Cory Sandhagen seeks to use his upcoming bout against TJ Dillashaw as a launchpad to a bantamweight title bout, while Dillashaw needs a dominant performance to reassert himself following a two-year suspension. The next challenger for the bantamweight should be decided Saturday, as Sandhagen meets Dillashaw in the main event of UFC on ESPN.
Sandhagen (14–2) is ranked second in UFC bantamweight after winning his past two fights. A win against Dillashaw would lead to a title shot against the winner of the upcoming UFC 267 title bout in October, pitting Aljamain Sterling against Petr Yan.
“I would consider myself a failure if I didn’t retire being the world champion,” says Sandhagen. “I don’t plan on losing any more fights for the rest of my career. So that means winning the belt and staying the champ until it’s my time to walk away.”
Before he can be crowned champ, Sandhagen faces a multitude of challenges from Dillashaw (16–4), who is an elite grappler and also possesses an incredible amount of power in his arsenal. Dillashaw likely needs this victory, and a win against Rob Font, to put himself back in title contention for a title he never lost.
This is Dillashaw’s first bout following a two-year suspension after testing positive for recombinant human erythropoietin—a drug commonly used to treat chronic kidney disease, cancer or anemia, which can be used as a performance enhancer to increase someone’s oxygen consumption capacity. In 2019, Dillashaw cut weight to make his flyweight debut. He depleted his body and lost by TKO to Henry Cejudo, and his failed drug test led to the suspension, which forced him to vacate his bantamweight title. The stakes are outrageously high for Dillashaw, who needs to prove he is still an elite fighter.
Dillashaw was always explosive in the cage. After he missed two years of UFC competition, a serious question has emerged as to whether Dillashaw still possesses his unique brand of power.
“TJ’s definitely got his hands full,” says Sandhagen. “Not just with me, but with the entire division. Look at the division’s top 10. It looks a lot different than the division two years when he left. TJ definitely has his hands full on Saturday night. I’ve proven I’m world-class and I can be a world champion. That’s what I see this fight being, who’s going to fight next for the championship.”
Sandhagen’s last loss came against Sterling in June 2020, which ended his seven-fight win streak.
“I didn’t go out at a level of intensity where I needed to be,” says Sandhagen. “Fighting happens really fast, and the top guys in the world are able to take you out very quickly if you’re not 100% ready and prepared to engage in such an intense moment. That’s where I made my error with Sterling, and I’ve fixed that error. I practice a lot of getting myself intense and focused before sparring, and it’s paid off for me in my last two fights. I now have the intensity I need to compete against some of the best fighters on the planet.”
Thanks to focus and experience, Sandhagen will enter this bout with supreme confidence.
“I was watching Giannis [Antetokounmpo’s] interview after the NBA Finals,” says Sandhagen. “He talked about how he decided he was going to be the best player in the NBA, that he was going to work harder until he did it. That really clicked with me. It felt like my loss against Sterling, when I made the decision that I’m going to do whatever I need to do to be the best at this sport.
“I haven’t peaked yet. Every month, I’m becoming a better competitor, and that started with me losing that fight against Sterling. I’ve had four camps back-to-back-to-back-to-back on how to physically peak, and I’m able to do it in a much more efficient way.”
The bout should be a dynamic MMA fight, one that can go in a lot of different directions, and should be high-paced. The immediate future is on the line for Sandhagen and Dillashaw, and, with both having title aspirations, neither can afford a poor showing Saturday.
“Expect some intensity,” says Sandhagen. “TJ is a really aggressive guy. I’m a killer, and it’s going to end whenever TJ makes his biggest mistake.”