When 2020 began, Cory Sandhagen had a goal to be the UFC bantamweight champion by year’s end. It didn’t matter much which opponents he had to go through to get there.
As it turned out, a title fight could easily have been his before December. Following a win over Dominick Cruz in May, Henry Cejudo announced his retirement from the sport, and with that, he surrendered the bantamweight title.
A new champion has yet to be crowned, and it could easily be argued the vacated title should be up for grabs when Sandhagen takes on Aljamain Sterling at UFC 250. Per the promotion’s rankings, Sandhagen sits at No. 4 while Sterling is No. 2.
For Sandhagen, the stakes matter a lot less than the work.
“I feel like this is the fight that should be for the vacated title, but at the same time, I really don’t care,” Sandhagen told MMA Fighting in advance of Saturday’s pay-per-view at UFC APEX. “I want to fight. I haven’t fought since [this past] August. I was supposed to fight in January, I was supposed to fight in May, and now I’m fighting in June.
“For me, it’s just get another win. Get another win against a top guy in the division, and that’s all I really care about.”
Initially, Sandhagen thought that at worse, a win over Sterling would earn him a title fight against Russian bantamweight Petr Yan, who was previously declared the No. 1 contender by UFC president Dana White.
Instead, Yan is expected to face Jose Aldo to determine the new bantamweight king, potentially on July 11 at UFC 251.
No one could blame Sandhagen if that pairing rubbed him the wrong way. He could also be angry at the fact that his fight with Sterling was discounted from the title race almost immediately after Cejudo gave up the belt.
But in reality, Sandhagen isn’t losing sleep about the title right now. He knows his time will come, and more importantly, he’s not sure claiming a vacated title really proves he’s the best bantamweight in the sport right now.
“Even if they did put me and Aljamain as the title fight, would it really mean that much beating one guy after kind of hitting the restart button in the division?” Sandhagen said. “To me, it wouldn’t mean that much.
“To me, winning and being the champ isn’t winning some belt when the last guy that had it retired, and you were just the first guy in line. To me, that’s not what being a champion is. To me, being a champion is taking out everybody, and that’s my plan. Whatever order they want to do that in, that’s OK with me. All I’m focused on is beating every single person I fight.”
The next person in line is Sterling, who’s been among the top 15 bantamweights in the world for a big part of his UFC career. Over his past four fights, the New York native has transformed into a legitimate threat to the title in his own quest to become champion.
Sandhagen doesn’t have a bad word to say about Sterling personally, but he’ll certainly offer up his opinion when matching their skill sets together.
“I don’t think Aljamain is going to bring anything that’s going to overwhelm me or make me feel like I’m inadequate anywhere in the fight,” Sandhagen said. “I don’t think he has the skills to do that. I think he has a very funky style, I’ll give him that, and it’s definitely thrown a lot of his past opponents off. But I’ve been kickboxing for a long time, and his awkward kickboxing style isn’t going to work against me. I think it’s going to be a lot less close than people think.”
Earlier in his UFC career, Sterling was best known for his grappling, where he often called himself a “human backpack.” But he’s evolved his game over the past couple of years. His most recent win, a unanimous decision over Pedro Munhoz at UFC 238, saw him display a new level of striking.
Sterling may have added a few new weapons to his arsenal, but Sandhagen isn’t worried about his opponent’s strategy. Whether it’s a ground war or a stand-up affair, he welcomes either scenario, and he invites Sterling to pick his poison.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Sandhagen said. “I prepare myself really well. I don’t feel inadequate anywhere. I’m not going into this fight where I feel like there’s a spot I need to stay away from. That’s a fun place to be going into a fight. It’s going to let me shine a little bit brighter.
“It’s going to let me showcase a little bit more, just having that confidence being OK wherever it goes, it goes. Having confidence if that’s where he wants to take it, then I’m OK with that. He can choose where he wants to lose, that’s OK.”