One of the sport’s finest kickboxers, Cory Sandhagen, will duel former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Bantamweight kingpin, T.J. Dillashaw, this Saturday (July 24, 2021) at UFC Vegas 32 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
From Sandhagen’s debut inside the Octagon — a short-notice mauling that saw him pick up a body shot stoppage win — it was clear that “The Sandman” was something special. Since then, he’s done very little but impress, rising through the ranks quickly until he ran into an exceptional performance from Aljamain Sterling. How did Sandhagen respond from the devastating loss? With incredible violence, putting on back-to-back master classes opposite Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar. Once again, he’s back in the title mix, ready to earn his shot.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Sandhagen has quickly made it clear he’s one of the best strikers in the Bantamweight division, which makes him one of the best in the sport. Sandhagen is exceptionally high-volume, and he works both to break foe’s down and end them early with single shots.
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.
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.
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 (GIF).
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.
Undoubtedly, the best example of Sandhagen’s distance management came opposite Marlon Moraes. Early on, the Brazilian punisher 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 far cleaner.
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).
Finally, Sandhagen’s tremendous jump knee knockout over Frankie Edgar is a testament to his mastery of distance and timing (GIF).
As I understand it, Sandhagen does not have a scholastic wrestling background, but I find it difficult to believe. He’s such a natural and willing scrambler that even if he’s taken down occasionally, Sandhagen has proven tremendously difficult to grind down.
In terms of offensive wrestling, Sandhagen’s slickest moments came against Lineker — even if he directly copied his 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.
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.
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.
A jiu-jitsu brown belt, Sandhagen is more active with submission attempts than his kickboxing background would imply.
Half-hearted attempts to leg lock Assuncao aside, Sandhagen did take the Brazilian’s back in scrambles himself. More 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).
Sandhagen is a tremendous talent, and at 29 years of age, it seems he’s just now entering his prime. If Sandhagen can dispatch the former champion, there seems to be little doubt that he’s ready for a chance at UFC gold.
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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.