Cory Sandhagen is not the typical Bantamweight contender.
His background is different. The 28-year-old is not a collegiate wrestler, nor does he appear to be unreasonably strong or quick. Sandhagen’s mentality separates him as well. Take a look at “The Sandman’s” Instagram and realize that the Colorado-native is far more Zen than the average combatant at any weight class.
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It’s Wednesday. You’ve been minding your business and staying off social media to stay sane. You realize you haven’t made a post in a little while and are worried about messing up the algorithm that gets you more strangers to look at your opinions. You hashtag #tattoo (137M tags) so people will check out said opinions. You remember that at the end of life, you’ll miss your mom’s homemade fried rice more then the challenges of today - which include how to make enough money to buy a new soundbar so you can watch Selling Sunset on Netflix more efficiently. You remember perspective. You breathe. In, out. You feel gratitude as you take a swig of your zero calorie (that’s bullshit) Sprite Zero. Life makes sense again.
Having a unique skill set, background, and mental game are fun, but the middle of divisions are littered with interesting fighters who cannot advance up the ladder. Meanwhile, Sandhagen rose to the division’s elite at the speed of a champion. He only turned pro in 2015, but Sandhagen advanced into the top five in August of 2019 after 18 months on the UFC roster.
Hell, he fought John Lineker in his fourth UFC fight. Nobody who cares about the well-being of their jawline or spleen does that, but Sandhagen accept the fight and won, showcasing a real depth of skill and sharpness of mind in the process.
Sandhagen came into his first main event opportunity following a bad loss. Aljamain Sterling did not care much for Sandhagen’s tricky kickboxing, excellent scrambling, or his state of calm. He threw him to the mat straightaway and strangled him. Before Sandhagen had really woken up, he was asleep.
That loss was the backdrop to this bout, but it really only helped contrast the bold strokes of Sandhagen’s masterclass. There would be no sleepy start from Sandhagen, no “Magic” high kick in the opening 30 seconds that smeared paint and skull alike. From the opening bell, Sandhagen was tuned in, acutely aware of the distance between each man and the explosive power of his Brazilian foe.
Moraes was not there to lose. He threw hard kicks and swung big hooks without loading up or getting sloppy. Yet, seldom did he land. It took almost no time for Sandhagen to find his range with long low kicks and quick jabs, both of which found the mark consistently. Even more impressive, Sandhagen dove deep into his bag of tricks so quickly. He went to his favorite lead left hook to the liver just a couple minutes into the bout — a risky punch one only turns to when supremely confident of an opponent’s timing and reactions ... particularly when dealing with a ferocious puncher like Moraes.
Sandhagen’s kickboxing in the first five minutes was sublime. He shifted between stances on his straight punches like Max Holloway, doubling up on the jab from either side and using it to set up power strikes. He routinely pulled just out of range to follow up with further punches. After establishing the left kick, Sandhagen showed it and stepped into a clean knee to the mid-section — that’s some real deal kickboxing, the extra layer of complexity we don’t often see in MMA.
Pace was clearly on Sandhagen’s mind, as he gave Moraes little opportunity to rest. Despite this focus on activity, Moraes was unable to land anything all that significant. He was getting touched up, and Sandhagen just kept throwing different tricks at him.
In the second, Sandhagen scored hard with a snap kick straight to the body, then followed it up with a sneaky over-the-shoulder high kick. It appeared to be blocked, but Sandhagen shouted to the heavens that the strike broke Moraes orbital, and I am not going to doubt him.
A moment later, Sandhagen stepped into a wide spin kick, and it put Moraes down for good. It was incredible either way, but I’m forced to wonder, did Sandhagen purposely throw the spinning strike in the direction of Moraes’ potentially blinded eye?
From start-to-finish, Sandhagen performed remarkably to dispatch an elite contender. It was not long ago that Moraes seemed to be on a collision course with Bantamweight gold, yet Sandhagen made it look nearly effortless. The title shot may not arrive just yet, but Sandhagen lived up to his pre-fight goal of painting a masterpiece with a championship-level performance.
This writer cannot wait to view the next “Sandman” exhibit.
For complete UFC Fight Island 5: “Moraes vs. Sandhagen” results and play-by-play, click HERE!