As far as UFC events that don’t require a massive pay-per-view entry fee, Cory Sandhagen vs. TJ Dillashaw is about as must-watch as it gets.
The fight, which headlines Saturday’s ESPN-aired fight card from UFC Apex in Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET), is rife with storylines.
The winner looks all but certain to be the next challenger for the promotion’s bantamweight title. They’re former teammates. Ex-champion Dillashaw is returning for the first time in two and a half years after serving a suspension for his use of recombinant human erythropoietin — the banned substance Lance Armstrong infamously admitted to using to win several Tour de France cycling titles.
Sandhagen (14-2, nine finishes) and Dillashaw (16-4, 11 finishes) were supposed to square off on May 8, but the latter suffered a cut in training, and the bout was pushed back to the summer.
Sandhagen is used to big opportunities being shifted around, as was the case when he was meant to fight former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar in January 2020 before Edgar was shifted to a makeshift-headlining slot a month earlier that left the Colorado native high and dry.
But he wasn’t as miffed about the bad break this time, knowing that the Dillashaw fight was simply being moved back and not scrapped altogether — and he did finally face Edgar on Feb. 6, finishing the aging ex-champ with a violent flying knee knockout. When the news hit of the postponement about two weeks before the original May date, the 29-year-old just took “a couple down weeks” before revving up for 10 weeks of training for Dillashaw.
“I just let it be. I knew that they’d reschedule it,” Sandhagen told The Post on Wednesday. “I was just adamant about it being five rounds.”
The fact that Sandhagen pushed hard for a five-round bout may not be too surprising in some respects. A five-rounder in the UFC typically means a headlining opportunity that comes with added exposure — something Sandhagen can use as he nears a championship opportunity.
But the No. 2 bantamweight says his motivation for the scheduled 25-minute duration was tactical. That’s the part that might raise some eyebrows, given Dillashaw once won three consecutive championship fights with finishes in rounds four and five between 2014 and 2015, and he lost his 135-pound crown the first time in a tight split decision against Dominick Cruz. Plus, Sandhagen has never fought past the third frame.
“I like my advantages in five rounds more than, I think, most of my opponents,” Sandhagen explained. “… I think that TJ will wear, and I think that I have really good conditioning. And I think that I’ve done a lot of learning how to fight [when] very, very tired in the last few camps, and that’s given me a lot of confidence to throw things a little bit harder to be able to knock people out. And I think, with TJ, it’s gonna serve me better to have a five-rounder.”
Don’t forget that Sandhagen and Dillashaw have plenty of familiarity as former training partners. They know each other on a level most opponents do not. And the 35-year-old Dillashaw is, of course, coming off a stretch in which he has not competed since January 2019, when he lost by TKO in 32 seconds in a failed flyweight title bid at Barclays Center in Brooklyn against Henry Cejudo. In fact, Dillashaw has logged less than five minutes of octagon time going back almost four years to his first of two KO victories against Cody Garbrandt at Madison Square Garden in November 2017.
“I know he gets tired,” Sandhagen said. “He does good operating inside of a tired body, which I’ll give him credit for. But I think, especially him being a little older [and] him not being on drugs anymore is definitely going to cause some changing of the way that he will be able to perform in a five-rounder.”
Despite their shared past and Sandhagen’s disdain toward Dillashaw’s past performance-enhancing drug use — he referred to chasing that illegal edge as “gross” in an ESPN interview — Sandhagen maintains that fighting Dillashaw is simply a means of eliminating any doubt as to who deserves the next bantamweight title shot, once champion Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan rematch. Yan lost the title via disqualification in March when he put a knee to the downed Sterling’s head.
While Sandhagen, should he win Saturday, isn’t opposed to fighting again before a championship opportunity, he sees his résumé as superior to all others who might leapfrog him in the competitive bantamweight division.
“Do I see anyone being able to have an argument that goes past mine, before the title? I don’t see that,” Sandhagen says. “But also, a lot of that is up to the UFC too. We’ll play it by ear, but I think I’ll really stamp my passport and take that plane ride to wherever we’ll be fighting sometime next year for the world title.”