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The jury still remains firmly out regarding the often theorized idea of ‘ring rust’. It’s a term coined to explore the possibility of a loss of ability, or more so general ringsmanship and timing in combat sports after an extended period of inactivity. A longtime proponent against the idea is former UFC bantamweight champion, Dominick Cruz. And based on Saturday night’s viewing — it’s difficult to present the case that former-foe, T.J. Dillashaw suffered in that regard against Cory Sandhagen.
Approaching UFC Vegas 32, it was almost two and a half years since former two-time bantamweight best, Dillashaw had strapped on a pair of gloves and made an Octagon walk. And it was his own doing truth be told. A positive test result for the banned substance, erythropoietin (EPO) resulted in the gavel coming crashing down on a two-year retroactive suspension for the veteran in January of 2019.
The landscape at 135lbs has changed drastically during his absence also. We’ve got a new champion in the form of the surging, Aljamain Sterling, and hot on the heels is former gold holder, the primed boxer, Petr Yan, as well as the aforenoted, Sandhagen who presents, stylistically, one of the most dynamic strikers in recent bantamweight memory and an incredibly difficult puzzle to navigate.
For the division, the Aurora-born, Sandhagen is extremely lengthy — and utilizes all of that height and reach more often than not. With impeccable timing and a varying array of attacking options to pluck from his arsenal, spectacular wheel kick and flying knee stoppages over Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar, respectively, tipped the Colorado finisher as the conceivable favourite against Dillashaw.
Returning to the Octagon at 35 years of age, Angels Camp underdog Dillashaw returned to bantamweight waters for the first time since August of 2018 where he put his rivalry with former teammate, Cody Garbrandt firmly to bed in the form of a second consecutive knockout win.
Dillashaw’s past accolades and résumé truly speak for themselves, but a combination of inactivity, the evolution of competition and the overall landscape change in his absence made Sandhagen a plausible favourite to emerge with his third consecutive success.
I’ve seen numerous figures scream bloody murder in regards to Saturday’s split decision result in favour of the returning Dillashaw, and while the bout was likely level on the majority of spectators scorecards ahead of the final round, shouts of a robbery against Sandhagen are really just unfounded.
On countless occasions, Dillashaw managed to evade with some herky-jerky, stance-switching movements, ducking beneath and closing the range and distance with well-timed bodylocks. From there, Dillashaw would navigate his way to Sandhagen’s back, and more often than not, force him to the Octagon fence where he accrued valuable control time — as well as stifling the striking Sandhagen who was content to stick on the outside.
Sandhagen managed to have some real significant success himself, however, particularly in the second round — opening a prior laceration on the right eyebrow of Dillashaw as well as dropping the Californian momentarily with a short left hook.
Wasted movements from Sandhagen allowed Dillashaw to find that back position on occasion as well, and from my viewing, I scored the bout narrowly in favour of the returner based on his aggression throughout from almost start to finish, as well as his control time. Damage is scored in high-regard absolutely, but I don’t think either could have been too disheartened given the swing of the close headliner.
Dealing with that laceration around his right eye, as well as a possible injury to his left knee in the closing stages of the first round — in tandem with a later disclosed torn MCL in his right knee, props must be showered on the returning Dillashaw for his performance against someone as difficult to solve as Sandhagen in his first outing since January of 2019.
Join me below as I play matchmaker for former champion, Dillashaw as well as future championship hopeful, Sandhagen.
Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan 2 Winner vs. T.J. Dillashaw
Whilst I myself am not necessarily a huge fan of Dillashaw returning to the title fray given his prior anti-doping transgressions — he’s served his time on the sidelines and managed to return against one of the more toughest and cerebral challenges at 135lbs — emerging triumphantly.
Prior pedigree, as well as marketability, will make the UFC swoop at the opportunity to immediately place Dillashaw into the title picture, and if the proposed October 30. pairing of current kingpin, Sterling and former kingpin, Yan comes to fruition, prepare to see Dillashaw challenge the victor — as long as we emerge disqualification-less this time around.
Reports have explained how verbal agreements are in place for Sterling and Yan to re-run their March disqualification at UFC 267 in a co-headlining slot on ‘Fight Island’. And as long as that date comes to fruition and Dillashaw emerges from Saturday’s headlining tilt without the need for another lengthy layoff, injury inflicted this time, I think you’ve got your next title challenger.
If for some reason Dillashaw intends to book another bout beforehand, New England Cartel standout, Rob Font is the obvious choice in opponent.
Cory Sandhagen vs. Jose Aldo – Pedro Munhoz Winner
Cory Sandhagen turned in a really admirable and impressive performance against Dillashaw lets get it straight. But rather than pair him against the streaking, Font — whom I believe should face the loser from Sterling x Yan II — I’d like to see Sandhagen return some time toward the end of this year opposite the victor of the upcoming UFC 265 clash between former featherweight champion, Jose Aldo and compatriot, Pedro Munhoz.
Sandhagen still has plans to achieve his goal of becoming the UFC bantamweight champion before the end of next year, and despite his close loss to Dillashaw on Saturday — he’s still amongst the chasing pack at 135lbs, and a real outlier in that estimation as well.
For former featherweight champion, Aldo — he’s already unsuccessfully challenged for bantamweight spoils, but has since rebounded against Marlon Vera. And an impressive display against fellow Brazilian, Munhoz would install him back into contention.
Snapping his two-fight skid recently, 34-year-old Sao Paulo native, Munhoz took home a rematch win over Jimmie Rivera, and if he can topple the striking puzzle presented by Aldo — pair him with Sandhagen in an eye-catching matching at bantamweight.
Senior writer for FightBook MMA. An aspiring mixed martial arts reporter based in Ireland. Producer of news articles, interviews, opinion features, and exclusive features such as, ‘The Fallout’, ‘The Breakdown, and, ‘This Week In MMA’.
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