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Cory Sandhagen ‘excited’ to fight Aljamain Sterling but doesn’t believe it will happen at UFC San Diego

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Cory Sandhagen has watched several opponents and dates for his return to action fall by the wayside in recent months but even he couldn’t predict that a worldwide pandemic would threaten his next fight.

The top-five ranked bantamweight contender recently agreed to a matchup with Aljamain Sterling in a fight that was supposed to take place at the upcoming UFC card in San Diego on May 16. Immediately after news of the fight broke, Sterling took to Twitter to deny he had accepted anything while pointing out the current lockdown in New York that is preventing him from training to get ready for anybody.

The date of the fight seems to be Sterling’s bigger concern than the opponent and Sandhagen sympathizes with him as he’s also been largely cut off from his gym in Colorado.

“From my understanding, it’s been agreed upon by both of our sides,” Sandhagen told MMA Fighting about the fight with Sterling. “I know Aljamain was excited to fight me, I know I was excited to fight him. I mean that’s honestly more what I was concerned with was getting an opponent that I thought was deserving for myself. To my understanding, I got that. It’s not going to be at the date I want it to but then again everyone is going through this.

“I talked to a buddy in Holland today and he was telling me how crazy it was. I know that me and [Dan] Hooker are kind of close and he had to close down his gym. The entire world is going through this so everything is just being pushed back. It doesn’t really bother me that it’s not going to be on May 16.”

Originally, Sandhagen was scheduled to return in January for a fight against former UFC champion Frankie Edgar. That matchup fell apart after Edgar accepted a short-notice opportunity against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung in South Korea.

Then, Sandhagen was offered a fight against former bantamweight king Dominick Cruz as he prepares to compete again for the first time since 2016.

“With this whole San Diego thing, [Cruz] messaged the matchmakers and said that he’d be ready,” Sandhagen explained. “Everyone on the UFC was on board with it being me and him and I made a post trying to speed up his answer because we weren’t hearing anything from him.

“After I made that post, he then I think told the UFC he wasn’t going to be ready by then. I don’t know what kind of sense that makes in my mind, but that was what was relayed to me. As far as Cruz or Aljamain, I’m definitely very happy about Aljamain.”

According to Sandhagen, the fight with Cruz was more about facing a legend but now he gets a legit contender in the bantamweight division with hopes that the winner will go onto fight for the title before the end of the year.

“I was pumped about Aljamain,” Sandhagen said. “I think the Dominick Cruz fight was something I wanted to do for myself just because I wanted to feel what it was like standing across from someone I was watching 10 years ago that got me into the sport a little bit. I wanted to feel that for myself and if they were going to give me any opportunity to do that, I was going to take it.

“Do I think Dominick should be in the conversation for the next title shot? No I don’t think he should because I filled in for him, whatever it was a year and a half ago [against John Lineker], I was the one who filled in for him and I’ve been fighting since then. I’ve been putting in work since then and so has Aljamain. In my opinion, Aljamain and I are much more deserving of the contender talk than Cruz is.”

As much as Sandhagen wants to fight right now, he doesn’t want to do it against the advice of doctors and health experts, who have expressed serious concerns about any gatherings with 10 or more people in the same room due to the spread of the coronavirus.

While he’ll never fault any athlete for taking an opportunity to compete on an upcoming UFC card, Sandhagen says for his sake and the people around him, he’d rather avoid any chance of infected loved ones with COVID-19 just so he can fight.

“I sit on the side of what’s best for everyone not just what’s best for the fighters,” Sandhagen said. “If there are fighters who need to make a paycheck right after this, which I completely understand, a fighter’s check you can’t live on it very long, depending on who you are. If they need checks right away, this is a really good time to do that.

“Me, myself — I’m in a place where I don’t need that right away so I’m not going to force the issue. I mean the opponent that’s been talked about for me is me and Aljamain [Sterling] and New York is on lockdown, too, so Aljamain I don’t think has any access to training partners and gyms and stuff.”

That’s why Sandhagen is more than happy to push back the fight with Sterling to a later date so both fighters can be at their best when they square off.

“I would say right now me and Aljamain need to be really responsible and taking care of the problem that the entire world is going through,” Sandhagen said. “So staying away from training partners is the responsible thing to do, that’s what the experts are saying we should do. We’re doing that. We’re not going to be able to train for the next three weeks, at least for me in Colorado, in New York, I imagine it’s much worse.

“Me and him will fight. It will be at a different date. We both need to be at our best to perform the way that we can and put on a good showing so that we prove that to the rest of the world, too.”