This weekend’s bantamweight bout between Marlon Vera and Cory Sandhagen is shaping up to be a classic. Both fighters are coming off impressive victories and are looking to make a statement in this fight. Vera is known for his striking ability and has been working to improve his grappling game. Sandhagen, on the other hand, is a well-rounded fighter who can finish fights both on the feet and on the ground.
According to betting odds, Sandhagen is currently favored to win at -165 while Vera is an underdog at +140. This fight promises to be an exciting one and could go either way.
Read on for our staff predictions for Marlon Vera vs. Cory Sandhagen at UFC on ESPN 43.
Marlon Vera vs Cory Sandhagen is huge. They are both as dangerous as fighters come for various reasons. Both men have sniper-like capabilities, however, where Sandhagen will draw his opponents onto these strikes, Vera tends to freeze his opponents with pressure. Vera will move forward, eating a higher percentage of shots than he lands, but maintain that movement with consistency. At the point where he can get his opponents to settle for a breath, his front kick, head kick or power rear boxing is already firing. Sandhagen maintains a high output with his jab, forcing his opponents to either move in and eat a pull counter, or cover up and eat a follow-up right hook or left hook to the body, low kick. His jab and feints fill that space giving no room to relax and his footwork will circle away, angle off, and get them to step out and onto a flying knee or kick. He will also set up targets early so as to use the fake later on, most notably using the spinning sidekick to the body to set up his spinning hook kick later, because the spin is such a dramatic tell.
For Vera, investing in the calf kicks early is a solid game plan. He is quick and accurate with them, and they don’t take a great deal of speed and agility early in the fight. Deterring the footwork and mobility of Sandhagen deals a massive blow to his overall game. For Sandhagen, using those angles to lead the fight is key, as it will not allow Chito to freeze him and get a number of those kicks off. Vera has had issues with opponents who can enter a range by using angles, and Sandhagen is a master of switch-hitting and drop-shifting into his rear cross. If Chito cannot look to intercept or walk his opponents down he becomes far less effective in reading his opponents and getting his timing.
The fight should mostly be a standup endeavor, but both men have good grappling. Vera probably has the more comprehensive jiu jitsu game technically, and the more dangerous ground and pound. On top, he has brutal elbows, and is good at framing off so that he can cut that post and drop all his weight into his shots. On his back, he will continually throw up triangles and armbars and is particularly active. Sandhagen does not use his grappling nearly as much, but he will look to level change to disrupt the pace of the fight even if it’s just a quick scramble. When he is being taken down he almost always looks to lock up some kind of submission in order to turn the wrestling scenario into a grappling one, more than often attacking a kimura grip. This will allow him to roll his opponents past the takedown and get back to his feet or maintain the lock and try to further the exchange in the top position. Regardless, Sandhagen’s typical grappling style creates space and scrambles immediately which leads me to believe we will see grappling in small bursts if anything.
The narrative surrounding this fight is that Sandhagen is the smart money because Vera’s style leads him to lose until he gets the finish, and if he doesn’t get that finish he won’t win. On the flip side, for those who push back point out, more than not, Vera is able to find that finish, and he does so because he fights without that point style. Marlon Vera’s ability to pull the KO or submission out of his back pocket and end things in an instant, I believe, has begun to overshadow the fact that Sandhagen has also shown an innate ability to find that finish in a blink. The difference, as touched on before is he covers his bases and wins the fight up to that point. Anything could happen, and I give both men an equal shot and finishing one another, but because Sandhagen probably takes control over the other dimension to the fight in a decision, he is definitely a good pick going in.
Pick: Cory Sandhagen to win (-165)
Despite his high-level skillset and impressive resume, it took until last year, during his 18th professional fight, for Sandhagen to earn a shot at the title. “Sandman” lost via unanimous decision but earned a fight of the night performance bonus for his effort. He responded nearly a year later by knocking out rising star, Song Yadong, in the 4th round. Saturday night will be Sandhagen’s first fight of 2023 against another surging contender. The winner of this fight will likely have a strong argument to take on the winner of Sterling and Cejudo for the bantamweight strap.
“Sandman” is an incredibly well-rounded switch stance fighter who is taller—5’10—and longer than most of his opponents. He has a high striking output and is skilled at keeping range with technical footwork and reliable cardio. Sandhagen is also a skilled enough wrestler to mix in takedown attempts throughout a fight that helps keep opponents guessing or even win the last few seconds in a close round. More specifically, Sandhagen is a pure and natural striker who flows as the fight progresses and gels his footwork with his strikes fluidly. He looks to use his long arms to pump out a high-volume jab which helps Sandhagen keep pace and space. Once he gets into a rhythm, Sandhagen will look to land more combinations which he can smoothly start or end with a heavy kick. At any point in the fight, Sandhagen seems capable of landing any strike. His goal tends to be to piece people up from range where his edge in length and movement make him difficult to counter. Then, when the opportunity opens, Sandhagen will start to be more aggressive with his striking and movement as he looks to pressure his opponent back into the cage.
Once he traps his foe, “Sandman” looks to tee off with power hooks and thudding knees. Despite only having 7 knockout losses, Sandhagen does have real fight ending power, especially from his lower half with kicks and knees. He is patient, though, and doesn’t hunt the finish, instead waiting for the finish to come to him. As a grappler, Sandhagen has slightly above average takedown defense. His movement makes him difficult to catch and trap; but, opponents who can cut off the cage, have been able to take him down. His size and technique make the takedown difficult and his defensive submission game can make it dangerous as well. Outside of a pre-UFC loss, Sandhagen has only lost to bantamweight champions who could successfully get him to the mat or land the cleaner power shots. Simply, Sandhagen is uniquely challenging to beat.
Marlon “Chito” Vera has been an underdog in 2 of his last 3 fights, including this week, has a negative strike differential, and has consistently lost rounds in fights that he’s won. Yet, he is on a 4-fight winning streak and on the precipice of a shot at the belt. That is because Vera has 4 performance bonus-winning fights in a row. Vera’s strategy is unique and violent. Some argue that his opportunistic approach to fighting will inevitably end with him being unable to find the perfect shot at the perfect moment and Vera lose. Others argue that Vera’s ability to lose 4 minutes of a round only to land a vicious knockdown and steal the round or finish the fight is the mark of a truly special fighter who hasn’t yet reached his potential. One thing is for sure, Vera has enormous power, impeccable timing, and is insanely tough.
Typically, Vera stands in a tall Muay Thai stance but uses very little movement or footwork. Instead, he stands still, almost statuesque, and allows his opponent to come to him. He’ll keep a high guard and block blows as he waits for an opening to counter. When that opening presents itself, often after an opponent landed a combination to Vera’s guard- forearms and shoulders- Vera will explode with a combination of his own. Vera has fast hands, precise accuracy, and, again enormous power. Vera has, also, recently shown he can be devastating in the clinch as well. He lands slicing elbows and heavy knees when clinched against the cage or in the center of the canvas. Beyond his unique but effective striking strategy, Vera is a strong grappler with creative submissions as well. We haven’t seen Vera grapple in a while but he grew as a fight through a club and sub approach. He always has that game plan and skillset in his back pocket.
This fight is going to be razor-thin and could go a number of ways. Sandhagen could out-volume the low-volume counter striker in Vera. If Vera follows the same sit-then-pounce strategy he’s used in his recent fights without landing a massive shot per round, Sandhagen should win a wide decision. Conversely, Sandhagen, if his movement is nullified, can be hit cleanly, especially if he zigs when he should zag. So, if Vera can cut the cage, limit the movement, or time the footwork, he could find another power shot to win a round or the fight. Further, both men are skilled and dangerous in the clinch which I expect to be even throughout the fight. I think the x-factor is the grappling. Sandhagen is the better wrestler but Vera is the better submission fighter. If Sandhagen is hurt or struggling to land clean volume, he might resort to wrestling. If he does that, I side with Vera on the mat. He is slicker with sweeps, has better submissions, and is difficult to control. If these two fought 10 times, I wouldn’t be surprised if they split 5 and 5. Because I see the fight as so even, with a slight edge to Vera on the mat, I like the value on Chito as the underdog.
Best Bet: Vera to win (+145)
Maron “Chito” Vera is one of, if not the most dangerous bantamweight on the roster. To justify this statement, watching his 2-0 2022 campaign would be only needed, as he significantly damaged Rob Font round after round for the full 25-minute duration and KO’d Dominick Cruz in the 4th round of their fight. Going a full 25 minutes and finding a finish against an aging veteran in the 4th round may not sound like a significant danger threat, but I assure you, Vera knows how to inflict serious damage and, has done so throughout his entire UFC tenure as he has finished 11 of 14 of his UFC wins.
In those referenced fights from 2022, Vera found his bread and butter with how he wants to fight, that is, stay extremely patient during each round, knowing he can land one punch to turn the tides and either end the fight right there or win the round due to the number one factor for the judges’ scorecards is damage. This laissez-faire attitude mirrors that of many heavyweight fighters, but Vera does so at 135 pounds which makes him extremely unique.
Expanding upon Vera’s unique self, many people may not realize his fight-ending style is equally dispersed between KO and submission finishes – of his 20 professional wins, 8 have come via KO and 8 submissions. This ability to find a finish on the mat is extremely important given it gives pause to his opponent with thinking about taking Vera to the mat. Moreover, his solid grappling allows him to stuff 68% of takedowns, in turn, keep the fight standing for him to find a powerful blow.
Whether it be a Sean O’Malley calf strike, Frankie Edgar up-kick, or massive punches against Rob Font, Vera is a weapon with a plethora of damaging attacks at his disposal on the feet. This ability to inflict damage cannot go understated as he possesses an ability to win at a moment’s notice, from the first to the last minute of the fight. While this is the case, being fully willing to lose the output battle round over round is a dangerous tactic given if he cannot find that round-ending blow, he will begin to get behind on the scorecards, thus making him a very difficult fighter to project, similar to that of heavy-handed heavyweights.
Where Marlon Vera gets the deserving respect of being one of, if not, the most threatening strikers in the bantamweight division, Cory Sandhagen falls through the cracks in this discussion even though he has finished 6 of his 8 UFC wins, with KO and submission victories mixed in. This demonstrated ability to finish fights parlayed with him being a very tall and rangy bantamweight fighter justifies him being in the discussion of the most dangerous, fight-ending 135’ers on the roster.
Similar to Vera, Sandhagen is somewhat difficult to understand as a fighter. This is because he uses Dominick Cruz’like movement in the octagon, throws with a good amount of output, and possesses a variety of strikes on the feet – specialty being elbows and knees – to create a makeup where he should win rounds, and in turn, fights. But, when watching his recent fights, and when looking at the fight data, you begin to see his fights are razor close, which explains why he has lost so many coin-flip decisions. This lack of ability to separate round-by-round is a real problem, and as alluded to, a difficult problem to overcome because his style of fighting should afford him to win rounds somewhat convincingly. To solve this concern, Sandhagen will likely look to incorporate his underrated wrestling to secure takedowns to put a stamp on rounds, as he has that ability but often foregoes wrestling due to his elite-level striking. If he does this, or, analyzes his striking to find an area for improvement – quite difficult given he has elite footwork, movement, and damage – then he can begin to win the tough fights and truly content for the bantamweight belt.
Marlon Vera is one of the most difficult high-end fighters to bet on or against. This is because he will likely be losing a given round until he isn’t. Meanwhile, Sandhagen has all the tools you want when betting on a fighter, except for the most important, that is, the ability to win close fights. So, when backing a fighter in this matchup, you need to ask yourself if Vera can continue his heavyweight style of fighting or if Sandhagen’s unlucky, close-fight losses will end.
For myself, I am far more comfortable backing Sandhagen than I am Vera in this matchup. While his style and movement mirror Cruz, a fighter Vera most recently fought and beat, Sandhagen’s ability to merge movement with elite damage makes him far more of a threat for Vera to contend with in this fight. Moreover, the damage ability Sandhagen is able to inflict on his opponent will likely be somewhat easily done against the slower-moving Vera, and although Vera’s durability is world-class, I do believe the slicing elbows and thundering knees of Sandhagen will allow him to win rounds, and ultimately, secure a victory.
Pick: Sandhagen to win (-165)