When the going gets tough, the tough keep going. It’s an old Cliché. It may sound cool to say, but less people are able to walk what they talk.
Elevation Fight Team’s Cory Sandhagen is, by far, one of the hottest bantamweight prospects in the UFC today. After only a couple stoppage wins prior to his only pro loss in February 2017, he went on a four-fight streak of wrecking opponents in the first or second round. This current winning streak started in the Legacy Fighting Alliance and continued right into the UFC. However, this is not a story about how tough the Colorado native is in the cage. It’s a story about a quality that many fighters lack.
Sandhagen’s last outing was against longtime veteran Iuri Alcantara at UFC Fight Night 135 in August. Sandhagen was not in a good position after round one, but he came back with a dazzling ground-and-pound win shortly into round two.
“I got to learn a lot about myself in that fight,” Sandhagen told Combat Press. “I got to learn that when the going gets tough, I’m able to get through it and get a win.”
Has this been the first time a fighter has been down and come back to win? Absolutely not. It won’t be the last time this happens, either. Sometimes it’s due to blind luck. Sometimes it’s due to raw Talent. Sometimes it’s due to just plain hard work. Sandhagen’s wins can be attributed more to the latter two of these reasons. He’s definitely a very talented fighter, but his work ethic is also on point.
“My camps are very grueling, which is the word I use for myself,” Sandhagen explained. “The first six weeks are extremely disciplined. My weight isn’t really a problem, which is nice. I don’t really have to stress too much about that. But, as far as, like, the tenacity and the pressure that I put on myself to really get after it in the first six weeks of camp, [that] is very daunting.
“About a week away or a week and a half away, I start to take it down a lot, which are the nicer parts of camp. My camps are always extremely, extremely daunting. I don’t take any shortcuts. I really, really approach it to get 100 times better.”
Daunting. Grueling. Tenacious. These are a few fancy words to explain that the 26-year-old works his ass off. Some fighters claim to always be ready, but then they turn in lackluster performances. Sandhagen’s fights are anything but boring. After his one loss, Sandhagen had a couple fights fall through before coming back eight months later to score a first-round knockout win. He added a 67-second finish in early 2018 before getting the call to the UFC. Once in the Octagon, Sandhagen added a finish of Austin Arnett and then the aforementioned Alcantara.
Three months ago, Sandhagen found out that he would be back in the Octagon on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, at UFC on ESPN+ 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y. At the time, he was set to face 13th-ranked Thomas Almeida, which was a perfect match-up to allow Sandhagen to crack into the top-15 rankings. However, his opponent changed halfway through camp.
“I found out about the fight about 11 weeks ago,” Sandhagen said. “It was Almeida until about five weeks ago and then it switched over to [John] Lineker. Obviously, Lineker’s super dangerous.”
So, this was like a gift from the heavens. Lineker is currently ranked sixth in the UFC bantamweight division, and a win over him would shoot Sandhagen to at least a top-10 ranking. Not bad for a guy who made his promotional debut less than a year ago.
“I didn’t think they’d offer me someone that high ranking that quick, but it sort of fell into my lap,” said Sandhagen. “I got the call, and I sent the name over to my manager and coaches. My coaches thought it was a good fight, so we decided to take it. I was very pumped to have the opportunity to boost up that quickly in my third UFC fight.”
No matter how daunting his camp had been, neither Brazilian opponent would have been a walk in the park.
“Both of them are tough to beat in different ways,” Sandhagen admitted. “Lineker is tough to beat because he brings so much pressure, and he hits extremely hard. Obviously, that pressure looks good to the judges, and when the judges see how hard he hits, I think that usually goes in his favor. With Almeida, his defense is much better. He has a lot more tools, and he’s a much better kickboxer from a technical standpoint.
“Fighting isn’t just technique. It’s how much can you beat a person up, and both of them are good at doing that in different ways. I wouldn’t say that one of them would be favored over the other. I see Lineker as more dangerous, but I see Almeida a little bit tougher to beat.”
This was the perfect setup. Either guy would signify a great win over a ranked opponent. Sandhagen had already gotten the tough part of camp out of the way, but what is life without a good curveball? Sandhagen’s mettle has been tested time and time again, so enter the injury bug.
Just four day ago, after Lineker pulled out with a short-notice injury, in steps promotional newcomer Mario Bautista, who trains at the MMA Lab in Arizona, and is 6-0 on the regional circuit. Does any of this matter to a guy who is as truly tough and talented as Sandhagen is?
“I was told January 19 was my date, regardless of the opponent,” said the Coloradan. “That’s when they were going to find me a fight. I’m just ready for the fight to go. I’m to the point in camp where my weight is good, I’m in good shape, I know what the game plan is, and I just need to go out and perform. It’s a little bit like studying for a test which you have been studying for forever. You kind of just have to wait until it’s test day and then see how you do. I feel good now. I’m way over-trained, and I’m excited for this taper week. But, fight night, no injuries, no nothin’, I’m good to go.”
When the going gets tough, huh? Nothing really comes easy in the fight game, but Sandhagen puts it on himself to train hard right out of the gate. Come fight time, no matter what lemons get thrown his way… well, you know the rest. On Saturday night, live on ESPN, the rising star will have another chance to showcase his talent against a game opponent. He doesn’t set out to show people how tough he is. That’s just who he is as a person.
“Stylistically, I’m a very exciting person to watch,” Sandhagen said. “The way that I fight, it’s more of an art than it is a brawl. I have a no-quit attitude. I’m going to do every single thing I can to win that fight. I’m not going to take any shortcuts. I’m not going to let him win any little battles. I’m just an exciting fighter who fights with all of my heart, and that’s just how I am. That’s just in me, and, hopefully, people enjoy watching that.”