Alistair ‘The Demolition One’ Overeem. Frankie ‘The Answer’ Edgar. Two bonafide future Hall of Fame inductee shoo-ins. Two decorated, hugely-popular mixed martial artists. Two pioneers of their respective eras. And in 2021, two contenders, stunningly on the cusp of title tilts beyond a decade deep into their careers.
Then we’ve got the new blood. Alexander ‘Drago’ Volkov. Cory ‘The Sandman’ Sandhagen. Two punishing strikers in need of a high-profile victory to make the leap toward title contention themselves.
Moscow striker, Volkov has notoriously struggled with wrestling threats in the past, most recently Overeem’s Elevation Fight Team teammate, Curtis Blaydes in June of last year — giving up a whopping fourteen separate takedowns.
Failing to allow the recently composed, Overeem the opportunity or even the time to utilise his wrestling or shrewd grappling, Volkov began the opening round in an aggressive manner, breaking the veteran’s nose in one of the many barrages at the fence.
Badly bloodying the former Dream, Strikeforce, and K-1 gold holder, Volkov dropped Overeem midway through the second round with another inch-perfect straight hand, followed by a left hook round Overeem’s guard, sending the Dutchman to his knees before referee, Jason Herzog called a halt to proceedings.
It’s two wins in two for the Russian, however, given his unanimous decision loss to upcoming headliner, the above mentioned, Blaydes last summer that likely puts him in need of possibly two more victories in a heavyweight division which is set to welcome the addition of Jon Jones this year as well, before he gets a title shot of his own.
Undoubtedly stealing the show, however, was co-main event feature, Sandhagen. Drawing sport legend and former lightweight champion, Edgar in a reworked matchup following their UFC Fight Night Raleigh clash shelving in January of last year, Sandhagen entered the title-eliminator off the back of a highlight-reel stoppage.
Headlining for the first time in his promotional run at UFC Fight Island 5 last October, the Aurora native clashed with Edgar’s former teammate, one-time title challenger, Marlon Moraes. Setting up the finish in calculated fashion, the 28-year-old pointed out how he had broken the Brazilian’s right orbital before letting fly with a whipping wheel-kick, dropping Moraes before finishing with ground strikes.
On Saturday night, it took the Denver-based title hopeful just twenty-eight seconds to lodge another highlight finish, as well as stamp his status as the next challenger to bantamweight gold after former-foe, Aljamain Sterling in March.
Evading Edgar’s usual pressure-heavy approach, Sandhagen circled from the fence, before miscuing a leg kick in the center. Retaining his orthodox stance after his spin, Sandhagen launched a flying knee to an almost upright Edgar, pulling the Toms River native into the impact. Falling face first to the canvas, Edgar was completely out cold as Sandhagen wheeled away. “I’m coming for that belt“.
Below, join me as I play matchmaker for big victors, Volkov and Sandhagen, as well as Octagon icons, Overeem and Edgar.
Alexander Volkov vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik – Ciryl Gane Winner
Entering the affair as the number-six ranked contender at heavyweight, Volkov likely won’t move much further than the number-five rank in the division off the back of his stoppage win.
Taking on the victor of the February 27th. reworked main event of Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Ciryl Gane should be next for the former Bellator and M-1 Global champion. Whomever wins between both Rozenstruik and Gane find themselves in a similar situation as Volkov.
Suriname striker, Rozenstruik has already lost convincingly in just twenty-seconds to incoming title challenger, Francis Ngannou, and needs another victory himself before challenging for gold.
Factory X and Fernand Lopez product, Gane recently, like Rozenstruik took out former champion, Junior dos Santos, and while a matchup with former teammate, Ngannou is an eye-catching prospect should the Cameroonian assumes the throne, he won’t challenge for gold ahead of the above mentioned, Jones.
Current champion, Stipe Miocic is slated to rematch Ngannou with heavyweight gold on the line at UFC 260 at the end of March, and the promotion have already laid out plans for the division-moving, former two-time light heavyweight kingpin, Jones to debut in the weight class with a title challenge against the victor of that re-run. Volkov needs another win over someone like Rozenstruik or Gane before any hope of a title challenge.
Alistair Overeem vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov
The narrative painted by Overeem ahead of Saturday’s outing against Volkov was how he was making one final run toward the heavyweight championship, and how he must begin to acclimatise himself with the possibility of calling time on his career in the not too distant future.
I think it’s fair to say, the usual composed and generally shrewd Overeem didn’t appear at the UFC Apex last weekend. He failed to ever really get off the mark or out of the stalls, like we’ve seen in past recent wins over both Augusto Sakai and Walt Harris.
While those title aspirations may be realistically over, I believe we’ll see Overeem compete in the Octagon again, no question. I also don’t believe he can look up the rankings given how one sided his loss was to Volkov, so for the fourth consecutive tie, he’ll look downward.
Dagestani contender, Shamil Abdurakhimov has been limited to just one Octagon appearance since UFC 242 all the way back in September of 2019 where he dropped an eventual ground-and-pound stoppage to the above mentioned teammate of Overeem, Blaydes at the Abu Dhabi, UAE event.
The loss snapped a three-fight rise for the 39-year-old, however, he still holds the number-eight rank in the division. Removed from multiple pairings with the aforenoted, Gane during last year, Abdurakhimov is yet to feature since the defeat to Blaydes, and a matchup against fellow veteran, Overeem would be a welcome return for the Russian.
Cory Sandhagen vs. Petr Yan – Aljamain Sterling Winner
As noted in The Breakdown feature for his pairing with Edgar, I wholey believe that whoever emerged between the two in the co-main event feature would unquestionably prime themselves for a title shot next. It’s as simple as that.
Sandhagen had previously stopped Moraes in spectacular fashion, earning him the number-two rank at 135-pounds. And while the promotion failed time and time again to lodge Sterling as the next title challenger off the back of his June title-eliminator win over Sandhagen, they couldn’t concievably do that same thing to either Sandhagen or Edgar.
Even a victory for New Jersey veteran Edgar on Saturday would stamp his ticket as the next title challenger at bantamweight in my opinion. It would be two wins on the trot since his descenion to the bantamweight ranks, having previously edged out division mainstay, Pedro Munhoz in August. And given how highly-touted Sandhagen is, if Edgar got past him — a third title challenge in as many weight classes is a no-brainer.
A quite ugly narrative is being spun and continues to spiral, however. The haunt that is former two-time division champion, T.J. Dillashaw continues to overshadow the weight class. Completing his two-year retroactive USADA suspension at the end of January, Dillashaw is now free to return to active-competition after he provived a test sample for the banned substance, erythropoietin (EPO).
In the time since his suspension began, the Angels Camp native has continously spoken on the bantamweight title picture, time and time again claiming the championship belt still belongs to him. And the UFC have done his peers a diservice by flirting with the possibility of an immediate championship challenge for him in his Octagon return.
We’ve seen some outliars in the past challenging for titles upon their return to the sport. Dominick Cruz, Georges St-Pierre, Conor McGregor, and Ronda Rousey to name a few, however, given the fact Dillashaw is returning from a suspension for a failed drug test, and in particular for a substance that’s rightly frounded upon as EPO — his possible readmission to a title challenge would be repugnant.
Sandhagen can lay in wait for a clash with Yan for the title, or if Sterling overcomes his Russian rival at UFC 259, pit the duo together in a championship re-run, with title spoils on the line.
Frankie Edgar vs. T.J. Dillashaw
This is a fight I originally called for after Edgar’s August victory over Munhoz. Edgar hasn’t lost a step in his move to bantamweight. Cory Sandhagen is just that good and that’s it. Ranked at number-four at 135-pounds ahead of the co-headliner, Edgar offers a decent gauge as to where Dillashaw is given the fact he’s spent two years of his career stricken with suspension on the sidelines.
Talk of an immediate title shot for the Duane Ludwig trainee is bogus to say the least. There’s no way he should be skipping past Sandhagen to challenge for spoils, as a former champion or otherwise.
I also expect former teammate and two-time foe, Cody Garbrandt to draw former featherweight kingpin, Jose Aldo sometime this year as well, so that’s the division’s top six taken care of.
Edgar, who turns 40-years-old in October should take some time to recover from that stiffening knockout loss to Sandhagen, however, so the timing in regards to a matchup against Dillashaw could be quite dicey, as the latter appears to be gearing up for a comeback in the opening quarter of this year at least.