Bantamweight standout Cory Sandhagen cemented his place in the upper tier of talent in the 135-pound weight class last month, returning to the octagon and collecting a fourth-round stoppage win over dangerous Chinese contender Song Yadong.
Following consecutive losses to T.J. Dillashaw and Petr Yan, the Elevation Fight Team member took nearly a year off to recharge his batteries, work on his game, and put himself in a position to make another run towards the top of the division when he finally stepped back into the octagon.
The bout with Song was a high-risk, low reward pairing for Sandhagen, who entered with a higher ranking and all the pressure to perform on his shoulders. After a competitive opening stanza and eating a good right hand in the second, the more experienced 30-year-old was able to hurt Song, causing damage to one eye and opening a nasty gash over the other that ultimately brought about the end of the fight.
"Song wasn't my first choice in opponent because I obviously wanted someone with a higher number, because that's kind of how it works now, but everyone else was matched up, so I took a really risky fight, fighting way down in the rankings against a super-powerful, athletic kid who had nothing to lose," Sandhagen explained when we spoke late last week. "I took a big risk in that way, and the whole point of it was to fight someone I thought was a very good fighter, to gain some experience, and get back into the win column.
"I feel like I've done that – I finished the guy that I was supposed to finish – and now I want the UFC to give me a good matchup that is going to push me towards the title like all the rest of these guys."
The win over Song should earn Sandhagen that opportunity, and stands out versus some of the other victories registered by fellow divisional hopefuls during this busy bantamweight summer.
Marlon "Chito" Vera and Merab Dvalishvili each extended their respective winning streaks with high-profile victories a week apart in August, with Vera collecting a fourth-round knockout win over former champion Dominick Cruz prior to Dvalishvili grinding out a victory over long-time featherweight champ Jose Aldo a week later at UFC 278.
Both were good wins in terms of name recognition and the efforts put forth by each man, but in Sandhagen's opinion, he faced the toughest opponent of the three and that, coupled with the result, shouldn't go unnoticed.
"I didn't fight a famous guy like Aldo or Cruz, who are both, you know, a little bit on their way out," he offered, reflecting on his effort and the other "top of the food chain" fights that took place this summer. "I took on the tough, young kid who has nothing to lose, and I went out and finished him in the fourth.
"I know it doesn't get as many clicks as beating an Aldo or a Cruz, but I do know that Song is a super-tough guy, and all the pressure was on me. I don't think Merab and 'Chito' had as much pressure on them fighting down in the rankings.
"I'm proud of myself for that and think it speaks to the kind of fighter I want to be, the story that I want to write, so I hope that doesn't go unrecognized."
Scouting the competition
The UFC 280 main card features a pair of critical bantamweight matchups, as former champ Petr Yan squares off with rising star Sean O'Malley one fight prior to current titleholder Aljamain Sterling defending his belt against two-time former champ T.J. Dillashaw.
Having shared the octagon with three of the four competitors involved in this month's high-profile bantamweight pairings – and being one of only two men to face both Sterling and Dillashaw – it made sense to pick the brain of the talented Colorado native, getting his thoughts on how the matchups would play out and his assessments of what each of his bantamweight contemporaries bring to the table.
"Honestly, I feel like Sean O'Malley showed his level a lot more when he fought (Pedro) Munhoz, and I didn't really see him as a high-level fighter, honestly," he said, offering his assessment of the technicolor striker and Dana White's Contender Series graduate. "I think that O'Malley struggled a lot with Munhoz in that first round – Munhoz won the first round on the scorecards – and then O'Malley poked him in the eye, and then he gets to fight a contender fight."
Sandhagen isn't the only one who was caught off-guard by the matchup, as Yan is coming off four consecutive championship assignments and O'Malley has yet to register a victory over a top-10 opponent. But the 27-year-old has built a massive following along with a 15-1 record (with one no contest) throughout his career, and now faces the serious test everyone has longed to see him face inside the octagon.
"Honestly, I don't foresee it being the most exciting fight in the world because I think O'Malley is going to leave so much space, like how he did against Munhoz," continued Sandhagen, who went five rounds with Yan last October in Abu Dhabi. "I don't think he's high-level enough to pull things out of Yan the way really, really high-level strikers are capable of doing.
"I think O'Malley does a lot better when he moves backwards, and I'm interested to see if Yan is going to press him or if he's just going to stand there and make O'Malley come to him – I think that will be interesting – but I have Yan winning that fight.
"I can't wait 'til it's over and we can know for sure how good (O'Malley) is with evidence," he added. "But based on past evidence, I don't really think he's the most spectacular thing in the world."
As for the championship pairing, Sandhagen sees the bout between Sterling and Dillashaw playing out in the champion's favor.
"I think Aljamain has a lot of physical advantages in this one," began Sandhagen, who was submitted by the current champion at UFC 250. "I think he's going to be the much stronger, much more powerful person in terms of being able to move T.J. Not that he's going to be able to rag doll T.J., but I do think he's going to be able to move T.J. pretty well.
"I definitely don't think it's going to be an easy fight for Aljamain, but I just don't think T.J. is going to be able to stop Aljo from doing what he does best," he added, clarifying his point. "I don't think T.J. has a way to win other than outpointing Aljamain, but T.J.'s not really an outpoint you type guy – he likes to hit people hard, and I just don't really think he'll be able to catch Aljamain."
Some may take umbrage with Sandhagen's assessment that Dillashaw isn't someone that outpoints opponents, given that the two-time bantamweight champion earned a split decision win when the two faced off last summer, but it was a ultra-competitive fight that many believe Sandhagen deserved to win, and only five of Dillashaw's 13 career UFC wins have come on the scorecards.
"My analysis is that I think Aljamain is going to be the bigger, more physical guy, and he's going to do what Aljamain does best, which is have awkward striking, close the distance, grab him, take his back, and win like that.
"I think the way Aljamain moves and his striking is quite awkward – and I mean awkward in a complimentary way," he said with a laugh, making sure he it was clear he wasn't slighting Sterling. "T.J. obviously has giant advantages on the feet, but Aljamain has been able to make that work against better strikers than T.J., and I think that says a lot."
Sandhagen's time away following his loss to Yan served to replenish his competitive reserves and give the cerebral contender the break he needed following a couple years of constantly going from one training camp and fight into another.
With his batteries fully charged and bolstered by his efforts last month against Song, the 30-year-old doesn't want to spend too much time on the sidelines before returning to the octagon, but he's also aware that now is the time to be smart about things and find the best opportunity possible.
"(In terms of what comes next), a lot of it will depend on the October 22 card, but I will be ready to go for another main event in January," said Sandhagen. "I looked and I think a lot of those main event spots are filled through December, and I think that 'Chito' is definitely the opponent that I think will leave me just one fight away from the title, as opposed to maybe having multiple fights.
"I would like to fight 'Chito,' in a main event, sometime in January, and I feel like that's what a lot of the fans want, too," he added. "I think that will make for a banger of a fight, and I feel like I've earned my chance to choose the opponent since I was the guy that fought way back in the rankings with the last one, so I hope the UFC does me a solid on this one."
While the headlining spots for the first shows of 2023 are starting to fill up, a clash between Sandhagen and Vera would certainly make a great deal of sense from a divisional standpoint and would certainly be the kind of fight that draws a lot of eyeballs.
Whether that's how things line up remains to be seen, but, for now, Sandhagen is happy to be back in the win column, back feeling refreshed, and eager to see how things play out later this month in Abu Dhabi.
This story first published at UFC.com.