In three years, Orlando "The Cuban Tree Stump" Sanchez has gone from an introduction in jiu-jitsu to becoming a brown belt and head instructor/owner of the Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu School in Pasadena.
"I am one of the fastest Americans ever to get a brown belt," said Sanchez, who graduated from La Cañada High in 2000. "I am just progressing at such an amazing rate."
The rapid growth is a credit to how important jiu-jitsu has been in Sanchez' life.
"It's been a driving force for really changing people's lives for the better," he said.
That's definitely the case with Sanchez.
Alberto Crane, a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran, introduced him to jiu-jitsu a few years after he graduated from Azusa Pacific University at age 26. Sanchez had always been a competitor, primarily in football at La Cañada High and Azusa Pacific, but lost that competitive fire after college when he got into drugs and alcohol.
"Jiu-jitsu really saved my life," Sanchez said. "It all started with Alberto. I owe it all to him, he really changed my life and walked me down this path."
Since then, Sanchez, a La Cañada native and Pasadena resident, has won 10 jiu-jitsu tournaments in three years, including the Gracie Nationals, Grapplers Quest, the Pan-American Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship and the Abu Dhabi World PRO North American trials.
"It's definitely not typical [for someone to progress so quickly]," said Crane, who gave Sanchez his nickname "The Cuban Tree Stump" after being unable to move him when demonstrating a sit-up sweep on him. "He's a natural. He's been working really hard and accomplished a lot in a short period of time."
Sanchez' former La Cañada High football Coach Rich Wheeler wasn't surprised to hear his former All-American nose guard had found his niche.
"It wasn't a matter of whether Orlando was going to be successful or not," Wheeler said. "It was a matter of what, when and how. He was always into the weights and body building, he just needed the proper place and setting."
Now that the 29-year old Sanchez has made his mark in jiu-jitsu, he's looking to do some damage in the world of mixed martial arts.
"I want to take [MMA] as far as I can," Sanchez said. "I want to be the best that I can be, and I think if I can be the best that I can be that I will be the UFC champion."
Jesse Reid, who's been coaching Sanchez on his boxing for the past month and a half, doesn't hesitate to defend Sanchez' statement and potential.
"I think he's right [about potentially becoming the UFC champion]," said Reid, a Hall of Fame trainer that has trained 23 world champion boxers, including Roger Mayweather, Johnny Tapia, Hector Camacho and UFC fighter Tito Ortiz for a short period. "It's kind of early to tell, but he's just a freak of nature. You look at him and you can see he's strong, but you wouldn't think he has the speed he does.
"He's got that Mike Tyson speed, but he's so coachable, unlike Tyson."
On Saturday, Sanchez will look to prove Reid right when he competes in his second MMA fight during the "Valley Invasion," which is being promoted by Crane, at the Burbank Marriott Convention Center. He'll be taking on William Wheeler.
Sanchez made quick work of his first MMA fight, defeating Juan Miranda via TKO in 13 seconds in Dec. 2010. Sanchez doesn't know too much about Wheeler, except that he's a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and has a 2-1 record, with his last fight — a victory via submission over Jose Hernandez — coming on Sept. 10.
With his strength lying in jiu-jitsu, Sanchez is obviously fine going to the ground, but he's comfortable standing up and slugging it out, or wherever else the fight may lead.
"My fighting style is just complete dominance," Sanchez said. "I will dominate you in any position, anywhere."
That's because he trains with the best of what the MMA, boxing and jiu-jitsu worlds have to offer, he said. Rafael Cordeiro of Kings MMA in Huntington Beach is his MMA coach, with Reid and Crane training him in boxing and jiu-jitsu, respectively.
"He's got the eye of some really important people," Reid said. "He's one of those guys that people are going to be hearing about."
Sanchez doesn't only train with the best, but against the best. He's sparred with Wanderlei Silva, a legend in MMA circles and a former longtime PRIDE champion, and boxed with Malik Scott, an undefeated boxing heavyweight, and he holds his own against whoever his opponent is.
"[Scott] couldn't get over the combination of [Sanchez's] power and speed," Reid said. "That's quite a compliment coming from Malik."
All the training makes Sanchez' fights seem like they almost come easy to him.
"I never want to say it's easy, because I don't want to disrespect anybody I am fighting against, but it's going to be nothing uncommon for me," Sanchez said. "I am going to have seen and done it all by the time I fight.
"I am not worried, it's just another day of fun, man."
Wheeler wasn't exactly surprised to hear Sanchez was a fighter.
"He always had an edge to him — he was a tough nut," Wheeler said. "He wanted to hit and play the game [of football]. Sometimes that was our biggest issue. I was like, 'Hey there is more to football than just hitting.'"
Sanchez knows none of this — running his own Gracie Barra school or competing in the world of MMA — would be possible without jiu-jitsu and Crane.
While it is Sanchez' goal to become a UFC fighter within the next couple of years, he also wants to become a black belt world champion in jiu-jitsu.
"I am not in any rush for MMA because my concentration is jiu-jitsu," Sanchez said. "Jiu-jitsu is my life. It will be my life until I die. I will literally be on the mat teaching until I die.
"MMA is something that lasts for a blink of an eye, it's a good three to four years of fighting and that's it."
Just last week, Sanchez purchased the Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu School in Pasadena from Crane, where he is teaching people of all ages, from 2-years old and up, about jiu-jitsu — the thing that's had such a positive influence on him.
That's what matters most, Crane said.
"Besides him fighting and being a great athlete, competitor and fighter, what I am really proud of is what he does in the community and he how is making a difference in people's lives," he said. "That's what I am most proud of."
The ultimate reason Sanchez is diving into the MMA world and hopefully the UFC is to show his students there's no limit to what they can accomplish.
"It's not about winning medals, not about fighting, not about any of that," Sanchez said. "It's truly about becoming a better person and that's what jiu-jitsu has pulled out of me. It has completely made me a different person."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times