Prime Picks: UFC on ESPN 27 ‘Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw’

By: Jay Pettry
Jul 23, 2021

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For the second week in a row, the Ultimate Fighting Championship hoists itself onto the ESPN stage with a fight night card with a few Top-10 matchups and a possible title shot on the line for one, if not two winners. Unlike last week, five bouts see betting favorites within a -150 threshold, and the potential for well-matched violence is at a premium. Join us on this UFC on ESPN 27 edition of Prime Picks, which prognosticates a finish in the headliner, an upset from a gritty veteran, two intriguing prospects battling it out and a striker looking to get one up against a grappler.

Cory Sandhagen Wins Inside Distance (-110)

The stakes are unquestionably high in this top tilt, as both men have a lot to prove and can cement their place among the elite at 135 pounds. For Sandhagen, a title shot almost certainly looms, and a possible chance to avenge his lone loss since 2017 depending on how the next championship fight shakes out. For T.J. Dillashaw, it is a question of legacy. The two-time bantamweight king, in his first outing since the beginning of 2019 and a failed drug test for a serious performance enhancer, has his back against the wall. While a win and clean pre- and post-fight samples would go a long way towards a redemption arc, a loss would send him tumbling down the division and possibly even end his career. Nearing the midpoint of his 35th year on Earth, in a weight class that favors the younger -- and also shows preference to a movement-heavy style -- Dillashaw will need to prove that he can pass muster as a fighter off the proverbial sauce and take out a top name in his category. All of this has the makings of a devastating performance, one where the young lion devours an aging one that has lost favor among the pride.

With 2021 hindsight, the résumé for Dillashaw has diminished in quality to a noticeable degree. The only man in the Top 10 that he has defeated is ex-champ and bitter rival Cody Garbrandt, but Garbrandt has dropped four of five since his loss to Dillashaw. The man once considered a pound-for-pound great in Renan Barao has slid out of the UFC and was briefly booked on a Taura MMA event at the end of last year. John Lineker fights at featherweight or higher – depending on your stance on how One Championship runs its weigh-in procedures -- while Raphael Assuncao’s time as a perennial contender has passed. Like his foes, Dillashaw is rapidly aging out of his division, which causes problems for him considering his fighting style. The deck is firmly stacked against him.

The coverage of Dillashaw’s fall and return has practically enveloped the other major story of this match, that the stock of Sandhagen has risen from a virtual unknown to a top-tier talent. Two brutal knockouts of top-10 names Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar have etched his name in the shortlist of contenders, all but erasing the humbling loss to current champ Aljamain Sterling, and it is a list Sandhagen has arrived at due to an impressive variety of skills. None can be more pronounced than his striking approach, which is a veritable one-two-three punch of speed, volume and power. Lighter weight classes typically do not present the kind of one-hitter quitter power than higher divisions do, but Sandhagen has cracked two notoriously tough nuts in Moraes and Edgar in spectacular fashion. His significant strikes landed per minute can fluster the best of them on the feet, as he stands in the top-10 among all fighters to ever compete inside the Octagon by landing nearly seven every minute.

Momentum is firmly on the side of the younger Sandhagen, who held exactly one win inside the Octagon when Dillashaw recorded his last victory. Since then, Sandhagen has prevailed six times, against relevant names and fellow Dillashaw foes alike. Throughout his entire career, Dillashaw has won four times and then lost in the fifth match; this has happened five times, and Dillashaw is due for a win. This layoff, which completely missed the meteoric rise of Sandhagen, will almost certainly work against him. Sandhagen is a fast starter, and this will play against Dillashaw as the latter looks to get his sea legs after two and a half years away. The obvious spoiler that Dillashaw can provide is to turning the fight into a wrestling match, but over the course of five rounds, his cardio will almost certainly be challenged. These questions are too great to find value in Dillashaw, while the danger that Sandhagen presents -- and most importantly, has presented lately -- see a line of Sandhagen getting a stoppage over the former champ as one that should work out.

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Darren Elkins (+130)

Just like the above pick, the styles are perfectly aligned so one fighter can exploit the other’s and survive everything they throw at them. In this instance at featherweight, the savvy vet Elkins, who has only dropped one bout by submission, which came to champion and UFC tapout king Charles Oliveira, should have enough tools to outlast the wild all-offense approach of Darrick Minner. Although he fell into submissions in his Dana White's Contender Series appearance in 2019 and UFC debut, he tore through T.J. Laramie in his bounce back performance and outgrappled the savvy Bostonian Charles Rosa in February. Like when he faced Grant Dawson to make his first impression inside the Octagon, Minner will be encountering a man that can handle what he throws at him on the ground.

For all the punishment “The Damage” has taken in his career -- Elkins has landed more significant strikes than absorbed in his career, despite a reputation for taking hellacious beatings and coming back strong -- the Duneland Vale Tudo export and NCAA Division II wrestler is a slick, smart grappler that tends to get in trouble on the feet but handles himself on the mat. The guard pulls and high-risk submission traps that Minner will attempt to spring should not faze a battle-tested Elkins, who has seen more than most in his storied UFC career. Allowing Minner to tire himself out in sweep attempts, reversals and various sub setups will give Elkins an advantage as he stays comfortable on top, raining down ground-and-pound. Unless Elkins gets caught when he is dry, exposing his neck for a takedown attempt or otherwise leaving himself open, Elkins can ride out the storm and get his hand raised as the underdog after some tough rounds.

Miranda Maverick (-145)

How quick fortunes change for some. For the 23-year-old Maycee Barber, “The Future” was more than a nickname, and practically a promise that she would be the future of the flyweight division. Two massive setbacks in the form of a one-sided loss and an injury to Roxanne Modafferi, and subsequent returning effort against Alexa Grasso, have placed the red-hot hopes of Barber’s title aspirations in the blast chiller. The promotion is doing her no favors by putting her against the surging powerhouse Maverick -- the fight may not have come up in the past under Joe Silva’s “winners fight winners” matchmaking scheme -- coming into this meeting with almost as much momentum as the aforementioned Sandhagen. Against a fellow pressure fighter that cannot simply be bullied around, Barber will struggle once again, and a minor favorite line for Maverick can be snagged for good value.

Much of Barber’s success early on and through the beginning stretch of her UFC tenure came by simply being the larger, stronger fighter, who hit hard enough to force her opponent to react. J.J. Aldrich stung Barber with a solid left hand towards the beginning of their fight, forcing the younger fighter to go through some adversity and drop a round to rebound in the next. Maverick may not maintain the punching power that by itself commands respect, but her pressure and pace can make even longtime veterans like DeAnna Bennett and Pearl Gonzalez wilt. If the flyweights go strength for strength – an area in which Barber likes to impose her will – “The Future” may quickly become the past as she finds out that Maverick can not only match her but put her on her back. The battle of top game is going to be crucial for both women, and the stylistic matchup appears to favor the farm-strong Maverick.

Jordan Williams (-165)

For all of Mickey Gall’s accolades when it comes to grappling, his wrestling is not nearly up to the level of his submission prowess. Should this welterweight scrap hit the canvas, he can handle the rest, but getting it there may prove to be more difficult than he realizes against the strong former middleweight. All the while, he will have to contend with Williams slugging him in the face. With the striking so firmly in the favor of Williams, staying upright is priority number one, and ignoring any time Gall tries to take it there or even pull guard to get it down is in the top five.

Williams fell short in his promotional debut when a larger Nassourdine Imavov spent most of their fight aiming for takedowns, and the sheer threat of them left the striker uneasy on the feet. It is one thing to stop a double or stave off an outside trip, but another entirely to make your foe pay for trying to get it there in the first place. These short exchanges will make a major difference as Williams fends off Gall’s means to an end hands and throws two to every one that comes his way. There may be no more rudimentary note than the pattern that Gall has encountered: since his debut against Mike Jackson in 2016, Gall has defeated every opponent he has faced when landing a takedown. When none are to be found – and no knockdown to get it there as well – Gall has lost. If confident enough in Williams’ standup, where you believe he will get a finish, Williams wins by TKO/KO is a very reasonable +190.

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