Last Saturday, former women’s bantamweight champion Miesha Tate came out of retirement and picked up a victory at UFC Fight Night: Makhachev vs. Moisés after a five year absence from the sport. This weekend marks another return, albeit stemming from vastly different circumstances. Former men’s bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw will be fighting for the first time in over two years after a suspension for a failed drug test resulted in a 24-month ban from USADA.
The UFC didn’t give him a tune-up fight in his return, instead he is taking on one of the most dangerous fighters in the division, Cory Sandhagen. Sandhagen enters this fight coming off back-to-back finishes with his highlight-reel worthy stoppages of Marlon Moraes and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. The winner of this weekend’s main event will be loudly knocking on the door for a title shot.
The co-main event also has title implications as Aspen Ladd and Macy Chiasson meet in the women’s bantamweight division. Ladd was on the fast track for a championship fight until suffering her only career loss at the hands of Germaine de Randamie. Chiasson has one blemish on her record and has rattled off two straight since losing a decision to Lina Lansberg. With both fighters being ranked inside the top 10, this weekend’s winner will be on the short list of people poised to try and dethrone champion Amanda Nunes.
The men’s bantamweight division is featured prominently this weekend. Kyler Phillips and Raulan Paiva will square off with the winner likely moving into the division’s top 10. Also on the main card is a featherweight contest as longtime Team Alpha Male standout Darren Elkins takes on Glory MMA product Darrick Minner. Maycee Barber will look to snap a two -fight losing streak as she meets Miranda Maverick. Opening up the main card is a welterweight fight between Mickey Gall and Jordan Williams.
UFC Fight Night: Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw take placed inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The prelims get underway at 4 p.m. ET and the main card will follow thereafter at 7 p.m. ET. The event can be seen in its entirety on both ESPN and ESPN+. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.
An injury delayed T.J. Dillashaw’s return to competition after suspension. Will the former champion be successful in his comeback fight against Cory Sandhagen?
Sumian: It has been over two years since Dillishaw last competed in the Octagon and suffered a stoppage defeat at the hands of Henry Cejudo. Things just got worse from there for the former champion. A drug test failure resulted in a suspension and criticism from both the media and fans alike. Much of the dust has settled around Dillashaw and the division has moved forward. It is now ruled by Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling, Rob Font and of course his prospective opponent, Sandhagen. There is a critical question that will be answered come Saturday night. Did Dillashaw achieve success in the UFC through the use of PEDs? Or is the former champ an elite competitor capable of redeeming his tarnished reputation?
It is very easy to dislike Dillashaw for his past actions. His PED controversy, feud with Team Alpha Male and generally assuming the role of a villain has led many mixed martial arts fans firmly standing against him. Nevertheless, his peak in the UFC was easily one of the most exciting and dominant bantamweight runs in the division’s history. Dillashaw is a masterful tactician whose gracefulness, fluidity and prolific movement has made him into one of the most complete fighters out there. The former champion’s footwork combined with knockout power creates numerous openings in his opponent’s defense. That generally results in a knockdown and shortly after a finish.
Although he is most famous for his rivalry with Cody Garbrandt, Dillashaw’s most renowned performance is undoubtedly his TKO victory over Renan Barao in July of 2014. That night, he became bantamweight champion by pulling off one of the greatest upsets in mixed martial arts history. Finally healthy and the past hopefully behind him, Dillashaw has a chance to insert himself back into title contention if he is able to take out the No. 2-ranked Sandhagen.
The UFC is certainly not doing Dillashaw any favors by matching him up with the extremely dangerous and ever improving Sandhagen. The 5-foot-11 bantamweight is headed to a title shot if he is able to defeat Dillashaw and firmly put a hold on the title of No. 1 contender. Sandhagen is as awkward yet fluid as they come. Despite being a striker for the most part, he is just as well versed on the ground, resulting in a 7-1 record in the UFC. His only setback is a submission loss to current champion Aljamain Sterling back in June of 2020. He is easily one of the most difficult match-ups to prepare for due to his uncharacteristically long reach and height for the bantamweight division. Fresh off back-to-back finishes of Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar, expect Sandhagen to come out ready to earn a title shot that many believe is already his.
Despite Sandhagen being the No. 2-ranked bantamweight in the world, all eyes will be on Dillashaw come Saturday night. The world wants to know if his run in the UFC was merely a hoax fueled by performance-enhancing drugs or if he truly is the elite mixed martial artist he claims he is. Although I want Dillashaw to redeem himself in the eyes of the mixed martial arts world, I firmly expect Sandhagen to turn in a masterful performance that results in a victory for the Colorado native. There are many opponents that Dillashaw could beat in his comeback fight but Sandhagen is not one of them. He will use unorthodox movement and rhythm to negate Dillashaw’s own and outstrike the former champion using powerful kicks and a long jab. Sandhagen will earn a title shot while Dillashaw will be matched with another top-10 UFC bantamweight in the near future.
Petela: Fighting Sandhagen after over two years off is a clear statement that Dillashaw is on a mission to get back the belt he never lost in the Octagon. These are two of the best five bantamweights on the planet and they both have tricky, unorthodox styles. That’s the reason Dillashaw will emerge victorious with a unanimous decision after five back-and-forth rounds.
Having Duane “Bang” Ludwig as his coach will prove yet again to be an invaluable asset for Dillashaw. Ludwig is one of the greatest minds in combat sports and is almost unparalleled with his dedication and obsession to the striking arts. He is the perfect coach for Dillashaw, who listens and executes to near perfection. With the additional time Dillashaw and Ludwig have had to prepare due this fight being postponed, the dynamic duo will have put into place a style and game plan that allows Dillashaw to navigate the unique challenges that Sandhagen possesses with his length and shifty footwork.
After a victory against Sandhagen, the next step for Dillashaw is a title shot and a chance at redemption. He will have to wait some time before he gets that shot with a rematch on the horizon between Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan after their first fight ended with a controversial disqualification. That actually plays to Dillashaw’s advantage because he and Ludwig will have time to draft game plans for both Yan and Sterling, who like Sandhagen have difficult styles to figure out. After the suspension, Dillashaw is well situated to become bantamweight champion once again.
Aspen Ladd is currently No. 3 in the UFC bantamweight rankings. Can she pick up a win over the ninth-ranked Macy Chiasson? If so, will it be enough to earn her a title shot?
Petela: This will be an incredibly competitive fight. Both of these women have just one professional loss on their record. They also both have highly technical striking games that often fuel them to victory. Ladd carries more power and will be looking to score the seventh knockout win of her career. The height advantage lies with Chiasson who is three inches taller and also has a three-inch advantage. If Ladd can get Chiasson’s timing down and work her way into range, she has a very good chance at picking up a finish. If she struggles to close the distance and Chiasson can use her jab effectively, it will be a long night for Ladd.
Expect a little bit of both scenarios throughout the fight. For the majority of the rounds, Chiasson will keep Ladd at bay behind a stiff jab and repeated calf kicks. But there will be a few big moments scattered throughout the fight where Ladd stuns Chaisson and does enough damage to sway a judge or two into giving her the round. At the conclusion of the contest, the cumulative striking of Chiasson will be enough to get her a decision victory.
A Chiasson victory will shake up the bantamweight rankings a little bit. It would be too big of a jump for Chiasson to earn herself a title shot with a victory, but she will almost certainly be in line for a fight against a top-five opponent. A match-up against Irene Aldana would be an interesting clash as would a fight between Chiasson and the recently victorious Miesha Tate. As for Ladd, she is still young in her MMA career and she will continue to improve. Don’t be surprised if she is knocking on the door of a title shot within a year or two.
Sumian: One forgets two things about Ladd at this point in her career. First, she is still only 26 years old and second, she has not competed in professional mixed martial arts since December of 2019! Despite Chiasson possessing the necessary tools to pull of a closely contested decision victory, expect Ladd to be one with her hand raised. Once she touches Chiasson with her power several times, she’ll win all three rounds on the scorecards. Ladd is only getting better and yet to peak. Expect the California native to shine come Saturday night.
Elise Reed, do we need to know this name?
Sumian: Reed is a welcomed addition to the UFC roster, even if she is competing outside her normal home of 115 pounds. It will take more than a short-notice bout with Eubanks to garner any attention, however. Reed is an undefeated prospect based out of New Jersey who makes her UFC debut after appearances in CFFC and Bellator. Expect Reed to take out Eubanks via decision or TKO and earn herself a possible bonus along with another UFC appearance.
Petela: Yes. Reed may have some growing pains as she gets acclimated to the talent pool in the UFC but she is definitely someone to keep an eye on as she moves forward. She is relatively young (28) and with only four fights on her resume she is still somewhat new as a mixed martial artist. I also think Reed will get past Eubanks in her debut, but even if she doesn’t, Reed is certainly a fighter who could make waves when she returns to 115 pounds.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Darren Elkins. “The Damage” got back on track in his last fight when his win over Luiz Eduardo Garagorri snapped a four-fight losing streak. However, he will need to maintain that momentum with a win over Darrick Minner if he wants to keep his place on the UFC roster. This fight will largely be a litmus test to see whether or not he has made the necessary changes to find success in this chapter of his career. Or if the win over Garagorri was an outlier. One thing’s for sure, win or lose Elkins will entertain the fans.
Sumian: Sijara Eubanks. Despite garnering a following and warranted attention during her time on The Ultimate Fighter, the Massachusetts native has been fairly disappointing in her UFC career which has resulted in a 4-4 record and no finishes. She is 36 years old, riding a two-fight losing streak and has failed to turn in any notable performance. Expect Eubanks to drop another bout to newcomer Elise Reed and be sent packing.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Randy Costa versus Adrian Yanez takes the cake on this one folks. Anytime you have two guys who have a majority, if not all their wins by knockout, it’s safe to say we have a sleeper on our hands. Costa is 6-1 with all six wins coming by way of knockout. Similarly, Yanez has compiled a 13-3 professional record with 10 of those wins coming by way of finish. Expect a truly wild fight as this pairing does everything in their power to knock each other for as long as the bout lasts.
Petela: Good choice, that is sure to be a great fight. Don’t forget about the other bantamweight prelim though, Julio Arce and Andre Ewell. Arce’s two UFC losses came by split decision and the only person to finish him was Brian Kelleher under the Ring of Combat banner back in 2015. Ewell is also a very talented fighter who sports a win over former champion Renan Barão. This will be a high-level fight that is also very fan-friendly.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Brendan Allen. The former Legacy Fighting Alliance middleweight champion was on a seven-fight winning streak until losing to Sean Strickland last November. He rebounded nicely with a submission victory over Karl Roberson in April. He will notch another submission win this weekend when he becomes the first man to defeat the hard-hitting Punahele Soriano. Allen will get this fight to the canvas early and use his superior grappling to get a finish before the opening round comes to a close.
Sumian: Julio Arce. Despite dropping a split decision to Hakeem Dawodu, Arce is truly a gifted fighter who has a bright history in the bantamweight division. He will bounce back with a thunderous submission or knockout finish when he takes on Andre Ewell.
If you need to step away from the fights, do it during…
Sumian: Miranda Maverick versus Maycee Barber. The expectations on Barber are simply way too high and that is in part her fault due to hyping herself up with words more than actions. Everyone will expect her to yet again bounce back in impressive fashion. Instead, we will see a much more cautious Barber who will be hesitant to pull the trigger. Maverick will outpoint Barber and earn herself a sound unanimous decision victory.
Petela: The women’s flyweight fight between Sijara Eubanks and newcomer Elise Reed. That’s not to say that Reed isn’t a talented prospect with a bright future. Eubanks has a style that is hard to look good against, in victory or defeat. Eubanks will prove too difficult to finish and Reed will walk away with her hand raised but throughout the fight there will be long periods of what looks like inactivity, even to the most dedicated mixed martial arts fan.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Coors Light. Both fighters in this main event have ties to Denver. Cory Sandhagen has called Colorado home since he was born and T.J. Dillashaw previously relocated to the area to follow his head coach Duane “Bang” Ludwig. In celebration of the return of Dillashaw and the emergence of Sandhagen as a title contender, have a few Silver Bullets while you watch a thoroughly entertaining twenty-five minute fight.
Sumian: The Mortal Kombat character Jax. In the second Mortal Kombat movie, fans are introduced to the live action version of Jax, whose character is profoundly known for having cyborg-like arms that significantly increase his power and combat abilities. By the end of the movie, Jax has lost his arms and must fight a very dangerous opponent without them. He is able to channel his true inner power and defeat his opponent despite losing a significant advantage. On Saturday night, we find out which version of Jax T.J. Dillashaw is. Can he prove to the world he has always had what it takes to be one of the greatest in the world? Or is he nothing without his enhancements? Tune in to find out Saturday night!
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