Following the toughest stretch in his professional career, Cory Sandhagen finds himself only a victory away from his first UFC title run.
In a bout to determine the interim bantamweight champion, Sandhagen (14–3) steps into the Octagon on Saturday at UFC 267 against Petr Yan. Despite splitting his last four fights, and coming off a loss to TJ Dillashaw three months ago, just Yan (15–2) stands between Sandhagen and the title.
But it will not be an easy task. Yan appeared poised to defeat Aljamain Sterling at UFC 259 in March, but was disqualified late in the fourth round after he walloped Sterling with an intentional illegal knee strike. Initially, UFC 267 was intended to feature a rematch between Sterling and Yan, but Sterling withdrew because of a neck injury. That opened the door for Sandhagen to get a shot at the belt, an opportunity he does not take lightly.
“To have their fight end the way that it ended, that was a shame,” Sandhagen says. “I thought it was really silly on Yan’s part, and it’s a shame that Sterling’s getting backlash after taking a flagrant shot.
“Now it’s my chance. As long as I go in there for 25 minutes and work my ass off, stay focused, and stay in the world I fight best in, I think I walk out of there with gold. If I do those three things, I’ll be champ.”
Sandhagen has lost just three times in his career, two of which were by decision. Sterling handed Sandhagen a different kind of defeat, needing only 88 seconds to submit him. If he wins the belt, Sandhagen plans to seek redemption against both Sterling and Dillashaw.
“I’m so excited to have the opportunity to win this fight and then get rematches with Sterling and Dillashaw,” Sandhagen says. “Those are my only two losses in UFC. I got into this to show I am the best, but I did a poor job in the Sterling fight. I could have also done a couple things to show the judges I was winning against Dillashaw. It would be a beautiful story if I could get those rematches after I beat Yan.”
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Dillashaw had the wrestling advantage in his last fight, but that could serve as a strength against Yan on Saturday.
“Wrestling allows you to control the space, so it’s very important,” Sandhagen says. “I know people think of me as a striker, but I love wrestling. It feels good to have that advantage.”
Months after a devastating loss, Sandhagen has a rare opportunity, one that—should he emerge victorious—will change his career.
“The harder road leads to lessons, ones you don’t learn when taking an easy route,” Sandhagen says. “I have a very clear understanding that you don’t get better when things are easy. You get better when you overcome things that are more difficult. My wrestling coach, Carrington Banks, who is also my teammate, always teases me for enjoying suffering.
“I enjoy suffering. That’s my road to success. I just enjoy suffering. I’m interested more in the end game than the present, and that’s going to pay off in this fight.”
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