Somewhat falling under the radar this weekend in the promotion’s return to Las Vegas for the first time this year, Elevation Fight Team standout, Cory Sandhagen draws former lightweight champion, Frankie Edgar in a reworked pairing which could most definitely establish the next title challenger at 135-pounds.
Originally scheduled for a UFC Fight Night event in Raleigh in January of last year, Sandhagen was expected to welcome Edgar to the bantamweight division, however, the pairing was scrapped after the latter met with Chan Sung Jung the December prior on short-notice, dropping a first-round knockout defeat. Removed from the card, Sandhagen was then placed in an even more high-profile outing.
Returning at UFC 250 in June, Sandhagen met with incoming title challenger, Aljamain Sterling in a confirmed title eliminator — in a bout which brought with it his first promotional falter, snapping his five-fight unbeaten run in the UFC.
In a masterful, arguably career standout performance for longtime Ray Longo and Matt Serra student, Sterling, the Uniondale native stamped his championship contender status via an eye-catching first frame rear-naked choke.
Rebounding in spectacular fashion himself, Aurora native, Sandhagen took main event honours for the first time under the UFC’s banner, headlining UFC Fight Island 5 in October. Matching with former WSOF bantamweight best and one-time UFC title chaser, Marlon Moraes at the ‘Fight Island’ event — Sandhagen brashly pointed at Moraes, claiming he had broken his orbital bone, before unleashing a wicked wheel-kick, dropping the Brazilian before finishing with ground strikes.
While Sandhagen has utilised his creative and dynamic striking to his advantage more often than not during his brief yet successful Octagon run, the 28-year-old has created some interesting scrambles during that period as well, most notably against the likes of Mario Bautista, and Iuri Alcantara.
Granted, Sterling may have cut through him like a hot knife through butter, but Edgar — while a 1st. degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Ricardo Almeida, won’t achieve similar success in terms of submission offence as his fellow East coach contender if this one ends up on the canvas.
Sandhagen is incredibly long, and structure-wise is a towering figure at bantamweight at 5″11. And while Edgar was the forever undersized, often underdog particularly in his gold-laden lightweight run, the sheer size of Sandhagen could be an interesting factor for the upward punching Edgar to deal with.
It’s not only the fact that Sandhagen towards over Edgar, but he also uses his frame in a very lengthy way. He stands quite tall, leaving the shorter opposition no other option but to strike upward and more often than not, from an uncomfortable, reaching range.
The Elevation Fight Team trainee presents a new breed at 135-pounds, and if he can knock back a first-ballot legend in the form of Edgar, he’ll surely set himself up for a bantamweight title challenge against either UFC 259 victor, Petr Yan or former-foe, Sterling.
Not necessarily going off on a tangent here, but with the return of former two-time 135-pound champion, T.J. Dillashaw — comes speculation as to where he lands having sat on the sidelines, stricken with a USADA suspension for the last two years.
The UFC has failed to make it clear what they plan on doing with the Angels Camp native. And ever since he relinquished his title after testing positive for EPO — he’s held the same narrative; the bantamweight title still belongs to him.
Well, we’ve seen Sterling still out since June with the promotion time and time again electing against providing a crystal clear answer regarding his status as number-one contender. And this goes for both Sandhagen and Edgar — whoever emerges with the win on Saturday, has to challenge for gold next, not the returning, and largely disgraced, Dillashaw.
I believe it’s somewhat fair to say, despite his divisional bow success against the stern, Pedro Munhoz, Edgar is fighting against the odds once more on Saturday. Displaying a resolute ability to stick in there as we’ve seen throughout his career, what’s interesting about this clash is Edgar’s ability to rise to the occasion against a surging challenger on the cusp of a title shot.
Fresh in our heads has to be his UFC 211 knockback of Yair Rodriguez. Riding a six-fight unbeaten run into the clash. the Chihuahua striker had just finished common-foe, B.J. Penn with a highlight-reel front kick stoppage, and was on the immediate route to a title shot.
Utilising his renowned wrestling, Edgar scooped Rodriguez from his feet on two of three attempted occasions, — with some well-placed ground strikes drawing some massive swelling around the Mexican’s orbital. Grinding Rodriguez at the fence in the first after securing the high-crotch single-leg, Edgar began pouring down with some relentless ground strikes, really smothering the former, as to not allow space for scrambles. Against Sandhagen, while he may face a trickier guard to traverse, that smothering full-guard play with some short elbows even from a stacked position could prove a successful venture for the Toms River veteran.
The experience factor in this one is also very interesting. Edgar is one of the most versed fighters on the promotion’s books at the moment, however, he’s been on the receiving end of some particularly noteworthy punishment during his final days at 145-pounds.
Dropping his first-ever career knockout defeat to upcoming title challenger, Brian Ortega back at UFC 222 in March of 2018, Edgar then succumbed to strikes agaisnt the above mentioned, Jung back in Busan in December of 2019.
Granted, both Ortega and Jung are considerably heavier punchers than Sandhagen, but even the previously noted, Munhoz had some considerable success as he pressured Edgar and forced him to fight from the outside, despite eating some notable counters himself in the close five-round main event himself.
While Sandhagen is unlikely to stop Edgar with a single shot, particularly with his hands, it’s the accumulation of damage over the course of a three-frame affair where some serious questions could be posed to the veteran New Jersey favourite.
I’m picking Cory Sandhagen to seal his status as the division’s number-one contender and earn the next title tilt at bantamweight via an eventual stoppage over Edgar via his dynamic striking.