LAS VEGAS — There are a slew of traits that most great fighters share, but one that every one of them owns is the ability to respond positively to adversity.
There are many extraordinarily talented fighters who never reach their full potential because, in essence, they are frontrunners. When things are going great, they look like superstars. But if things fall off the tracks a bit, they don’t have the ability to shrug it off and make it right.
If Cory Sandhagen ever wins a UFC title, a big part of the reason why is his ability to overcome adversity. Sandhagen, who faces ex-UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 32, has responded like a champion after each of his two losses.
After a 5-0 start to his career, Sandhagen was beaten by Jamall Emmers at LFA 5 on Feb. 24, 2017. His response? First-round knockouts in his next two fights as well as three first-round KOs and two second-round finishes in his next five.
His only other loss came in a heavily hyped fight with Aljamain Sterling at UFC 250 on June 6, 2020. He was finished at 1:28 of the first with a rear-naked choke. His response was to dominate Marlon Moraes and stop him at 1:03 of the second the next time out, and then a spectacular flying knee KO of Frankie Edgar in just 28 seconds in February. Both of those finishes earned him Performance of the Night bonuses.
If anyone has proven he knows how to deal with tough times, it’s Sandhagen.
“Sometimes, every once in a while, you need a kick in the ass,” Sandhagen told Yahoo Sports. “I needed a kick in the ass after the Sterling fight. I don’t want to be a middle-of-the-run fighter. I don’t want that for myself. I don’t want that for my life, so I’ve done a lot of hard work in order to improve the areas I needed to improve.”
He’s become one of the elite fighters in the world and with a win over a complete fighter like Dillashaw, he figures to be knocking on the door of the mythical pound-for-pound Top 10.
He’s a great finisher — nine of his 14 victories have been by finish, with six by KO and three by submission — and he’s shown the ability to add layers to his game.
He’ll need that against Dillashaw, who is fighting for the first time since completing a two-year suspension for PED usage. Dillashaw was caught using EPO in a Jan. 19, 2019, bout in Brooklyn for the flyweight title against then-champion Henry Cejudo.
Dillashaw hasn’t fought in 30 months, but Sandhagen is a bright guy and he knows that Dillashaw didn’t simply fritter that time away. Dillashaw was one of the best in the world at the time before his suspension, and the layoff has likely not only allowed nagging injuries to heal, but helped him to add to his game.
Sandhagen, who is a -190 favorite at BetMGM, believes he’ll face the best version of Dillashaw we’ve seen.
“I’d be such a fool to walk into that cage thinking that T.J. wasn’t going to have made a lot of improvements in the two years he took off,” Sandhagen said. “I’m no fool. I anticipate T.J. being the best version of T.J. that we’ve seen and if that’s not the case, then OK. But I always err on the side of caution in terms of how good my opponent is.”
Dillashaw is 16-4 and held the UFC’s bantamweight title on two occasions. He is a formidable foe, but he’ll be seeing in Sandhagen an opponent the likes of which he hasn’t met. Sandhagen has the kind of elite footwork that has made Dillashaw a star, and he has the ability to win not just from any position but to finish from any position.
And the good thing about him is, he’s the definition of a fighter’s fighter. The winner of this fight figures to be next for the winner of the rematch for the title between Sterling and ex-champion Petr Yan, which hasn’t been scheduled yet but is later this year.
But Sandhagen won’t take a long break if it doesn’t work out that way. If he needs another fight in between, that’s what he’ll do.
Those are the kinds of guys who make the best fighters, and best champions. Sandhagen has the right stuff to be at the top of his sport. Now, it’s just proving it in the cage.
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