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Bantamweight upstart Cory Sandhagen has a plan: Get in, seize the prizes, get out

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Lincoln-Sandhagen vs Alcantara Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment the UFC announced Cory Sandhagen’s fight with John Lineker, fight game aficionados have been humming a happy little tune. The reason is simple: Both guys fight like it’s getting close to curfew.

Lineker has been an absolute hellcat since making the commitment to remain at bantamweight, winning six of his last seven fights. Sandhagen is 3-0 in the UFC, with three finishes. His work against Mario Bautista in January was an eye-opener for the Brooklyn hipsters looking to get in on the ground floor. It took him three minutes and change to become a darling in the industry when he tapped Bautista with an armbar.

If ever there was a litmus test to see just how good he is, Lineker is it. Different trajectories, similar types of explosives. They meet Saturday night in Sunrise, Florida, and it has the vintage feel of a headbangers ball. Sandhagen particularly will find himself under the microscope for the first time in his career.

“It’s a huge fight,” Sandhagen told MMA Fighting. “To be honest, very little attention is given to our opponent — except maybe some very minor changes — until maybe like three or four weeks before [the fight].

“For me, I try to work on my game in total every single day. That keeps me really focused, and it actually has created — since I’ve shifted over to this new type of training where I’m not worried about fights or what’s going to happen next, I’ve gotten so much better. Just focusing every single day on the couple things I want to get better at, in the long run it makes a big difference.”

Sandhagen, 27, is a Colorado native who trains with the Elevation Fight Team in Denver. If we know anything about him it’s that he’s like a loosed killer when the cage door locks behind him. All of his UFC fights thus far have been fairly short affairs, in which Sandhagen methodically solves the man in front of him. As an ESPN piece pointed out earlier this week, he took some early cues from Dominick Cruz’s work in the WEC. There may have even been some early emulation because, as Sandhagen says somewhat paradoxically, “I’m drawn to what’s different.”

Since then he’s gradually evolved into his own being, which can be described as unorthodox, relentless, opportunistic and — if we’re being real — a little dark. “I always liked the idea of not having any rules,” he says when asked why he segued from kickboxing into MMA, “just being able to beat somebody up without any limitations.”

The other thing we know is that he seems to bask in the heat coming off the bigger spotlights, particularly when he’s being thrown to the wolves.

“Especially for this fight because I’m getting a lot more media attention,” he says. “That’s a little different for me, but honestly, I was kind of a very natural talent to begin with, so I was always fed really tough fights from right when I started. I think my second professional fight was televised on LFA against some undefeated guy from Jackson’s. So, me taking tough fights right off the bat — and I wasn’t crazy about that at the time, I just wanted to win some fights, being kind of younger — it made me grow much quicker in my mind and made me handle that type of pressure.”

This fight with Lineker is no different. Most guys aren’t tossed in with a known headhunter in just their fourth UFC fight, but so far everything is kind of on a fast track for Sandhagen. Consider that his debut in the UFC (which occurred on Jan. 27, 2018 in Charlotte) came immediately after he defeated Jose Aguayo in Phoenix at LFA 31 (which occurred on Jan. 19, 2018).

Eight days. That’s how long he had to prepare for “The Golden Boy,” Austin Arnett, in his UFC debut.

“It was literally right after the fight ended,” he says. “One of the commission guys that I guess works with the UFC from Arizona came up and was like, ‘Hey, they want you next week in North Carolina.’ We were like, okay, went home and packed our bags again. It was fast.”

Sandhagen didn’t grow up obsessing over the fight game, and he didn’t constantly get into scraps in school. When he attended Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, he was, of all things, a basketball player. More specifically, he switched between playing point guard and shooting guard, using finesse and spatial awareness to excel on the court. (“I think [basketball] helps with the footwork and the agility aspect of striking,” he says). He boxed a little bit here and there, and took some taekwondo courses, but it wasn’t until he was 17 that he began looking in the direction of combat sports in earnest.

At first it was kickboxing, a sport he discovered he was good at very quickly through the amateur ranks. By the time he was 18, he won the Colorado Championship. By the time he was 20, he won the WKA North American Championship, and by 22, the WKA world title. It was after that that he began to segue into mixed martial arts full-time. He’s been with his coaches at the Elevation Fight Team for years — a core group comprised of Eliot Marshall, Christian Allen, Dave Zabriskie, Vinnie Lopez and Cody Donovan — and has been slowly building into a contender behind closed doors. 
“Once we split away from Muscle Pharm, our team got a lot smaller when T.J. [Dillashaw] left, and we had that little break from Muscle Pharm,” he says. “I like it so much more. We don’t have really huge names popping in and out of the gym like we kind of had when Matt Brown and T.J. were training out with us, but I think it’s better.

“The comparison I use is, it’s like when you’re in college and you’re taking a class, you don’t want to take the class that’s in a huge auditorium. You want to be in the class with 20-30 people, where all the of the students know each other and they can actually work with the teacher. That’s what I feel like we’ve been able to build.”

Sandhagen also likes that the Elevation Fight Team focuses on the mind as much as they do fight strategy and physical training. “We try to conquer the mind and be good people on top of that,” he says. “Honestly man, conquering the mind — as cheesy as it sounds — it’s really 90 percent of the sport.”

So how far can Sandhagen go in this sport? Saturday night’s fight with Lineker is a big test, but it’s one he feels more than equipped to deal with. A win catapults him into the rarified air of contenders at bantamweight. There’s a big picture in play, too. If he has it his way, he’s going to be like a phoenix shooting through the UFC. Get in, get rich, get out, and leave nothing but a bleeding heart.

“I definitely want as many fights as I can, if I could get three more this year I’d love to do that,” he says. “I mean, that’s how you get all the attention anyways, look at Israel [Adesanya]. That’s how I see the rest of the year.

“It seems the UFC wants me to fight as soon as I can every single time. That’s what I’m here to do. I don’t really want to have a very long career. I want to get in, do my work, have as many fights as I can in the next four or five years, make all the money that I can, and then get out.”

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