Through a quirk of programming and misfortune striking two of the UFC bantamweight division’s biggest stars, Mario Bautista is about to etch his name permanently in the MMA record books.
This Saturday, UFC Brooklyn marks the promotion’s first show under its new five-year deal with ESPN, the largest sports news and broadcasting network on the planet. The broadcast is divided in a somewhat unorthodox manner that fans may soon have to become used to, with the first three preliminary bouts taking place on the ESPN+ streaming service and the next four on the ESPN channel before viewers will be asked to switch back to ESPN+ for the six-fight main card.
That middle portion will be the first set of UFC fights ever aired live on ESPN television and when the histories are written, what fight will be known as the first of that set?
Mario Bautista vs. Cory Sandhagen.
Suffice to say, the UFC’s matchmakers originally planned to kick of the UFC on ESPN era with a tad more wattage than that. A 135-pound bout between former champion and future UFC Hall of Famer Dominick Cruz and fan favorite Brazilian slugger John Lineker was originally booked for UFC Brooklyn, but an injury to Cruz led him to be replaced by Sandhagen. Then an injury to Lineker opened the door for Bautista to make his UFC debut on less than one week’s notice.
So that’s how a marquee fight between top contenders turned into a quirky matchup of hungry prospects and how Bautista found himself becoming the answer to a trivia question.
“It’s crazy to be part of history,” Bautista recently told MMA Fighting. “I totally forgot that it was going to be that first fight on the ESPN card, so I didn’t realize that until the next day. It makes this fight that much bigger for me.”
Starting as an amateur in the small town of Winnemucca, Nev., Bautista quickly outgrew his surroundings (also, his gym closed down) and made his way over to Glendale, Ariz. where he found a home at The MMA Lab training with John Crouch. He went unbeaten as an amateur before his career was put on hold for almost four years, during which time he worked to save up enough money to keep food on the table on and move to a place closer to Crouch’s gym.
Bautista went on to win his first six pro bouts and found himself competing in top regional promotions like Tachi Palace Fights and Legacy Fighting Alliance, as well as for Combate Americas. After going to a decision for the first time in his most recent fight, the plan was for Bautista to take a few more fights with LFA (he was actually booked for LFA 59 on Feb. 1 before the UFC came calling) and then figure out his next move.
“I didn’t think fighting in the UFC would be this soon,” Bautista said. “I thought by the end of the year I was going to get three more fights and we’d go from there, but no I didn’t think it would come this soon and I definitely didn’t think it would be on the first ESPN card.”
Just 25 years old, Bautista already has one impressive historical footnote on his resume and he can add another shortly after stepping into the Octagon on Saturday: become the first fighter to win a fight on ESPN.
To pull that off, he’ll have to get past an opponent who has already picked up a couple of UFC victories. Sandhagen had a memorable UFC freshman year in 2018, knocking out Austin Arnett last January and then putting away 46-fight veteran Iuri Alcantara with strikes in his next outing. Those accomplishments are only making Bautista more eager to steal Sandhagen’s thunder.
“He had some pretty good wins, but I also feel like some of those guys, especially Iuri, went about it all wrong,” Bautista said. “Don’t get me wrong, Iuri’s had so many fights and he’s a veteran but I think he kind of went out there and blew his gas tank, thought he could take out Cory in the first round and Cory handled it well and beat him.
“I feel a win over Cory, that puts me right there, at least top 15 with everyone.”