Back to the prelims after his first UFC main event, Raphael Assuncao looks to bounce back from his loss to Marlon Moraes with a win at UFC 241 (stream live on ESPN+). While his hopes of attaining an uncommonly elusive title shot seem to have been dashed, Assuncao’s losses at 135-pounds are still only to the disgraced former champion TJ Dillashaw and to Moraes (a top contender despite his subsequent loss to Henry Cejudo); the currently #3 ranked Brazilian only loses to the best of the best, and he’ll put Cory Sandhagen to one of the hardest tests that any prospect could face. A win would still leave him running in circles, but a loss would be a sign that perhaps the division has passed the veteran by.
Meanwhile, with only three wins in the UFC over unranked opposition, Cory Sandhagen was granted a shot at John Lineker (no longer with the promotion, but a stern and punishing test for a prospective top-10 bantamweight); the skill and flash that Colorado’s Sandhagen showed in his mostly dominant wins put him on the Petr Yan track for top prospects at 135 to become top contenders. While he didn’t exactly pass the Lineker test with flying colors (there’s a good argument to be made that he didn’t pass it at all), he came away with the judges’ scorecards in his favor; Assuncao represents a less-straightforward test than the relentlessly punishing Lineker, but one with higher stakes (very possibly a title shot).
The Greatest Gatekeeper
Raphael Assuncao is very arguably the best fighter never to challenge for a championship in the UFC; while some of it was just bad luck (an injury keeping him from his scheduling against Renan Barao, for instance), a great deal has just been the promotion not quite knowing what to do with a counterpuncher who routinely befuddled prospects in slow-paced bouts that no one seemed to care about.
Assuncao’s loss to TJ Dillashaw kept him away from title contention as Dillashaw went on to win the belt, but he still proved a top-ranked contender who wasn’t the kind to be walked over by fun prospects; in Marlon Moraes, the UFC found their man to knock this thorn in their side down the rankings, and when Assuncao scraped past him in 2017 and won twice more to make a strong claim for a title shot, they just threw him at Moraes again. For the first time in three years, Assuncao is off a loss, but his position isn’t all that different from when he was winning: again keeping the gate, and looking to play the spoiler against a prospect who the promotion wants to build on his name.
Read more: How to watch UFC 241 on ESPN+
Classically, Assuncao is best on the counter, and while he isn’t the best-schooled boxer, he’s an underrated puncher who’s shrewd enough to land consistently. Generally, Assuncao looks for single shots off his rear hand, and while he isn’t defensively great in the pocket, he’s excellent at drawing his opponent out and is defensively functional enough to avoid strikes that he’s expecting or looking to elicit. One good example is his knockdown of Rob Font; Assuncao had been playing an outside kicking game against the longer boxer for most of the first round, retreating from Font’s reaching 1-2s, only to fire back with the right hand as Font reached for him to make up the distance for the expected drop-back.
Assuncao can feint entries to draw counters and counter those, he counters well in combination (as he did when he started running Font onto him consistently in round 2, putting the left hook behind the right hand), and he’s developed a jab that he can pressure behind and draw counters with (for example, double-jabbing in against Moraes to draw a counter-jab and landing a cross-counter for a brief knockdown in round 3).
Assuncao has also proven a very effective outside-kicker, particularly to the legs; Assuncao can kick to draw an opponent onto his counters or intercept them as they move forward, but he can also deal real attritional damage (for example, destroying the inside of Matthew Lopez’s leg with round kicks). Along with his excellent grappling, Assuncao’s a broadly skilled and extremely disciplined fighter, one who isn’t going to be drawn out of his game despite growing more aggressive in his recent fights, and one who’s proven exceedingly difficult to beat.
If a defined archetype has troubled Assuncao, it’s been a fighter who’s offensively layered enough to throw off and punish a defined counterpunching approach; namely, TJ Dillashaw and Marlon Moraes gave Assuncao fits through his four fights with them. Dillashaw’s consistent feinting and his looks that built off one another complicated counterpunching considerably for Assuncao, and while he did a fine job considering the style matchup, it ended in a loss as Assuncao bit on too many feints and gave Dillashaw the reads to work in the pocket.
Moraes did an even better job in many ways; Moraes also did a great deal of feinting and building off it in both of his fights, working the body excellently and punishing Assuncao trying to close him down, and also managed to finish Assuncao in their rematch. Against Sandhagen’s approach, Assuncao may need to show a few new wrinkles.
A Burgeoning Prospect
Cory Sandhagen’s four fights in the UFC have all been sensational in one way or another, and he’s won every one of them; while his win over Alcantara seemed to come down more to raw stubbornness than anything else, and his win over Lineker arguably wasn’t one, Sandhagen has shown through his short UFC tenure that the pieces are there to become a strong future contender. Unranked at the start of 2019 and readying to face a debutant in Mario Bautista, Sandhagen could be ranked as a top #3 135er eight months later; to get there, he needs to beat one of the toughest fighters to shine against in the entire promotion.
Sandhagen’s striking has drawn comparisons to Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw already, and while it isn’t necessarily an unqualified compliment (the shifty sort of “neo-footwork” comes with as many drawbacks as it does benefits), it also isn’t a hard comparison at all to see.
Sandhagen’s debut against Austin Arnett showed his striking against an opponent who was outgunned in every sense; while he benefitted a lot from sheer aggression against a non-counterpuncher, Sandhagen looked like a very smart offensive threat. A good deal of it was a commitment to attacking the body; Sandhagen would occasionally switch stance to line up round kicks to the body, but for the most part, it was the left hook to the body (sometimes off the jab to draw Arnett’s high guard, and often paired with the right low kick in a very Dutch sort of way that he used to pick apart Mario Bautista).
Sandhagen has a good jab and feints often and well, which makes counterpunching a generally difficult task; while Lineker had some success, a lot of the fight was Sandhagen finding his way around the guard of Lineker with his jab (switching between wide and straight rights, hooking off the jab to the body and to the head), which served to draw counters and throw Lineker off. Sandhagen showed an aggressive submission grappling game against Mario Bautista, and his bouts against Alcantara and Lineker showed a sort of toughness that’s truly rare in MMA; while he hasn’t been tested against the cream of the crop yet, all indications are that Sandhagen is a very tough out, with the craft to trouble any of his opponents.
For the most part, Sandhagen’s issues are on the defensive side; while his offensive skills make it generally difficult to time him for counters, he’s shown vulnerability in the pocket. Sandhagen can defend strikes that he’s looking to draw out or that he’s immediately expecting, but Lineker’s dedicated combination punching gave him trouble (especially with body shots mixed in; Sandhagen ate nearly every shot to the body Lineker threw). The same sort of thing goes for his ringcraft; while his footwork is generally good and he’s shown things like pivots in the open, Arnett and Alcantara (and Lineker, when he wasn’t getting prodded with jabs and linear kicks) were able to just run forward with combinations at points to tag Sandhagen and back him up.
It isn’t uncommon for prospects to struggle with defense, and Sandhagen’s fairly promising for having shown the pieces of strong defense and ringcraft even while not having them fully systematized; whether Assuncao can punish him for his defense being that way is yet to be seen.
Conclusions and Capping
Sandhagen seems like a troubling matchup for Assuncao, just as a function of volume and offensive intelligence. Sandhagen’s consistent feinting to draw counters is something that Dillashaw and Moraes did well against Assuncao to great success, as they could draw Assuncao’s counters and land in the pocket before angling out to avoid getting hit. Assunção can counter in combination but isn’t amazing as a pocket-boxer, so if Sandhagen can beat his counters, he’s likely to have a great deal of trouble.
While it’s easy to forget how well Assuncao did against those tough style matchups in the past (Assuncao found the best singular shots of the first Moraes bout with his cross-counters, and he made counterpunching work better against Dillashaw than virtually anyone), it’s hard to see him winning if Sandhagen can mostly deny him the core of his game and pour volume on freely.
Assuncao is a fantastic fighter and it isn’t impossible that he consistently walks Sandhagen into counters (with his kicking game and his own jab to draw reactions, as well as Sandhagen getting caught cold at times by Austin Arnett of all people), but the matchup isn’t great for him.
Prediction: Sandhagen by UD. This writer caps Sandhagen at -150.