Saturday, October 23, 2021

Cory Sandhagen UFC rose: ‘Intense’ doubts with legend in the way

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Cage fighting is, by its very nature, intense.

Cory Sandhagen, by his very nature, is not.

The 28-year-old UFC bantamweight contender is happier to listen to others talk than lead the conversation. Put him in nature with some peace and quiet, and he’s golden.

“You know, I’m from Colorado,” Sandhagen, who spoke over the phone with The Post on Wednesday, said with a light laugh. “I like hiking. I like camping. I like sitting by myself a lot. I like spending some time in nature and listening to other people talk more than I like listening to myself talk. That’s just how I am.”

So far, that dichotomy has done little to slow his ascent up the divisional ladder. If Sandhagen can get past former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar during the UFC Fight Night co-headliner on ESPN+, airing Saturday from UFC Apex in Las Vegas, don’t be surprised to see him challenge for gold later this year.

But Sandhagen (13-2, eight finishes) admits his disposition has affected his work before.

“It has cost me a little bit with issues in the past with some fights,” Sandhagen said, “because fighting’s a really intense thing, and if you can’t get to an intense place in your head, then it will definitely not be in your favor.”

The last time Sandhagen was in the position to vault into a potential title fight didn’t go his way.

What followed was the worst showing of his career.  

Within 15 seconds, Sterling had Sandhagen pinned against the octagon, neutralizing his standout striking arsenal. Thirty seconds in, Sterling was working toward a rear-naked choke as Sandhagen fell back to the canvas, doing all he could to keep his opponent’s arm away from his carotid artery. It was all over at 1:28 of the first round, when Sandhagen barely signaled a tapout before going unconscious.

If that sequence of events against Sterling, who is scheduled to challenge Petr Yan for 135-pound supremacy on March 6, gives the impression that Sandhagen has no business returning to the title picture so quickly, don’t discount how he bounced back on Oct. 10 with an impressive victory over former title challenger Marlon Moraes. He fired fast punches, dug into the body and chopped the legs of the heavy-hitting Moraes for 6:03 of cage time. With kicks to all regions, knees both standing and flying, he brought it all until connecting on a dizzying spinning wheel kick to the right side of Moraes’ clean-shaven dome. 

A swarm of ground punches and a referee stoppage later, and Sandhagen gestured a hush that clearly signaled to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately critics that he’s not to be counted out.

“I think that, when you’re wearing small gloves and you’re an athletic person who’s a trained fighter, I don’t think you need to try to knock someone’s head off in order for them to get knocked out.

“Like [with] me against Moraes, I didn’t throw that kick as hard as I could. It’s just, hit someone with as many things as you can, and if they run into something and it hurts him really bad, then great. And if it doesn’t, you win by out-voluming them anyways.”

Even if he scores a win over Edgar (24-8-1, 11 finishes), whose illustrious career includes nine UFC title fights across two weight classes and headlining victories in three divisions dating back to the time Sandhagen began training MMA in 2010 as a teenager, a title shot is by his own admission “a tough sell” if Sterling claims the belt from Yan next month. But he’s not convinced it’s a weaker case than the rest of the bantamweight field, which in truth has never been this stocked with talent.

Just don’t tell him that T.J. Dillashaw, the disgraced former champion whose two-year suspension for using banned synthetic hormone erythropoetin (EPO) expired last month, deserves to waltz back into the octagon with gold on the line without first fighting a top 135-pounder.

It’s not so much that the native of Aurora, Colo., wants to beat up “a cheater,” only that he feels two years of building his own resume shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of a stained ex-champ.

“I suppose it did become a little bit personal when he started asking for a title fight immediately coming off of something like that,” Sandhagen said. “That’s when i was like, man, I’ve been out here working the whole time that you’ve been suspended for some drug that you shouldn’t have been taking. That I took a little bit personal because I’ve been putting in the work. I’ve been grinding.”

Saturday’s fight is the second time Sandhagen has planned for a bout with Edgar. The two were scheduled to meet last Jan. 25 in what would have been the bantamweight debut for the elder former champion, now age 39, but a lost headliner a month prior summoned the former 155-pound kingpin back for one more go at 145. 

The news left Sandhagen “salty for about a week,” although he knows how frequently fights can fall out for any number of reasons in combat sports. The thing was that, for the young and hungry bantamweight, the Edgar fight was to be his big break.

“That was supposed to be my big one that I was supposed to get some attention for, I guess you could say,” Sandhagen said.

It’s on Sandhagen now to bring the intensity..

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