Kickboxing specialist, Cory Sandhagen, will throw down opposite vicious finisher, Marlon Vera, this Saturday (March, 25, 2023) at UFC San Antonio inside AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.
In the last few years, Sandhagen has established himself as one of the best Bantamweights on the planet, an expert striker with slick ground skills. He challenged for the interim belt in 2021 and came up short in a great fight opposite Petr Yan. Since then, he’s fought just once, reasserting himself back into the title mix by turning away Song Yadong with an excellent game plan. Now, one more win might just earn him another shot at gold. However, he’ll have to be at his sharpest, because Vera has proven to be one of the sport’s sharpest finishers.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Sandhagen is one of the best kickboxers in his division, a rangy striker who lands damaging blows at a high volume.
First and foremost, it’s important to note Sandhagen’s build. At 5’11” with a 71-inch reach, Sandhagen is among the lankiest Bantamweights on the roster. He capitalizes on this ranginess really well, using it to his advantage against a majority of opponents. Thanks to the quality of his footwork and feints alongside his reach, Sandhagen is often able to walk his opponents into powerful plants, where he suddenly stands his ground and fires (GIF).
This was a major part of the strategy against Song Yadong, one of the division’s fiercest boxers with an iron jawline. Yadong wanted to push into the pocket and fire combinations, and he found really good success in that range early. However, Sandhagen started countering his forward pressure with intercepting elbows, standing his ground and slashing at Yadong (GIF). He opened a massive cut over Yadong’s eye that really changed the course of the fight, allowing the rest of Sandhagen’s kickboxing to flow much more effectively.
A ton of Sandhagen’s volume comes from range weapons, namely the jab and kicks. “The Sandman” switches stances often but tends to do most of his boxing from the Orthodox stance. As he pursues his opponent, Sandhagen does a really excellent job of working the jab without over-extending himself.
A great example of this came in his bout with John Lineker. The former Flyweight may have been far shorter than Sandhagen, but that’s hardly a rare situation for “Hands Of Stone,” who was looking to bomb Sandhagen with combinations each time the Colorado native looked to establish the jab.
Had Sandhagen fully stepped forward with each strike, he would have lost the fight. Instead, he pumped half-hearted jabs often, mixing them with hand-fighting as well (GIF). The real jabs snuck between the guard often, landed as Sandhagen pulled back from the big swings, or scored after Lineker threw himself out of position.
Often, Sandhagen uses his jab from either stance to pull at an angle and shift into the opposite stance. When he knocked down Dillashaw, for example, Sandhagen sidestepped from Orthodox into Southpaw with a series of light jabs. As Dillashaw continued to walk him down, Sandhagen sidestepped the other direction back into Orthodox with another jab. Now at a new angle entirely, Sandhagen fired a hard cross-hook, and the latter shot floored Dillashaw momentarily (GIF).
Perhaps the great benefit of shifting stance like Sandhagen does is that it simplifies throwing kicks. Steps between stance make it much more likely that a simple feint then kick lands, as he’s doubled his own arsenal of effective kicks and given his opponent a bit more to think about defensively. Plus, he does a nice job of sticking to kicks that make sense: kicking the lead leg from either stance, going Southpaw before ripping the open side, front kicking all the while, and occasionally mixing in a spin or jump knee.
It is worth-mentioning that Sandhagen can be a bit lazy with his kicks. He’ll throw catchable kicks from inside the pocket without much of a complicated setup, which is risky in regards to both counter strikes and takedowns.
There is more to Sandhagen’s offense than a smart jab and onslaught of kicks, as his boxing is genuinely quite good. Numerous times, he would jab Lineker, pull to avoid the counter, then stick him with the one-two combination — fundamental, but underutilized in mixed martial arts (MMA). He’s quite good at sticking an opponent with a straight shot then shifting over and changing the angle, allowing him to follow up with further offense (GIF).
Against just about all of his opponents, Sandhagen does a tremendous job of hooking off the jab. Sandhagen loves to throw a left hook to the liver while standing directly in front of his opponent. This punch is really a test of his feints and ability to establish the jab, because if his opponent is able to read it, Sandhagen is there to be clipped with a right hand.
Yet, it rarely happens. Instead, Sandhagen confounds opponents with his feints, allowing him to hide the liver shot behind hand-fighting, level change feints, and as his opponent backs away from the jab.
The cleanest example of Sandhagen’s distance management came opposite Marlon Moraes. Early on, the Brazilian knockout artist looked to attack the legs, but Sandhagen did a nice job of pulling the kicks out with his feints, meaning that Moraes was kicking air. On the flip side, Sandhagen set his own low kicks up behind the double jab and feints, landing at a better clip.
That’s how the exchanges began, and Sandhagen continued to pull the fight more into his wheelhouse. Without his kicks landing, Moraes faced a serious range disadvantage, and Sandhagen capitalized with stiff one-two combinations before pulling back out of range. Moraes was getting marked up well prior to the perfectly timed spin kick that ended the bout (GIF).
Against TJ Dillashaw, Sandhagen’s habit of turning his back was highly criticized, mostly for wrestling reasons to be discussed below. However, he really didn’t take many shots for his troubles, and Sandhagen did manage to crack Dillashaw with a spinning elbow late in the fight. If damage remains the top criteria, I am less critical, because it kind of worked … even if the judges disagreed.
As for the Yan fight, that’s one of the most high-level striking battles in UFC history. For my money, Sandhagen was doing quite well early, even winning. However, Yan knocked him down in the third by tracking his shifts in unorthodox fashion — via a spinning backfist? — and that seemed to take a lot out of Sandhagen’s gas tank. Yan’s conditioning ultimately proved the deciding factor as it often does, but technically, the two were very well matched.
Sandhagen is a very gifted scrambler and has quite a few tricks up his sleeve.
In terms of offensive wrestling, Sandhagen’s slickest moments came against Lineker — even if he directly copied his future opponent T.J. Dillashaw to pull it off. Using his jab feints and stance switches to dull his foe to the shot, Sandhagen twice shifted forward with a switch-cross. The switch-cross is a simultaneous jab/stance switch into Southpaw. Essentially, it brings the right leg forward while jabbing, leaving the fighter in a similar position to throwing a Southpaw cross. Sandhagen didn’t just bring the leg forward however, he turned it into a trip of Lineker’s lead leg as he barreled into the shorter man’s waist.
It’s the perfect takedown for a man who sets his feet like Lineker, as there’s no sprawl available to defend due to the trip.
Against Yadong, Sandhagen used his wrestling strategically. Right away, he was shooting double legs and grinding for the takedown along the fence. He actually managed to finish a couple of these shots, but that wasn’t the real goal necessarily. Instead, Sandhagen used the takedown as a means to relieve the pressure Yadong was working to apply. In addition, it made his level change threat far more effective. Yadong was sprawling hard any time Sandhagen reached toward his legs, and “The Sandman” later tried to capitalize on this with his patented jump knee.
Defensively, Sandhagen gets taken down somewhat often. He throws naked kicks and stands tall — a pair of traits to avoid if fearful of the takedown. Sandhagen, however, is anything but scared to scramble.
Against Raphael Assuncao, Sandhagen routinely would start in bad position — with Assuncao having caught his kick or already in on his waist — yet land on top. Part of that can be credited to his length, which helps majorly in scrambles, but he’s also just really damn good at scrambling while an opponent threatens his back.
Check out this clip, for example (GIF). Assuncao enters with an excellent high-crotch shot. Rather than waste energy sprawling or fighting hard to dig underhooks, Sandhagen throws himself toward the legs. He reaches the far leg himself, which allows himself to pull himself into referee’s position. From there, he simply stands up, confident in his ability (and, in this case, underhook) to fight out of the clinch.
It’s something of a funk roll, but mostly, it’s straight scrambling talent.
In another example (GIF), Assuncao once again times a shot well, this time taking the back clinch. Sandhagen drops his weight, which makes it difficult for Assuncao to lift him up, so the Brazilian opts to attempt a trip instead. Sandhagen counters with back pressure, pinning Assuncao’s back to the mat and allowing Sandhagen to loosen the hold and spin into top position.
In all of his fights, Sandhagen has proven very willing to turn his back. It’s a common reaction both on the mat and standing when opponents score entry on his hips. Immediately, Sandhagen will turn away and find the fence, where he’s quite good at fighting hands. This habit did backfire against Aljamain Sterling, who proved too deadly a wrestler/grappler combo to give even an inch. Sandhagen ran into an opponent that he could not out-scramble (at least that early in the fight), and he went to sleep as a result.
Against Dillashaw, Sandhagen really suffered very little because of the back turning habit. Repeatedly, he would find the fence, fight hands, and free himself within a short time. Dillashaw racked up control time, which isn’t supposed to matter if there’s an edge in damage (and there was).
On a technical note, Sandhagen escaped the back clinch at least a couple times by doing a literal front roll (GIF). Again, this falls more into the realm of athletic scrambling than a specific technique like Granby rolling (rolling over the shoulders). By rolling, Sandhagen forces his opponent to loosen their grip and flow with him, otherwise they lose the position entirely. If they do flow with him, the pair are once again scrambling, something we’ve established Sandhagen is quite good at.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, Sandhagen is more active with submission attempts than his kickboxing background would imply. Notably, he’s made use of the kimura as part of his takedown defense rather often, and it even resulted in a UFC finish opposite Mario Bautista.
After turning his back and going to fight hands, the kimura is often an option for the defending fighter. Against Bautista, Sandhagen looked to the hold twice while wrestling along the fence. The first time, Bautista adjusted correctly, scoring a high-crotch lift to dump Sandhagen on his face … and still almost getting inverted triangled in the process!
The second time the two Bantamweights found themselves in the same position (barely a minute later), it was Sandhagen who adjusted properly. Rather than wait for Bautista to slam him again, Sandhagen fully committed to the kimura, dropping his weight and using it to sweep his opponent.
Sandhagen could have released the hold and been happy with his top position, but instead he pursued the finish. Stepping into mount, Sandhagen missed the face with his left leg as he sat back into the armbar. Bautista was able to roll up into guard as a result, but his arm was still too entangled. Sandhagen swung the leg back in front of the face and went belly down, forcing the tap (GIF).
In his bout vs. Dillashaw, Sandhagen actually managed to tear Dillashaw’s knee with an inside heel hook. Near the end of the round, Sandhagen has an inside heel hook position, but Dillashaw managed to negate the threat by kneeling. When he stepped onto his toes in an attempt to punch, however, Sandhagen fully committed to cranking on the knee. It wasn’t perfect positioning, but it still managed to send Dillashaw limping back to his corner.
Sandhagen is an excellent technical fighter, and he proved last time out that he can execute a game plan at the elite level. He’ll need both of those traits against “Chito,” who is riding a major wave of momentum into this main event match up.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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