The most interesting UFC Fight Night main event of 2021 is this Saturday: Cory “Sandman” Sandhagen (14-2, 6 KO, 3 Sub) vs. TJ “CEO of EPO; Snake in the Grass” Dillashaw (16-4, 8 KO, 3 Sub). Each of these fighters have a lot at stake, and intertwining personal histories that can’t be ignored.
We’ll start with TJ Dillashaw. Less than 3 years ago, he was the untouchable bantamweight champion coming off of back to back KO wins over Team Alpha Male rival Cody “No Love” Garbrandt, undefeated at the time. These wins came after he was bullied by Conor McGregor for being a “snake in the grass,” a disloyal friend and training partner to Garbrandt, Urijah Faber, and others at Team Alpha Male. He was vindicated. One TKO by the hands of Henry Cejudo and a bunch of steroids later, he was put on a 2 year suspension. He was caught for using EPO, a steroid that increases your red blood cell count to give you inhuman endurance. He lost the flyweight title fight (that would have made him double champ), his integrity, and 2 years of his career. Saturday is his long-anticipated return fight. He hopes to put the past behind him and pick up where he left off au naturel, on top of the 135-pound division. Winning signifies redemption, proving to everyone he doesn’t need EPO to win at the highest level.
On to Sandhagen. Coming off of back to back highlight KO victories against MMA legend Frankie Edgar and number 1 contender Marlon Moraes (not to mention a guest appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience), he looks like an absolute star in the making. What is he best at? Brutally and completely separating people from consciousness with some of the most creative and devastating striking you will see in MMA. Lately he’s shown no interest in 30-27 decision victories. He wants to “hurt [his opponents] as badly as possible.” There’s more: He used to be Dillashaw’s training partner. He was brought in over 5 years ago, before he was even in the UFC, to TJ’s training camp to help him prepare for his title fight against Dominick Cruz. Fighters in the same gym, and even TJ himself (in an interview from 5 years ago), claimed that Sandhagen – despite his relative inexperience and lower status at the time – would piece TJ up in the practice room. Other rumors indicate Sandhagen was TJ’s last choice for a return fight. But you know what they say: cheaters can’t be choosers, or something like that.
This is likely a number one contender fight; the winner of this fight should fight the winner of Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan for the bantamweight title. TJ has a chance to get back the title he never technically lost, and Sandhagen has the chance to show the world that he really is who he says he is.
Keys To Victory: Dillashaw
Dillashaw needs to get Sandhagen on the ground early, keep him there, and stretch the fight out as long as possible to have a chance. Sandhagen has shown weaknesses in grappling and has not had to fight more than 3 rounds in his career, so how his cardio holds up in those deep waters remains a question mark.
Keys To Victory: Sandhagen
Sandhagen needs to use his length to manage distance and defend takedowns to keep the fight on the feet so he can showcase his superior striking. TJ is a good striker and well-rounded mixed martial artist, but Sandhagen has a bigger bag of tricks, and if left standing long enough, is likely to pull one out that results in a KO.
Official Prediction: Sandhagen by 2nd round KO
Dillashaw hasn’t fought in 2+ years and no one has looked more impressive than Sandhagen in that timeframe. If Dillashaw shows any sign of ring rust, it’ll be a short night for him. If he comes in better than ever, it might still be a short night. Legend has it that when Sandhagen was 3 years old, he would spinning wheel kick any toddler who tried to enter his sandbox. 26 years later, his sandbox is the octagon, and Dillashaw is his next victim.
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