Preview: UFC on ESPN 27 ‘Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw’ - Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw

By: Tom Feely
Jul 23, 2021

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday heads back to the familiar haunts of the UFC Apex in Las Vegas for the second straight week and brings with it a surprisingly strong UFC on ESPN 27 card. It all starts with the main event. Former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw makes his long-awaited return and finds himself immediately back in the mix, as he takes on surging contender Cory Sandhagen in a fascinating fight at 135 pounds.

Now to the preview for the UFC on ESPN “Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw” main card:

Bantamweights

#2 BW | Cory Sandhagen (14-2, 7-1 UFC) vs. NR | T.J. Dillashaw (16-4, 12-4 UFC)

ODDS: Sandhagen (-190), Dillashaw (+165)

History has made it seem like an inevitability, but Dillashaw’s title win over Renan Barao in 2014 remains one of the most stunning upsets in UFC history. At the time, Dillashaw was regarded as a rising young talent, but he was basically the backup plan to the backup plan when it came to actually getting a shot at the belt. The UFC needed a late-notice title fight to hold UFC 173 together, and Dillashaw only got the nod because Raphael Assuncao was unavailable; and with Dillashaw having lost to Assuncao just months prior, he basically had no momentum heading into the fight, which saw his movement-heavy striking game suddenly click to the point that he took the championship with a dominant victory. That marked the beginning of Dillashaw being the top bantamweight in the UFC for the next few years, though his resume as an actual champion is still surprisingly thin. He had only defended the belt against Barao and Joe Soto before dropping a controversial decision to Dominick Cruz and may have posted his two best wins—over Assuncao and John Lineker—in the interim before winning the title back from Cody Garbrandt. The churn and wealth of talent at bantamweight actually makes Dillashaw’s entire resume feel a bit odd. While he was one the consensus best bantamweights in the world from 2014 to 2018, everyone he has faced has been forced out of the title picture by this latest generation of fighters. Of course, there is a reason that Dillashaw has not faced anyone who is part of the current bantamweight title scene. Dillashaw’s last fight in January 2019 saw him drop down to flyweight in an attempt to unseat Henry Cejudo and become a two-division champion. The conventional wisdom was that Dillashaw would succeed in doing so and that the UFC would shutter its flyweight division shortly thereafter. Those plans ended in disaster, particularly for Dillashaw. Cejudo knocked out the Californian in just 32 seconds, and he subsequently failed his drug test for EPO, resulting in a two-year suspension and Dillashaw being stripped of his bantamweight crown. Dillashaw now returns 30 months later to a division that looks completely different from how he left it, and the UFC seems to be all in on throwing him right back into the title picture. The promotion looks to be framing this as Dillashaw’s chance at redemption, and he immediately faces a top contender in Sandhagen.

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Sandhagen fought on the Cejudo-Dillashaw undercard, earning a quick win over Mario Bautista to continue his run as a fun and fascinating prospect. It is worth remembering that Sandhagen’s signing was a complete afterthought. His UFC debut came on days’ notice against fellow newcomer Austin Arnett—a pairing that was so last-minute that it came together in the eight days Sandhagen had between fights. Sandhagen handled Arnett with little issue and became someone to watch with his subsequent win over Iuri Alcantara. Sandhagen seemingly flirted with a mangled arm while in an Alcantara armbar but managed to fight back and score the surprising victory. That led to the Bautista fight and, in turn, a breakout 2019 campaign that saw Sandhagen suddenly become a top contender. Sandhagen’s massive frame has been a major positive, and he played with distance and timing beautifully in wins over Lineker and Assuncao. Each fight seemed like it was too much too soon for a raw prospect, but Sandhagen left little doubt about the identity of the better fighter. After quickly getting taken down and tapped out by Aljamain Sterling, Sandhagen bounced back about as well as possible, adding another level of violence to his promising game. Marlon Moraes ate a second-round wheel kick, and Frankie Edgar was on the wrong end of one of the most beautiful flying knees in UFC history, as Sandhagen knocked out “The Answer” in just 28 seconds. Sandhagen has essentially made his name by finishing off the title hopes of Dillashaw’s generation, and he could very well add one more name to that ledger here.

It will be interesting to see what Dillashaw brings to the table, but this feels like a passing of the torch. The movement and volume that Dillashaw showed against Barao felt like an evolution of the division, and Sandhagen has only built on that, adding even more pace and variety to a style made even more dangerous by his long frame. There is an argument that Dillashaw figures to hold up better than most of Sandhagen’s opponents, who have typically been late-career veterans. However, Dillashaw might be firmly in that boat himself now as a 35-year-old coming off a long drug suspension. The big factor here figures to be Dillashaw’s wrestling. For all his striking success, Dillashaw came up as a prospect with his wrestling base, and Sandhagen’s willingness to try and scramble out of danger does provide some openings against better grapplers. Still, the lone fight where Dillashaw has relied on that part of his game was against Lineker, and from a physical standpoint alone, Sandhagen poses a much different challenge. There is a lot that provides intrigue, as even beyond the dynamic inside the cage, these two are former training partners, which is something that usually adds some sort of mental factor that cannot be captured on film. Even so, there is really no reason to pick against Sandhagen, and this could be a blowout if Dillashaw has not evolved along with the sport during his time off. The pick is Sandhagen via second-round knockout.

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