Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we talk to top fighters, preview the weekend's combat sports action and make crotchety observations about the MMA news of the day. Ready? Let's proceed.
Cory Sandhagen is already looking past his fight with TJ Dillashaw.
Can you blame him? After his fourth bout in a little over a calendar year, he'll need a vacation.
"After this fight, me and my girlfriend are going up to Glacier National Park for a few nights," Sandhagen told me in an exclusive interview with B/R. "We'll be staying there and exploring that area; go camping. I like to live simple and remind myself that I'm just another ant in the world, crawling around."
It's easy to get caught up in the flying knees and spinning wheel kicks, but Sandhagen (14-2) is a thoughtful cat. When he locks up with former bantamweight champ Dillashaw (16-4), who is famously returning from a yearslong performance-enhancing drug suspension, Sandhagen will likely be vying for a No. 1 contender slot and a new level of fame. To hear his ant analogy, though, he's doing his part to keep it in perspective.
That's evident in his response to a recent comment from Dillashaw, who went so far as to call this the "real" title bout at bantamweight when speaking to reporters Wednesday. Given the chance, Sandhagen wouldn't join his former training partner on that limb.
"This is not for a belt," Sandhagen said. "While I do think a fight between me and TJ is a very high-caliber fight between two very highly skilled guys going at it, it's not the belt until it's for the belt."
Still, although Saturday's UFC on ESPN 27 in Las Vegas isn't on pay-per-view, this loaded card, topped by Sandhagen-Dillashaw, is still must-watch viewing for serious fans.
Sandhagen got here by wresting away the narrative of the bantamweight division and refusing to give it all the way back. After being choked out by now-champion Aljamain Sterling (20-3) in June 2020, Sandhagen responded by knocking two prime contenders into the land of wind and ghosts: first Marlon Moraes (23-8-1) by spin kick and punches in October and then the legendary Frankie Edgar (24-9-1) in February with a jumping knee strike just 28 seconds into their contest.
All three bouts taught the 29-year-old Sandhagen something he's carried forward to today.
"I definitely learned from the loss that I need to be more intense," he said. "What I learned from the Moraes and Edgar fights is that I'm able to put myself into a headspace where I can be very fearless and be extremely focused on execution. I can find that place of a world-class competitive mindset."
Sandhagen should know something about courage. Until recently, Sandhagen worked for the past several years as a part-time counselor of sorts at Mount Saint Vincent's, a Denver home that "serve[s] children and their families through a variety of therapeutic, educational and counseling programs." If you want to talk about heroes, Sandhagen said, you can't forget those who put in hour upon critical hour of work helping the vulnerable and traumatized.
"A lot of kids are placed there by the state because they were dealt bad hands," Sandhagen said. "I was in the residence part, which are like dorms, and I just helped walk them through the day. I'd take them to breakfast, keep them entertained, tuck them in at night and read them a story. A lot of them come from some type of history of abuse or neglect. … I enjoyed doing it. It gave me a little bit more of a sense of purpose."
Sandhagen, who has a psychology degree from the University of Colorado Boulder, had originally wanted to pursue social work. He didn't rule it out for after his career but called social work a "tough gig." Those words carry serious weight coming from a pro fighter.
"I don't know if I'm cut out for it, especially at this stage of my life," he said. "It's a very taxing job, and the people that work in those types of jobs know how challenging they can be, not just during the work days but after the work days. Forming relationships with kids that have had very ugly pasts is really just a challenging thing."
Good thing for Sandhagen he has a nice, relaxing cagefight coming up. Although Dillashaw's been on the shelf for a long time and ring rust may well be in play, he's still arguably the best bantamweight of his era. A well-rounded wrestling-based game, punctuated by top-notch footwork that keys a diverse striking arsenal, is the hallmark of the former champion's game.
On the other side, Sandhagen is primarily a striker, with a 5'11" frame and a 70-inch reach making him a rangy customer for the 135-pound division. (For comparison, Dillashaw stands 5'6" with a 67-inch reach.) Output is his calling card, with 6.85 strikes landed per minute, good for 10th among active UFC fighters, per official stats. Though Dillashaw is expected to have a wrestling advantage, Sandhagen might hope to control range to stop takedown attempts before they start.
"I think that just physically I'm capable of putting out a lot more volume than these other guys," he said. "I think my range makes that a lot easier. I wouldn't say I hunt for the finish. I kind of just wait for them to mess up and then just keep scoring on them until I hurt them with a body shot or low kicks. None of it is designed to knock you out, and if it does, that's on the other guy. I'm really going in there to outskill and outclass the other guy."
Sandhagen is a -195 favorite (bet $195 to win $100) to defeat Dillashaw, per DraftKings.
Stone Cold Lead-Pipe Lock of the Week
Record to date: 15-4
Welcome back to the place where conservative bettors find the safety pin for their weekend parlays. Remember: I bet all these myself, thus walking my talk.
For UFC on ESPN 27, let us wander down the preliminaries, where we find a former Gold Gloves New Yorker by the name of Julio Arce (16-4), who is making his UFC bantamweight debut after an adequate-if-unspectacular run at 145 pounds.
Arce will push forward come hell or high water, which gets him in trouble sometimes, but it won't against Andrew Ewell (17-7), who doesn't have the hands or the chin to stay with Arce over the long term. If the action hits the ground, it's a much softer landing place for Arce than for Ewell as well.
Arce is a -200 favorite on DraftKings. Lock that in now.
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