A lot has happened in the last six years. While significant global and national events have been nearly countless, the MMA world has seen a lot of change as well.
In 2015, ONE FC became ONE Championship and went on a meteoric rise. In 2017, the World Series of Fighting became the Professional Fighters League. That same year, Legacy Fighting Championship and the Resurrection Fighting Alliance merged into the Legacy Fighting Alliance. In 2019, Invicta FC held the first event with an open-scoring format.
This is just scratching the surface. In the UFC, there was the USADA partnership in 2015. The next year, the company was sold to WME-IMG. In 2017, the UFC Performance Institute opened. In 2018, the UFC locked up a $1.5 billion broadcast deal with ESPN. In 2020, there was the introduction of both the UFC Apex and Fight Island.
Six years. That’s also nearly the length of the professional career of Colorado’s Cory Sandhagen.
On May 30, 2015, the 23-year-old made his pro MMA debut. Little did anyone know that he would go on to become a 13-2 fighter with eight finishes and possession of the No. 2 contender spot in the UFC’s bantamweight rankings. Yet, that’s where he now sits. Four of those finishes have come inside the UFC’s Octagon, as did his only loss by stoppage. That setback came against Aljamain Sterling last year. It’s been a short and exciting journey, and one for which Sandhagen has no regrets..
“Obviously, no one wants to lose, but I think that I got what I needed to get out of that loss, and it’s going to make me a better champion when I do get to say that I’m the champion,” Sandhagen told Combat Press. “I wouldn’t rewrite it. I don’t think I would have done it any differently, except all of my fights would be a 10-second knockout, I would have twice as many fights, and I would be making millions and millions of dollars, if I could rewrite it that way. But that’s a little unrealistic, so I’ll just take it the way it is. I’m definitely really happy.”
Sandhagen has certainly had a quick rise in the sport. He entered the UFC three years ago with a 7-1 record. In just under one year, he was 3-0 in the Octagon with two knockouts and a submission of the previously unbeaten Mario Bautista. Sandhagen added decision wins over veterans John Lineker and Raphael Assunção. Then came the first-round submission loss to Sterling.
“I just went in way too relaxed,” Sandhagen admitted. “I think there are probably a number of reasons for that, but none of them really matter. I think the most that I have taken out of that is just how to get myself in a space where I can compete in such a really intense sport.
“I need to replicate that, even on the days I don’t want to replicate that. I just always make sure that I make myself be in that intense type of space that I need to be in, in order to compete in a fist fight. Since that one, it’s been going good. I’ve been doing it before every sparring session. I think that it showed. It paid off against [Marlon] Moraes, because I was very in the zone for that one.”
Sandhagen took on Moraes in October and scored a second-round TKO of the former longtime WSOF champ. This put him back in the title hunt and also in position for a fight that was supposed to happen last year against former UFC lightweight champ Frankie Edgar.
Sandhagen is a member of the Elevation Fight Team in Denver. Some of the team’s coaches have been at his side since before the team was even formed. In late 2019, after the Assunção fight, the Colorado standout started cross-training with jiu-jitsu legend and fellow UFC fighter Ryan Hall at Hall’s own Fifty/50 Martial Arts Academy in Falls Church, Va.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Ryan’s jiu-jitsu, so I just shot him a message,” Sandhagen explained. “He was pretty happy to have me out there, and we formed a friendship. Now, I’m usually with him about once every month [or] every two months, at least. It’s usually about a week at a time, and sometimes, he’ll come out here too. I’ll train with [ONE’s 155-pound champion] Thanh Le out there, also.”
In December 2019, Sandhagen was training in Virginia about six weeks out from a scheduled January bout with Edgar. He received a call that the former champ was pulling out of their fight in favor of a short-notice bout as a replacement for an injured Brian Ortega against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung. This was a bit of a heartbreaking development.
“I was pretty upset, because I was really looking forward to the fight,” Sandhagen said. “I’ve been learning that kind of stuff happens. People get injured. People get other fights. Sometimes dates don’t work. Sometimes opponents don’t want to take the fight. That’s just part of the game, you know?”
Another part of the game is the knockout. Edgar suffered one of those in the first round of his fight with the Zombie. It was Edgar’s second loss in a row in the featherweight division and put him at 1-3 in his last four fights. This sparked a drop to bantamweight, where he faced Pedro Munhoz in August. Edgar picked up the split-decision win, which put him back on a collision course with Sandhagen. The fight will finally take place at UFC Fight Night 184 on Saturday night, Feb. 6, in Las Vegas.
“I’m excited,” Sandhagen said. “I think he looked really good against Munhoz. I think he’s definitely going to be a huge threat. It sounds silly to say, but if I don’t take him serious[ly] — which, who in the world wouldn’t take Frankie Edgar serious[ly]? — he’s definitely going to win. So, I’m approaching this like this is my toughest fight.
“This probably is my toughest fight. Frankie’s a really good wrestler. We’re going to be in a smaller cage. He’s going to be hungry. I think both of us are just one fight away from fighting for the belt after this. I have really high expectations for how I think Frankie is going to come into this fight.
“I’m always ready for it to get really ugly. I think if you go in and you think it’s going to be an easy fight, that’s the number-one way to get beat up. So I always go in with the expectation that it’s going to be an ugly and brutal fight. When it doesn’t go that way, great. When it does go that way, it’s at least what I expected.”
Sandhagen has come a long way in the last six years. He has quietly climbed the ranks of the best fighters in the world, while all of those other events were unfolding around him. Even this weekend, Super Bowl LV will ultimately overshadow the UFC card. It doesn’t bother Sandhagen one bit, though. He’s working on writing the next chapter to his own story.
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