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UFC Fight Night 210 headliner Song Yadong: 'My dream is to be champion'

Eager to break into bantamweight division's top 5, challenge for title, Song must get past Cory Sandhagen on Saturday.

What were you doing when you were 15 years old? Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? Were you already taking steps towards making that dream a reality?

Personally, I was coasting through high school, completely unsure of what I wanted to do on the upcoming weekend, let alone what I would do with my life anywhere in the future; blissfully unfocused, unbothered, and unprepared for the quote-unquote real world.

When Song Yadong (19-6-1 MMA, 8-1-1 UFC) was 15, he was getting into professional fistfights.

"I started fighting at 15 years old," began the surging bantamweight, who takes on Cory Sandhagen (14-4 MMA, 7-3 UFC) in the main event of Saturday's return to the UFC Apex. "I was learning kung fu from school. Everyone wanted to go to college, but I wanted to be a professional fighter, so I told everyone I wanted to be a professional fighter, but they didn't believe me.

"A lot of people were asking, 'Why you?' and I told them, 'Why not me?'"

The early mindset of "Why not me?" helps explain how the now 24-year-old fighter has reached this point at such a young age, and how he's been able to take everything that has transpired over the course of his career in stride thus far.

Song made his professional debut in May 2013, with the bout ending in a no contest due to an accidental groin strike. Two fights later, he defeated current UFC bantamweight Alatengheili, closing out his first year as a professional with a 2-0 record, all before celebrating his 16th birthday.

He'd fight three more times the following year, and then twice in 2015 before making six starts in 2016 and three more appearances in 2017 before getting a short notice call to compete in the octagon. He was 19 years old and sported a 12-5 record (with one no contest), but confidently marched into the UFC cage and secured a first-round submission win over Bharat Khandare, earning a "Performance of the Night" bonus in the process.

You could see the elite upside in that first outing, but getting to this point – stationed at No. 10 in the deepest, most talent-rich division in the sport, facing a former interim title challenger in the main event of a stacked fight card – all before turning 25 would have been tough to predict, if you didn't know about that "why not me?" mindset.

"I fought almost four times a year, so it makes me have a lot of experience," Song said of those early years of his career. "I did everything – kickboxing, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai; I went to Thailand and had some amateur muay Thai fights – and everything has made me more experienced, growing fast. I think it has been very important for me now, and has helped me get into the top 10 at a young age."

But that mindset hasn't shifted now that he's competing on the biggest stage in the sport; the only thing that has changed is the goal.

"Before the UFC, my dream was to fight in the UFC. Now my dream is to be champion, so I feel normal, not like I'm living my dream," he said when asked about making his childhood dream come true. "The next goal keeps coming, and I keep going; I'm not finished yet."

While Song's upside was apparent from that initial outing, it hasn't been clear sailing into the top 10.

A few years back, he fought Cody Stamann to a draw in a fight where he was docked a point in the opening round after landing an illegal knee. Many believe the fight should have been scored in favor of the American veteran, and several held the same feelings about his subsequent bout – a unanimous decision win over contender Marlon "Chito" Vera, which took place at featherweight just a couple weeks after the UFC returned from its brief pause due to the pandemic in Spring 2020.

The lone official loss, however, came at UFC 259 in a fight against Kyler Phillips, where the Arizona-based prospect and former "The Ultimate Fighter" contestant raced out to a quick start and held on down the stretch to secure a unanimous decision win.

"(That fight) changed me a lot," he said of the loss to Phillips. "After that fight I felt I needed more focus on my training, more focus on my career. I watched my fights, and I noticed that I have a lot of space to improve and that I needed to be smart."

Since then, the ascending bantamweight has collected three straight victories, following a split-decision win over Casey Kenney with a second-round stoppage against Julio Arce and a first-round knockout win over former title contender Marlon Moraes.

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"The last three wins make me feel more confident and shows that my hard work is paying off," said the Chinese standout, who trains at Team Alpha MMA in Sacramento. "This fight, I worked hard every day, and I think this fight will also show that hard work pays off."

Saturday's headlining assignment is a huge opportunity for Song and comes at a time when the division is very much in the spotlight.

In mid-August, Vera pushed his winning streak to four with a knockout win over Dominick Cruz in their main event clash in San Diego. A week later, Merab Dvalishvili collected his eighth consecutive victory at UFC 278, grinding out a decision win over Brazilian legend Jose Aldo.

Next month in Abu Dhabi, not only does former champ Petr Yan face off with flamboyant contender Sean O'Malley, but current titleholder Aljamain Sterling puts his belt on the line against another ex-champ, T.J. Dillashaw.

With all eyes on the 135-pound weight class, Song knows this weekend's bout is an opportunity to make a statement and reach another of the goals that he's set for himself.

"It means I have the chance to get into the top 5 and challenge the champion," he said of the fight with Sandhagen, who currently sits at No. 4 in the rankings, and enters off consecutive competitive decision losses to Dillashaw and Yan. "Fighting into the Top 5 was my goal for this year, so I'm very excited for this fight.

"It's a big opportunity for me."

And while he's aware of everything going on around him in the division, Song's attention has been focused on Sandhagen, whom he has a great deal of respect for as an opponent, and as a fighter.

"Of course, I pay attention to what is happening in the division because they are potential opponents for me," he began. "But for this fight, I won't shift my focus to those other things until after I'm done focusing on my fight.

"What I like about Cory is that he has a very mature style – he uses feints to get his opponent confused, controls with his distance," he said of his American counterpart, who carries a 14-4 record into their meeting this weekend in Las Vegas. "He's a very mature and experienced fighter, and that makes him dangerous."

But despite the obvious threats that Sandhagen presents, Song isn't approaching Saturday's finale with a specific game plan in mind; opting instead to let his instincts guide him, just as they did last time against Moraes, and hopefully it will lead to the same result.

"I don't have any specific plans for the fight, but I believe that my instincts with my power and speed will tell me what to do at the time," Song explained. "Last fight, my coach told me 'Defense' in the first round, but I don't know what happened – I just went and got the knockout.

"Winning this fight is very important and would be one of the highlights of my career," he added. "I would like to knock him out."

If that should come to pass, nothing will change – one goal will have been accomplished, and another will present itself, with the mindset remaining, as always, "Why not me?"

This story first published at UFC.com.