T.J. Dillashaw still has much to offer the division he twice ruled.
The two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder returned to the cage from a two-year United States Anti-Doping Agency suspension and eked out a split decision over Cory Sandhagen in the UFC on ESPN 27 headliner on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. All three cageside judges struck 29-28 scorecards: Derek Cleary for Sandhagen, Sal D’Amato and Junichiro Kamijo for Dillashaw.
Just 18 significant strikes—Sandhagen held a narrow 128-110 edge—separated the two men after 25 memorable minutes of hand-to-hand combat, so the nip-tuck nature of the decision was certainly understandable. Dillashaw pressured his former Elevation Fight Team stablemate throughout the encounter and excelled at close range, often leaning on clinches in the rear waistlock position. Sandhagen was the superior fighter in space, where he tagged the Duane Ludwig disciple with sharp punches and incorporated a few of his preferred spinning attacks. A clubbing right hand opened a gnarly cut on Dillashaw’s right brow in the second round, and though the heavy bleeding that resulted plagued him for the remainder of the fight, “The Ultimate Fighter 14” finalist managed to withstand the adversity. He outstruck Sandhagen by a 40-38 margin and mustered three takedown attempts in the fifth round, his late surge perhaps playing a role in the eventual outcome.
In the aftermath of UFC on ESPN “Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw,” here are five matches that ought to be made:
T.J. Dillashaw vs. Rob Font: Because of his cache as a former champion and the name recognition he brings to the table, Dillashaw likely skipped to the front of the line at 135 pounds with his narrow victory over Sandhagen. In his first appearance since Jan. 19, 2019, the 35-year-old Californian showed no signs of ring rust and appeared to be as well-conditioned as ever. What comes next remains to be seen, though he could make a strong case as the No. 1 contender for the winner of the forthcoming rematch between current bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling and former titleholder Petr Yan. However, the logistics do not necessarily line up in Dillashaw’s favor: Sterling-Yan 2 was booked for UFC 267 on Oct. 30, and it seems unlikely he would be in the mood for another lengthy layoff. Font finds himself on a four-fight winning streak after he defeated Cody Garbrandt by unanimous decision in the UFC Fight Night 188 main event on May 22. All things considered, a Dillashaw-Font title eliminator might be in the best interest of all parties.
Raulian Paiva vs. Raphael Assuncao: Paiva made the move to the bantamweight division as a short-notice replacement for Assuncao and capitalized on the opportunity, as he earned a majority decision over highly regarded MMA Lab prospect Kyler Phillips in the three-round co-headliner. Scores were 29-28, 29-28 and 28-28, as the Brazilian survived a harrowing first round in which Phillips nearly finished him and turned his fortunes around across the final 10 minutes. Paiva likely needs another victory or two to get his feet underneath him at 135 pounds, but armed with a 21-3 record and a three-fight winning streak, he has the look of an intriguing talent in one of the UFC’s deepest divisions.
Darren Elkins vs. Steven Peterson: The resilient and determined Elkins authored the latest chapter in his story with another remarkable comeback, as he rebounded from a rough start and put away Darrick Minner with punches in the second round of their featherweight showcase. An exhausted Minner succumbed to blows 3:48 into Round 2. Elkins, 37, emerged from the encounter battered and bloodied but no worse for wear, having extricated himself from multiple submissions from the Glory MMA rep before settling in top position and prompting the stoppage with a burst of ground-and-pound. While his days as a contender are almost certainly over, the Team Alpha Male export’s ability to entertain the masses on a consistent basis means he will have work available to him for the foreseeable future. Peterson last fought at UFC 263, where he took a unanimous decision from Chase Hooper on June 12.
Maycee Barber vs. Andrea Lee: Still one of the sport’s most-talked-about prospects, Barber exited the Octagon with a contentious split decision after three competitive rounds with Miranda Maverick in their women’s flyweight feature. All three judges scored it 29-28: D’Amato and Dave Hagen for Barber, Chris Lee for Maverick. The 23-year-old Barber showed a renewed sense of urgency and made her push in Round 3, where she completed her only takedown, outlanded her counterpart by a thin margin and walked away with her arms raised. The win was her first since Oct. 18, 2019 and closed the book on a two-fight losing streak. Lee last competed at UFC 262, where she submitted Antonina Shevchenko with a triangle armbar in the second round of their May 15 pairing.
Adrian Yanez vs. Nathaniel Wood-Jonathan Martinez winner: Yanez waded through significant difficulty to stop Lauzon MMA prospect Randy Costa with punches in the second round of their bantamweight firefight. Costa bowed out 2:11 into Round 2. Yanez did not initially adjust to his opponent’s length and speed, as he ate one punishing jab after another in a first round that saw the two men combine to land 90 significant strikes. However, he bounced back in the middle stanza, seized the initiative and ultimately floored Costa with a left hook to the body and a right uppercut before closing the deal with unanswered punches. Yanez, 27, has rattled off seven consecutive victories, six of them finishes. Wood and Martinez will collide at UFC Fight Night 193 on Sept. 4.