Cory Sandhagen couldn’t help but put his hands on his forehead when Petr Yan hit Aljamain Sterling with an illegal knee at UFC 259, relinquishing the bantamweight title to Sterling and potentially setting up a rematch in the future.
Not only was the moment stunning, but it also immediately impacted Sandhagen’s own journey to a title shot. He was roundly considered the “next in line” for a title shot after his Earth-shattering flying knee knockout against Frankie Edgar, but the murkiness of the situation set everyone’s timeline back dramatically.
“I think in matters of fighting and war and battle and stuff, impatience is weakness. I’m OK with waiting. It happened. What am I going to do about it? This is the situation that is, so I didn’t really have too many opinions about it. It was kind of a shoulder shrug, and then it was just, ‘All right, we’ll see who they offer me now.’”
Sandhagen knew enough beforehand to assume TJ Dillashaw was next. He had called the former champion out after beating Edgar, and it’s a matchup that plainly made sense.
Granted, this fight carries more weight than your normal No. 1 contender matchup. The bout is Dillashaw’s first since serving a two-year suspension. Naturally, that means Sandhagen is constantly fielding questions about what Dillashaw did and how he thinks Dillashaw will look, on top of everything else involved. All that said, Sandhagen seems like he is approaching the buzz with relative ease.
“I just stay focused on myself,” Sandhagen said. “Doing my best to stay in my world, go out and do my thing. It’s simple, but that’s kind of where I like to keep myself in life and in fighting and in everything. Just stay in my world. Everyone has to live with their own consequences, and he has to live with probably some pretty severe consequences after this, and that’s to his own demise. What is me getting frustrated and upset about that do anything for me? While I do have my opinions about using drugs and stuff, the people that do that, and they get caught, their consequences are on their lives. It doesn’t affect my life at all.”
In terms of Dillashaw the fighter, Sandhagen knows he has quite a puzzle to solve. That much is true, whether Dillashaw is coming off a traditional gap between fights or the current reality of an extended layoff. The two-time champ had built a resume that put him in the conversation with the best bantamweights to ever compete and he did so in style.
That’s all not to mention the history between the two. Sandhagen served as one of Dillashaw’s training partners years ago, so add “familiarity” to the mixture of narratives around this main event. Sandhagen acknowledges all the possible variants concerning Dillashaw, but also understands he won’t have any answers until the moment the Octagon door closes behind them.
MORE UFC FIGHT NIGHT: Fight By Fight Preview | Significant Stats | Brendan Allen Is Done Wasting Time | Randy Costa Plans To Open Eyes | Ian Heinisch Has Found 'Home Base' | Kyler Phillips: Ready To Make His Way To The Top | Darrick Minner Isn't Slowing Down
“I know TJ is a really dynamic fighter,” Sandhagen said. “He’s an athlete. He comes out there to win. He doesn’t like to lose. So, I’m not expecting that to be any different. I’m expecting his energy and his aggression to not be too much different. I just have to be very flexible in this fight in the way that his strategy is going to be and then countering that strategy with some flexibility.”
It sort of feels like Sandhagen’s career has prepared him for this exact situation, especially his recent bouts. He competed in his first main event two fights ago when he knocked out Marlon Moraes with a spinning wheel kick in the second round, and he followed with his win over Edgar – a man with as decorated a resume as anyone in the history of the sport.
The two wins were crucial in Sandhagen’s unlocking of what he has called a “crash state.” After suffering a first-round submission loss to Aljamain Sterling at UFC 250, Sandhagen reevaluated his approach to fights, changed his walkout song back to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme the Loot” and figured out how to put himself in the right mindset to compete.
“I think I got to prove to myself – which is the most important person to prove things to – that I can put myself in a killer, competitor headspace,” he said. “It’s like a law in competition that if you go in and you have a high will to win, if you’ve decided on that day that you really want to go out there and you really want to win, you’re going to do better. The days that you don’t really care, you’re not going to do very well.”
Embracing a win-at-all-costs attitude helped Sandhagen find that proverbial switch, and the results have backed that notion up.
He gives a lot of credit to his coaches and teammates at Elevation Fight Team, especially his cornermen Christian Allen and Carrington Banks. As a whole, they help cultivate the competitiveness, bringing that attitude to any sort of competition whether it’s spikeball, dodgeball or video games.
“Not a lot of people, I don’t think, value greatness that highly, which is completely OK,” Sandhagen said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but being in a room full of guys where you can connect in your highest values is something really special, and the fact that I see them every single day, I care about them a lot. Like, I care about them a lot. I probably get more nervous for their fights than I do for mine, at times. Those guys are my brothers.”
It’s been a shift evident even in his walkouts, which seem much more intense as of late. The energy isn’t manic, but rather focused. Dillashaw acknowledged as much, saying the biggest change he sees in Sandhagen since their days training together is the 29-year-old’s confidence.
Of course, mentality and confidence only take one so far. Elite skills are required, too, and that’s always been there for Sandhagen. The combining of the two has played out for everyone to see during his eight-fight career in the UFC, and as he makes the final walk of the night on July 24, he knows he is able to put it all together, defeat Dillashaw and earn himself a clear shot at UFC gold.
“I think I’ve done a really good job of channeling the energy inside of me and not being afraid of all of the pressure that comes with really wanting something, and really wanting to win, and just being comfortable with that amount of pressure and knowing the consequences if it doesn’t work out, how that can play out emotionally,” Sandhagen said. “That would kill me, and just being OK with all of those things has really helped me embrace the all-or-nothing type of attitude where I’m giving my entire life to this thing.
“I’m giving my entire life to become a world champion. I’m not afraid of that anymore.”