UFC bantamweight fighters have reacted in a myriad of ways following now-ex bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw’s recent two-year suspension for EPO by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
Contenders such as Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan saw it as an opportunity to fight for the newly vacated belt, Dillashaw’s long-time rival Cody Garbrandt called the former champion a “coward” and a “scum bag”, while Montel Jackson recently told The Body Lock he felt a degree of empathy for Dillashaw.
The Body Lock’s John Hyon Ko recently spoke to Cory Sandhagen, another of the 135-pound divisions fastest rising stars, who said he has absolutely no sympathy for athletes who cheat. He said that while he could care less about the use of PEDs in other sports, he believes those who use performance-enhancing drugs, including Dillashaw, who he has previously trained with, deserve any punishment USADA hands down.
“They’re cheating in a sport where we’re causing a lot of damage to each other,” Sandhagen told The Body Lock. “I could care less if people are using stuff to dunk higher and entertain in that way, but getting knocked out is a very serious thing, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
People that are cheating in order to put themselves forward in a sport where we’re trying to cause brain damage to each other… I don’t really have a ton of respect for that.”
USADA has received significant criticism for their handling of certain cases in the past, most notably involving UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, welterweight legend Nick Diaz, and ex-UFC middleweight Tom Lawlor. Despite this, Sandhagen still has complete faith in the agency to ensure UFC athletes all compete on a level playing field.
“I know that back in the day, before USADA, there was definitely a lot going on, but now with USADA, I really trust them. I know that they’re finding really small trace amounts… I really trust that USADA is doing their job.”
However, the fact that USADA is finding such small amounts of substances does give Sandhagen cause for concern. This is because there have been a number of cases where fighters have lost months – or even years – of their career due to tainted supplements. Recent examples include now-retired bantamweight Chad Mendes and recently suspended heavyweight, Walt Harris.
Sandhagen suggested that he’s always been incredibly careful about what supplements he takes, but conceded that there’s always a chance, regardless of how cautious he, or any other fighter, is.
“This might be a little weird,” Sandhagen began, “but I compare it to an STD test – no matter how safe you’ve been and no matter all the precautions that you’ve taken, you’re still a little nervous when you open up those results… I don’t usually stress out about too many things, but [in the wake of so many USADA failures for tainted supplements] I have this constant fear… I do the most I can to stay from all of that anyways, so if it happens, then it is what it is.”
Rising up the ladder quickly
Despite making his promotional debut in January of 2018 and having just three UFC fights to his name, at UFC Fort Lauderdale this weekend, Cory Sandhagen will face the #7 ranked bantamweight, John Lineker. With three outstanding finishes in each of his promotional bouts, it is clear why the UFC has offered Sandhagen such a significant step up in competition. Sandhagen isn’t surprised, either.
“I thought it would take me a little longer to get into the UFC, but I knew that when I did get in, things would happen really quickly because I’ve seen that happen to a lot of fighters that are around my same skill level. I envisioned this, but it’s kind of weird having it all happen, too. You go so long wanting to be where you are, and then as it’s happening, it’s a little bit strange.”
Cory Sandhagen was initially slated to face Lineker at UFC Brooklyn in January, as ‘Hands of Stone’ stepped in for an injured Thomas Almeida roughly a month prior to the event. However, Sandhagen’s opponent changed once more just nine days out, as Lineker suffered a rib injury. In stepped Mario Bautista, a teammate of fan favorite bantamweight Sean O’Malley.
While many fighters might have struggled with such short-notice changes, Sandhagen largely felt comfortable in his own ability to defeat whoever was put in front of him.
“Almeida is just a kickboxer; he’s a very good kickboxer, but he doesn’t do anything crazy or have a weird body type – it was just normal training and not too many things we needed to really look out for. When it switched to Lineker, though… this guy’s only 5’3, 5’4, and he’s a brawler, which you have to be able to get used to. I was confident in my ability to rise up for that, but fighting someone like Lineker… I’m really glad I have an eight-week camp.”
Cory Sandhagen’s ‘flu game’
At UFC Brooklyn, Sandhagen’s bout with Bautista was the first UFC fight to take place on ESPN, and, boy, did Sandhagen welcome ESPN viewers to the party in style. He ushered in the new ESPN-era with a spectacular finish of the promotional newcomer, taking just 3 minutes and 31 seconds to do so.
Sandhagen pressured Bautista for the opening minutes of the bout, jabbing from both stances, before delivering a perfectly timed bicycle knee that sent his opponent to the canvas. Despite Bautista recovering, Sandhagen then showed off his tremendous grappling skill and finished Bautista via armbar with plenty of time left in the round. Despite such a sensational performance, Sandhagen said he entered the bout under less than ideal conditions.
“I went into that fight not really feeling the greatest. When I was refueling, I was having some issues putting the weight back on, so I was happy with my ability to ignore all of those feelings and just be like ‘Alright, it doesn’t really matter, you still need to fight this guy, whether you feel good or not’. I was really happy with my ability to overcome those things because they’re the kind of things that break you.
I’ve learned that none of that stuff really matters. You’ve just got to go out and trust that your body is going to do what you’ve trained it to do.”
‘Hands of Stone’
Stylistically, John Lineker is perhaps one of the most challenging fights in the UFC. At just 5’3, the Brazilian is tied for the shortest fighter in the bantamweight division, along with John Dodson, but he possesses tremendous knockout power that might be unrivaled at 135-pounds. His brawler style has provided fans with numerous highlight-reel moments, but Cory Sandhagen feels he is as well-prepared as he can be for ‘Hands of Stone’.
“We have a couple of guys [at Elevation Fight Team], specifically Miguel [Perez] and Daniel [Aggrey], who are really good training partners for [mimicking] Lineker. I get this kind of wave of confidence, where it feels like I just got done fighting. I just went through the whole fight week, so I think everything is going to feel very comfortable; as far as my ability to beat him, I feel very good with what me (sic) and my coaches have come up with.”
Despite his impressive performance against Bautista, Sandhagen injured his nose in the bout. He is certainly cautious about further injury, but has accepted that there’s little use worrying about it; this is a fight after all.
“If it breaks against Lineker, I’m kind of anticipating that a little beforehand. If it gets popped good, it’s probably going to break. I guess in a fight, anybody’s nose can break at any moment, so it’s not a big deal. It’ll only stress you out if you let it stress you out. It’s not like he’s going to not be trying to break my nose anyway, so it makes no difference to me.”
Social media and ‘Superfights’
Following TJ Dillashaw’s suspension, the UFC’s bantamweight division is wide open, with countless contenders calling out each other on twitter. UFC 238 will see this all come to a head, as Marlon Moraes and Henry Cejudo face off for the vacant title, while Aljamain Sterling and Pedro Munhoz will compete for the number one contender status. Petr Yan will also face Jimmie Rivera, after calling him out a number of times on social media recently.
While a number of the divisions’ top fighters have been particularly vocal on Twitter, Sandhagen doesn’t feel that he needs to engage in similar behavior. He’s happy to let his fighting do the talking.
“I have no problem calling people out if it’s a fight that me (sic) and my coaches want. I don’t think we’ve really been in a position where I’ve needed to call anyone out yet. Honestly, I think that the UFC really likes me and my style; I think they’d be very happy having me as the champ. If I can get a really sweet finish and be one of the first people in a long time to finish Lineker, I definitely think I’m going to jump the ranks even quicker than I am now.”
“I could be looking at a [title] contender fight after this one.”
“I don’t follow Twitter to be honest. It’s a little too much for me; I haven’t used it in a long time. If it’s a sacrifice I have to make in order to make some money and get some fights, then I’d be willing to do that, but I’m not really caught up with all that stuff.”
Cory Sandhagen isn’t overly keen on the impending title fight between Moraes and Cejudo, instead opining that it should’ve been contested by two natives of the 135-pound division instead. While so-called ‘superfights’ have clearly generated significant exposure for the UFC, they have also created more congestion in weight classes, such as Conor McGregor’s occupation of the lightweight title, and Georges St. Pierre’s capturing of the middleweight title, respectively. Sandhagen feels they starve opportunities for fighters who are more deserving of title shots in their own division.
“I don’t like it, man. I don’t really like the fight from a fan’s perspective. I think it kind of throws a wrench in both divisions. I’m kind of against the whole ‘double-champ’ thing. That’s a thing in boxing and kickboxing because there are weight classes every six or seven pounds, but in MMA, I mean, you’re tying stuff up for a long time. It’s like taking bread from someone else’s plate, a little.”
Sandhagen would actually be in favor of the UFC adopting the boxing-style of weight divisions, with so-called ‘junior’ or ‘super’ weight-classes being introduced between standard divisions. With the idea of an 165-pound division being thrown around by fighters and journalists alike recently, it is not utterly unthinkable that the UFC would adopt such a structure. But with Dana White still strongly objecting to these changes at various press conferences, this seems some way off right now.
“I think that would be cool. I mean boxing does it; it would make for more championship belts, so the UFC could throw two or three on every show. I would love to see weight classes every five pounds; I think it would give more opportunity and make things more interesting for people going up and down.”
Cory Sandhagen will face John Lineker at UFC Fort Lauderdale on April 27th live in Florida in a fight considered by many to be the most exciting fight on the card. The event also features Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza vs. Jack Hermansson, Glover Teixeira vs. Ion Cutelaba and Mike Perry vs. Alex Oliveira.