Cory Sandhagen (R) (Phil Lambert/Combat Press)

UFC Fight Night: Vera vs. Sandhagen Preview and Predictions

After a pay-per-view across the pond last weekend, the UFC returns to the United States this weekend for UFC Fight Night: Vera vs. Sandhagen. Two bantamweight contenders will collide with the hopes of earning a title shot when Marlon “Chito” Vera meets Cory Sandhagen in San Antonio, Tex.

Vera has looked better than ever in his four-fight winning streak. He took out former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar with a nasty front kick to the face, as well as former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz with a head kick. He also scored two decision victories, one over Davey Grant and the other over a surging Rob Font. He looks to make another major statement by beating former interim title contender Sandhagen.

Sandhagen has shared the cage with the best of the best. His only UFC losses have come against champions. He lost a controversial split decision to T.J. Dillashaw that many fans thought he won. He was submitted back in 2020 by current titleholder Aljamain Sterling, and his most recent loss came via decision to Petr Yan in a very close interim title fight. A statement win over Vera will give Sandhagen a strong case that he is ready for a shot at the belt.


The co-main event is a women’s bantamweight showdown between former Jackson-Winkeljohn teammates Holly Holm and Yana Santos (née Kunitskaya). Holm enters the fight after losing a very close decision to Ketlen Vieira, stopping Holm from winning three straight fights for the first time since 2015. Santos is fighting under her married name for the first time, as well as fighting for the first time since becoming a mother. It has been nearly two years since fans have seen Santos in action, and she is looking to make a major statement by adding a win over the former bantamweight champion to her resume.

UFC Fight Night: Vera vs. Sandhagen takes place inside the AT&T Center in San Antonio. The event airs live in its entirety on ESPN with the preliminary card starting at 4 p.m. ET, followed by the main card at 7 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Marlon Vera has won four straight fights and is the third-ranked fighter in the bantamweight division; does he get a win over Cory Sandhagen, and will it be enough to earn him a title shot?

Sumian: I truly mean it when I say that this is one of the best non-title fights of all time. The stakes could not be higher for either combatant for very different reasons. For Marlon Vera, this is the fight that solidifies his claim as a top, if not the top contender in the division. For Cory Sandhagen, a loss could really hurt his chances of ever becoming the bantamweight champion, given how deep the division is. Whatever the result may be, this fight is a guaranteed banger that will deliver something we have not seen in some time.

What is there to say about Vera? He is an absolute savage that continues to impress with performance after performance. His two most recent wins over Rob Font and Dominick Cruz were nothing short of stellar. His power is something to truly fear, and he truly fears no competitor that dares stand against him. Vera is typically a slow starter that wants to establish his rhythm before catching his opponent due to a significant mistake. The Ecuador native lands an impressive 4.28 significant strikes per minute, but he also absorbs 5.01 significant strikes per minute. Vera is truly a fighter that takes one to give one, which could also be a huge downfall to his title aspirations. If Vera is able to defeat Sandhagen decisively, it is feasible for the top-ranked bantamweight to find himself fighting for a title before the end of 2023.

Sandhagen is inarguably one of the most difficult fights to figure out. He is a very lengthy bantamweight, capable of keeping his opponents at distance while firing off long strikes to consistently frustrate his opponents. In his most recent performance, he defeated rising contender Song Yadong and showed he is more than just a gatekeeper for the time being. Like Vera, Sandhagen averages a high significant strikes per minute rate, but he also absorbs over four significant strikes per minute. To defeat the very best of the elite bantamweight division, Sandhagen will have to utilize his length and strike his way to victory.

It would be great if Vera can win this fight and solidify his claim to the bantamweight title. However, I believe that Sandhagen is simply too smart and too good to fall victim to Vera’s power. Sandhagen has never been knocked out, and it is unlikely that his first knockout defeat will come Saturday night. Sandhagen will stay on the outside, avoid Vera’s power, and win a competitive, yet clear, unanimous decision.

Petela: This has all the makings of a great fight, and, in most cases, the winner would typically be in line for a crack at the belt. Unfortunately, for both of these fighters, they happen to be in one of the deepest divisions in the history of the sport. Bantamweight is littered with contenders, and it is probably going to take one more win by whoever comes out on top in this clash to earn a title shot. The division’s title will be on the line in May when the incumbent champion takes on former two-division titleholder, and Olympic gold medalist, Henry Cejudo.

If Cejudo is able to snatch the belt, Sterling’s stablemate Merab Dvalishvili could very well be next in line for a title shot. Then, there’s Sean O’Malley, who can, himself, stake a claim as the worthy number-one contender after defeating Petr Yan when the former champion was the number-one contender. So whoever wins this clash will probably have to wait in line a little longer, and fight one more time, before he earns a shot at gold.

As far as how this fight is going to play out, I just don’t think Cory Sandhagen is going to be able to withstand the onslaught of Marlon Vera for 25 minutes. Two of Vera’s three most recent victories have come by knockout, and the only one that went the distance was the Rob Font fight, where Vera had Font in all sorts of trouble several times throughout the bout. Vera will start slowly, and it will take him a round or two to figure out the range and speed of Sandhagen, but, by the time the third round rolls around, Vera will be firing on all cylinders. It may come with a head kick or a crisp combination of punches, but I see Vera winning his fourth straight contest with an emphatic knockout victory over the dangerous Sandhagen.

Holly Holm and Yana Santos both enter this fight coming off of a loss; which former featherweight title challenger gets her hand raised in this bantamweight clash on Saturday?

Petela: How far has Holly Holm fallen that we are referring to her as a former featherweight title challenger instead, of the former bantamweight champion? Her run post-knockout of Ronda Rousey has been less than stellar. In her 10 fights since then, her record stands at a tawdry 4-6. She is also nearing the end of her career at 41 years old, and we have seen fighters get old overnight. Fighting just once since 2020, Holm lost her most recent clash by split decision to Ketlen Vieira. All of these things just don’t give me much confidence that she will put together a good performance on Saturday.

However, Santos is returning from a long layoff, having a baby during that time, which makes this fight kind of more interesting. I don’t expect to see the best version of either woman in this fight, and I also don’t think this fight will turn out to be very exciting. The former Jackson-Winkeljohn teammates are very familiar with each other and trained together for quite some time. That leads me to believe that they will both be hesitant to exchange, knowing that a mistake could be costly, and that they will perhaps overthink what to expect from each other and fall into a dull rhythm of movement without much action. All in all, I think the layoff from Santos will be less of a factor than the advanced age and relative lack of activity from Holm, and that Santos will be the sharper fighter in limited exchanges. This one ends in a ho-hum decision victory for Santos.

Sumian: There is nothing about Holly Holm recently that gives me any confidence in her ability to return to her former self. However, I do believe she does defeat Yana Santos via close decision. She is certainly the better striker and has fought elite competition throughout her career. Holm will win, but it will do nothing for her career. She is still one of the most notable female fighters in MMA history and will probably continue to fight much longer than she should be.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Sumian: Alex Perez is in a very difficult position. I do not believe he will be cut if he loses to Manel Kape, but his title aspirations will be a thing of the past, if he loses to the rising flyweight star. Perez desperately needs a win to stay relevant in the ever improving flyweight division.

Petela: Daniel da Silva. Not only is he on a three-fight losing streak, but those three losses are the only three fights he has in the UFC. This is definitely a win-or-go-home situation for him. Call it a hunch, but I see him getting his first Octagon win this weekend over CJ Vergara to keep his spot on the roster.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: Trevin Giles vs. Preston Parsons. This one has the sneaky possibility of being “Fight of the Night.” Parsons is a submission machine, racking up nine so far in his career. He is 5-1 over his last six fights, and is 1-1 since joining the UFC. He is going up against a veteran in Giles who, despite having just a 1-1 record, down at welterweight, he has looked good. 170-pounds will turn out to be the best division for Giles, and, as a bigger welterweight, he will have improved takedown defense and do a nice job avoiding the submission game of Parsons. This will turn out to be a fight where the grappler struggles to implement his game plan, and it turns into a kickboxing fight. That is where the fireworks will come, and there will be some wild exchanges. As Parsons turns to Plan B, he will draw Giles into a phone-booth fight, which will be great for fans, but ultimately bad for Parsons who will lose a late knockout. He will certainly be part of a great showing.

Sumian: Alex Perez vs. Manel Kape is probably my favorite fight on this entire card. Both of these flyweights bring it hard and will continue to give fans entertaining performances time-after-time. I do expect Kape to emerge victorious, but it will not come with ease. Expect a banger when these two are locked in the cage.

Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?

Sumian: Chidi Njokunai. He is coming off a devastating defeat against Gregort Rodrigues, but he will rebound with a big finish against Albert Duraev. Njokuani is a still top prospect in the middleweight division and will return to form against Duraev Saturday night.

Petela: Steven Peterson. His fight against Julian Erosa back in Feb. 2022 was incredible. By the final round, they threw technique out the window and put on a “Fight of the Year” contender. His opponent, Lucas Alexander has never been knocked out and has only lost via submission. This one stays on the feet, and Peterson gets a fantastic finish sometime in the second round that earns him an extra fifty-thousand dollars.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Dinner plans. Outside of the main event and a couple earlier fights, this card just doesn’t do much to get me excited. So, rather than spend your Saturday afternoon and evening watching the fights live, take your significant other out to their favorite restaurant and give them a Saturday night that doesn’t revolve around the UFC. Just make sure you are back in time to catch the main event, because that fight will be absolutely thrilling.

Sumian: I am significantly more optimistic than my colleague for this card and believe it will deliver a very memorable fight night. So for me, it is move-in day. I will be moving into my new place, while having the fights in the background as the action continues to go. This is a perfect card to not focus every moment of your time on, but do something in the background that is meaningful and time-consuming until the main card comes to fruition.

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
BW: Marlon Vera vs. Cory Sandhagen Sandhagen Vera
Women’s BW: Holly Holm vs. Yana Santos Holm Santos
FW: Nate Landwehr vs. Austin Lingo Lingo Landwehr
Women’s FlyW: Angela Lee vs. Maycee Barber Lee Barber
FlyW: Alex Perez vs. Manel Kape Kape Kape
MW: Chidi Njokuani vs. Albert Duraev Njokuani Njokuani
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
FW: Daniel Pineda vs. Tucker Lutz Pineda Lutz
FW: Steven Peterson vs. Lucas Alexander Peterson Peterson
WW: Trevin Giles vs. Preston Parsons Giles Giles
FlyW: CJ Vergara vs. Daniel da Silva da Silva da Silva
LW: Manuel Torres vs. Trey Ogden Torres Torres
FlyW: Vinicius Salvador vs. Victor Altamirano Salvador Altamirano
Women’s BW: Tamires Vidal vs. Hailey Cowan Vidal Cowan