchez challenges Patricio “Pitbull” Freire for the Bellator world featherweight title at Bellator 209 in Israel. Sanchez has truly worked his way up through easily one of the toughest divisions in the entire Bellator organization. This is his first world title shot.
“So much goes into it. This is 10 years in the making,” Sanchez told Combat Press. “Not to sound cliché, but the way the stars are aligning — I’ve waited a long time for this. I had my first amateur fight in November, my first professional fight in November , and it’s time. It’s time to go get it, and what better place than on God’s holy land? I’m a strong man of God, and with my faith, persistence and my willingness to never give up, I’ve been patient, I’ve worked hard, I’ve never lost heart, I’ve never lost motivation. I knew my day was coming, and now it’s time.”
“I knew this day would come. Excuse my language, but to be like Nate Diaz, I’m not surprised, motherfucker. I knew if I worked hard, if I really applied myself… I really believed deep down within my heart and soul and put everything I had into this. Aside with the girls. Aside with the pizza or whatever. Aside with needing to go out. I put off everything, even my own family. I see my guys in the gym more than I see my own family.
“I put my kids in jiu-jitsu today, because I’m also the kid’s jiu-jitsu coach at Roufusport. Their parents watch them every day as I’m teaching them, and I told them, ‘Man, you guys are special to me. You help me get ready for fights, because I’m training, and I see you guys every day. I see you guys more than I see my mom. That’s crazy. I see these kids every day. If I’m lucky, I can see my mom once or twice a month, just because we live a way away from each other and I’m busy with training and teaching and everything else I got going on. I gotta rest. It’s one of the most important parts. That being said, I’ve sacrificed so much just knowing that I’ve put everything on the line.”
The road to the title has not been an easy one for Sanchez. He had to face former champions Daniel Straus, Marcus Galvão and Georgi Karakhanyan. He also fought two-time title challenger Daniel Weichel and UFC veteran Sam Sicilia. This was just in his last five fights, too. In his Bellator tenure, Sanchez started out 5-2 through his first seven outings. His only losses in this stretch came to another former Bellator champion, Pat Curran, and the aforementioned Weichel. Sanchez had only one finish in those bouts, and he won three fights in a row by split decision at one point before dropping a split verdict to Weichel.
Sanchez’s next four fights were proof that he was getting better. First, he edged Karakhanyan for a majority decision. Then, he claimed a unanimous nod over Galvão. Next, he submitted Straus. Finally, in his most recent outing, Sanchez dispatched The Ultimate Fighter alum Sam Sicilia with an arm-triangle choke in the first round.
“He’s been around the game for a long time,” Sanchez said of Sicilia. “I grew up watching him. I’ll never forget. He was fighting in the UFC before I was even a pro yet. And Straus was fighting for world titles before I was even a pro.
“I’m still kind of new in the game, kinda the new kid on the block, and I gotta prove to the world, myself and these other guys that I’m no joke and I’m here to take over. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s been quite the process.
“My only losses — no excuses, but I’ll be real. One [was] a short-notice one and third fight in, fighting the former champ, a guy who had more professional fights in Bellator than I had [total]. The other [was] a close decision loss which was a toss-up either way. But you know what? I’m kinda glad I lost that one. No more decisions. No more — well, I wouldn’t call it point fighting — maybe, perhaps, be[ing] someone I’m not. I think I have to show more technical aggression. I’m not gonna be cliché and say, ‘Yeah, you get better every fight,’ because of course you should.
“Now that the eyes are on me, I don’t gotta fight every fight like that. My approach to it is so much more different. [It’s] much more cerebral, stronger — not just physically but mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and my maturity [and] my approach to the game. The best word I could use for it: the maturity. The experience over these years and the experience being in the ring with these veterans, these legends, these top bests-of-the-world fighters, it’s taught me a lot.
“It’s just like life. I’m not the same kid I was when I was 12 [or] when I was 16 [or] when I was 20, so on and so forth. It’s the same thing here. It’s just been… These changes over these last few years have maturity, more than anything. Obviously, when you’re younger, you can’t handle a lot of things. There’s a reason you have to be 16 to drive [and] 21 to drink.”
Age is one thing, but time is another. So, while experience is great, Sanchez also has a sense of urgency when it comes to his career goals.
“You never know what’s going to happen in between training, life and everything else,” explained Sanchez. “You never know. There is no tomorrow. I live by that as well. There is no tomorrow. There is no ‘Oh, we’ll get him next time,’ [or], ‘I’ll play better next time.’ We’re fighters. We fight, and my ass is on the line. So, I gotta go out there and get it and leave it all on the line.
“I’ve worked very hard to get to the position that I am at. I want to go out and I want to dethrone the current champion and be the king of the division and be the reigning champion — the reigning, defending champion — and cement that with a stamp on it as the best featherweight in the world, the best featherweight in the division, the best featherweight on the Bellator roster, and reign supreme.”
In the last five years, Bellator’s featherweight title has changed hands four times. It started around the waist of Straus, before going to Curran, Freire, Straus once more and then Freire again.
“Now it’s time for a new face,” said Sanchez. “These guys are legends. They helped build the featherweight division back when there was no featherweight division. It’s very popular now, and not just because of [Conor] McGregor. I see it more because of [José] Aldo [and] Urijah Faber way back in the WEC days. No one believed that there would be lighter weight classes ever. There wasn’t even lightweight in the UFC, only 170 [pounds] and up. Then they added lightweight. Then they added featherweight. And now it’s very great for the lighter weight classes.
“I can’t wait to go out now and be one of the biggest faces in the lighter weight classes, because it’s been Curran, it’s been Straus, it’s been Pitbull, and now it’s time for a new face. I’m not an old guy by any means, and compared to all these guys, I’m young in the game. I’m 9-2 in Bellator now, and that’s still nothing compared to Patricio’s 14 wins. Same thing with Curran. Same thing with Straus. Same thing with Galvão. The list goes on and on for any of the former champions or top contenders that I have faced. Now, it’s me needing to go out there and be a mainstay and be the face of the division.”
Collectively, the featherweight strap has spent more than six and a half years jumping between Curran, Straus and Freire. Here’s a bit of perspective: when Curran first claimed the crown with a win over Joe Warren at Bellator 60 on March 9, 2012, Sanchez held a pro mark of 1-0. “El Matador” had made his debut less than four months prior to Curran’s title win.
“One day, your idols become your rivals,” said Sanchez. “I’ve never idolized anyone, but I’ve always thought, ‘Man, what would it be like with me and that guy right there, right now?’ I’ve had to realize that obviously I’m not ready for that yet. Those guys have worked their way up, and that’s why they have 30-plus fights to get to where they’re at, going through the regional rankings or starting off [in] Bellator, UFC and all over the world.
“That was the same thing for myself. All of my [fights] were through regional and now, bang, homegrown through Bellator, through two newly signed deals, so obviously they have invested in me, which I appreciate, and I am very grateful for it.”
Sanchez’s resume consists of one knockout win, seven submissions and nine decision victories. He’s suffered all of his losses on the scorecards.
“Even though I’ve been to the distance and had a couple close fights, I’ve never been in a boring fight and I’ve never gotten my ass beaten,” Sanchez pointed out. “It’s been back and forth, and I’ve had my licks, but it’s not been that I’ve been sent to the hospital, concussed [or] nothing like that. I still put on a helluva fight — guaranteed ‘Fight of the Night’ every time I fight. Not that I’m necessarily looking for it, but I’ve always known it. Be entertaining. Be exciting. I’m here to put on a show. I’ve never been booed. I’m here to have fun, and in the act of me having fun, you just get the crowd going. The crowd is my favorite. I love it, so I stick with it and I feed and build off that energy.
“There’s no need for trash talk. There’s no need for animosity. My mouth is what? For speaking on the phone right now and choosing my words wisely. I let my fists do the talking. My favorite Mike Tyson quote ever, and that’s something I live by: ‘I don’t intimidate by what I do or say before a fight. I intimidate people by hitting them.’ So, before the fight, anyone can say whatever they want, do whatever they want and whatever. It’s all about what happens when that cage door closes and the first punch that I hit them with, that’s normally what changes their mind. That’s what intimidates them. That’s what puts the fear of God in them. The first kick I throw. The first punch I throw. That’s just me going light. That’s just me getting warmed up. Wait till I really start cracking.
“I think you’ve seen that in fights, and that’s what really breaks people. It’s not raw punching power or pure aggression or just heart and determination. It’s really just skill and will, but the will gotta be stronger than the skill. I’m going with Tyson and [Muhammad] Ali on this one. I bring back all the old legendary days. I do my best to hype the fight, but I have to fight by putting on an exciting fight, a hell of a fight. Why be the guy who just talks, talks, talks and you go out there and you get knocked out, get submitted, and don’t live up to what you say? I’m a man of ‘Don’t talk; Show me.’”
Sanchez currently trains at Roufusport in Milwaukee under famed head coach Duke Roufus. The group of fighters training at the camp includes current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, recent UFC trade acquisition Ben Askren and the Pettis brothers, Anthony and Sergio. Roufus made the decision at UFC 229 to halt the bout between the elder Pettis brother and Tony Ferguson. The scenario was very similar to when American Top Team fighter Raquel Pennington fought UFC women’s bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes, except in that case, Pennington’s coaches opted not to throw in the towel.
“Obviously, it was coaches’ decision,” Sanchez explained. “Our health and our livelihood are on the line, and that’s how much they care about each and every single one of us. Whether it be the highest level, obviously the UFC, or someone who’s an amateur. We’re not gonna let someone go out there and take punishment. That’s it. We’re calling it.
“Your ass is on the line. This isn’t just, ‘Oh, you lose by points,’ or, ‘That didn’t go our way.’ This is, you get sent to the hospital if you can’t defend yourself. That’s what the referees tell you. You’re not intelligently defending yourself and protect yourself at all times. Even with football, there’s still timeouts. There’s still, ‘Oh, you gotta get him out of there because we gotta look out for the safety of the players.’ The safety of the fighters. All the coaches, the referees, the doctor — they know that. I understand you want to go out like a warrior. I’m the same. But I gotta remember my livelihood after this.
“I want to fight another day. I know I want to continue fighting. I want to continue walking.”
It’s a familiar refrain. A fighter has to make a living, and most fighters can’t cash in on just a single payday.
“Other guys that are well established, like Anthony [Pettis], are people who’ve got other businesses, multi-millionaires, et cetera. OK, you can afford a year off, two years off — like McGregor,” said Sanchez. “But not every fighter can afford that. Not every fighter has that luxury. We have to fight. Until we can work our way up and hopefully have that as well one day too, which every fighter should be. Gotta be smart [and] make the right business moves. We all want to be in that boat. We gotta make our own retirement plan. We’re independent contractors, so it’s on us to be smart and make those decisions on our own.
“We have to think of the future. Make the right moves. Be smart. Listen to your body. Take care of yourself. I’ve always had, ever since I was 18 and I started fighting. I know I can’t fight forever. Everyone always wants to hit you with, ‘Well, what if fighting doesn’t work?’ Or, ‘What are you gonna do after fighting?’ I’ve never thought that way. I always pray to God that I stay healthy and injury free. [I] did my best to take care of and listen to my body, and [at] 28 years old, I’ve only ever had to pull out of one fight ever.
“I learned my lesson from it, again, and that’s what started my great run to my title shot now. I had to listen to my body and not be going through all that business and nonsense. I’ve been blessed throughout this whole process, and I want to continue with the same mindset. I’m continuing to grow, continuing to mature, continuing to get better, evolve, et cetera. I’m moving along with the sport. I’m moving along with myself. Like my coach says, ‘Last year’s efforts will give you last year’s results.’ Yeah, my last year’s results were alright, but to me good is not good enough. Onward and upward. I’m looking to continue to have greatness.”
Fighting is a career, too, but not everyone is blessed with a chance to pursue their dreams while free from the stress of everyday life.
“Man, I’ve only been able to do this full-time for the past four years since I signed with Bellator,” said Sanchez. “Most guys have been able to train full-time as soon as they start, [but] I had to have multiple jobs. I’ve been a dishwasher working in a restaurant while pursuing my dream. I’ve been in and out of every type of factory as an amateur or a professional, working third shift, second shift, first shift, whatever kind of shift, double overtime, and still only getting to train once a day if I was lucky. It’s taken a toll on me, and even then, those moments and those nights, I had to go out there and do all those things.”
It wasn’t easy for Sanchez. There were times when he didn’t think he could keep it up. He was anxious to realize his dream.
“I still never doubted it for a second,” Sanchez admitted. “I never thought, ‘Man, this is never gonna happen for me.’ I knew this day would come. I just needed to be ready for the moment. Truly, I’m ready.”
Now, Sanchez’s moment is here. In Israel, he’ll step into the cage as the challenger to Freire for the Bellator featherweight championship.
“I always knew I would make it this far, because I busted my ass,” said Sanchez. “I gave up everything. Literally everything. I don’t wanna get married. I don’t wanna get kids. I don’t even want to get a girlfriend. Right now, I do [have a girlfriend], and she helps me and supports me, but it took me a long time. We have a house together [and] a dog together. She does my weight cuts for me. She’s my number-one supporter more than anything, because she’s got my back. I keep my corner small. I’d rather have four quarters than 100 pennies. I don’t need anyone else. I don’t need no entourage. I got my crew, my squad, my team [and] my village. Now we’re gonna go out, we’re gonna take out Patricio Pitbull, and I’m gonna bring this belt home.”
Five rounds under the bright lights in Tel Aviv. It’s time to see what Sanchez can bring to the cage against the Pitbull.
“I just want to get in there, get out, do my job, go home, be with my girl, eat some pizza, chill with my dog, [and] eat some more pizza,” said Sanchez.