BantamweightsNo. 2 | Cory Sandhagen (13-2, 6-1 UFC) vs. No. 4 | Frankie Edgar (24-8-1, 18-8-1 UFC)
ODDS: Sandhagen (-440), Edgar (+350)
What a difference a fight makes. Heading into 2020, the worry was that Edgar had finally fallen off after a long and successful career. However, after winning an oft-delayed bout against Pedro Munhoz, “The Answer” heads into 2021 as a potential title contender in a third division. Despite his highly regarded reputation, Edgar still probably has not gotten the proper amount of due for his run at an elite level, which started with a shocking upset of B.J. Penn for the UFC’s lightweight title in 2010. After affirming his superiority in the rematch, Edgar went on to a close series of title fights with Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson. There is an alternate universe where Edgar takes one of his narrow decision losses from Henderson and affirms himself as an all-time great lightweight. However, with two close losses to Henderson and no obvious path back to the lightweight title, Edgar proceeded with a long-awaited cut to featherweight. Even during the heights of Edgar’s success at lightweight, pundits like Joe Rogan still crafted a narrative that the undersized New Jersey native would be best moving down a weight class or two. Down at 145 pounds, Edgar was every bit the championship-level fighter he was as a lightweight, only without ever actually winning the championship, as he was able to turn back all comers but twice fell short against Jose Aldo. His 2017 win over Yair Rodriguez might go down as the last classic Edgar performance, as he took one the UFC’s hottest prospects and absolutely mauled him on his way to a doctor stoppage. That victory put Edgar in position for a title shot against then-champ Max Holloway but also gave way to a run where he finally started to look his age. Injuries to both men delayed the Holloway-Edgar title fight, and Edgar instead faced Brian Ortega, who became the first man to crack the former champion’s legendary chin with a first-round uppercut. Edgar rebounded with an uninspiring win over Cub Swanson to get back in the title picture, but by the time his championship fight with Holloway rolled around, it felt more like an opportunity for the Hawaiian to add to his legacy than face any sort of threat. That was compounded by a subsequent knockout loss at the hands of Chan Sung Jung, so when Edgar’s next announced fight was a drop down to bantamweight against reliable finisher in Munhoz, the worry was that he would continue a depressing late-career slide. Instead, Edgar proved once again that he is all-time great. While it was a close enough fight that he may not have deserved the victory, Edgar effectively played matador and used a range striking game to pick apart the pressuring Munhoz for 25 minutes, taking advantage of the fact that he—for once—was fighting someone his own size. Edgar may not make it all the way to a title shot in an increasingly loaded bantamweight division, but there is the chance that this run at 135 pounds goes much better than most would have expected at this point in his career. However, Sandhagen should prove to be quite a tough test.
Few fighters have come out of nowhere to make themselves a contender as quickly as Sandhagen. The Coloradan was signed for a thrown-together fight in 2018 with little fanfare and still remained fairly anonymous for another year and a half, so when the UFC decided to match Sandhagen with John Lineker in April 2019, it felt like the promotion was throwing a talented prospect into the fire much too soon. Instead, Sandhagen’s ranginess and combination striking frustrated Lineker and earned him a narrow decision win, which he followed up with a one-sided victory over divisional stalwart Raphael Assuncao, proving he was no fluke. A quick loss to current top contender Aljamain Sterling affirmed that the “Sandman” was still fairly raw, even for all his success. Sandhagen’s overconfidence led him to accept some bad positions, only to get tapped out. After rebounding with a dominant knockout of Marlon Moraes, Sandhagen’s clearly part of the future of the bantamweight division, whether that comes sooner or later.
While Edgar and Sterling are quite different fighters to say the least, the manner in which Sterling blew through Sandhagen does provide a reminder that Edgar can actually win what looks like a tough fight on paper. It has been a while—since that 2017 bout with Rodriguez—since we have seen the mauling top game that marked Edgar’s most brutally dominant performances at featherweight. Given that Sandhagen is very much a fighter who accepts takedowns and looks to find an escape back to his feet, it is easy to see a scenario unfold where, if Edgar can take this to the mat once or twice, he can ruin a much younger man’s day even at this stage in his career. Even with that path to victory, there is just as much worry that Sandhagen can outclass Edgar on the feet. While Edgar was able to stay outside and counter Munhoz, Sandhagen is a whole different beast thanks to his lanky frame and ability to throw with volume and accuracy. Sandhagen has also proven to be ridiculously tough, so with Edgar as more of a ground-and-pound artist than any sort of submission finisher, he should be able to survive and come back strong at the start of each round. Speed and accuracy have proven to be enough to knock out Edgar as he nears 40 years old, so the call is that Sandhagen can eventually find a finishing shot during the moments on the feet, even if Edgar’s status as possibly the strongest wrestler Sandhagen has fought to date makes this a much tougher fight than the odds would indicate. The pick is Sandhagen via second-round knockout.
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