ABU DHABI — Saturday’s co-main event at UFC 267 may be billed as an interim title bout, but both Cory Sandhagen and Petr Yan are viewing their bantamweight clash as if the winner will be the real UFC champion.
“I think Aljamain [Sterling] had to retreat and T.J. [Dillashaw]’s village is still on fire from when I set it on fire. So if we’re talking like ancient war type stuff, which is how I like to view this game — it’s just funner for me to do it that way — I’m the guy that can take the land,” Sandhagen said at UFC 267 media day.
“Those other two guys can’t right now. I’m the guy that can take the land. So I’ll see myself as champ. I know that most of the public sees Yan as the champ anyway. I know that I definitely will have some making up to do — like I definitely still need to make up my two losses against Aljamain and against T.J. also — but I’ll go home with a smile on my face, calling myself the champ if I win.”
Sandhagen’s words echoed similar sentiments made by Yan on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour — and they’re not exactly a surprise considering the bizarre state of the division.
The UFC’s bantamweight title picture has been stuck in stasis since Yan and Sterling’s title fight at UFC 259 ended in a DQ win for Sterling because of an illegal knee thrown by Yan. Sterling was losing on the scorecards and fading in the championship rounds at the time of the illegal blow. He underwent neck surgery following the bout and his return to defend his UFC title is still up in the air after he was ruled medically unfit to compete at UFC 267.
Sterling’s dropout paved the way for Sandhagen to step in as a late replacement against Yan, and now the Colorado native finds himself in a unique setup. Even if Sterling’s neck issues continue to linger — as Dillashaw recently speculated they might — Sandhagen could find himself with an interim strap around his waist and potential rematches in every direction he looks. Both Sterling and Dillashaw have beaten Sandhagen within the last few years, with Sterling doing so via 88-second submission in June 2020 and Dillashaw winning a controversial split decision over Sandhagen this past July.
Sandhagen would revel in the chance to avenge either one.
“It would be beautiful for it to work out that way,” Sandhagen said. “I think that it just sucks having those two Ls on my record — one, because the Sterling fight was just sh*tty and embarrassing for me, so I would definitely like to show that I’m definitely better than that guy and I had a night that just wasn’t good. And then same with T.J. where it’s like, I lost a decision that was this close, and if I’m being honest, probably could’ve gone either way. I definitely walked out of that cage a lot less beat up than T.J. did, so it makes me feel a little weird about that.
“But no, man, I think it’d be beautiful if I get to avenge those two losses just right away after being the champ, and I think that will even speak more to how good I am in this sport also.”
Despite the setbacks, Sandhagen heads into UFC 267 having won seven of his nine UFC appearances overall. He’s currently the No. 4-ranked bantamweight on MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings while Yan sits in a tie with Sterling for No. 1.
Yan has been mildly complimentary of Sandhagen in the lead-up to the fight, calling the American “a very good and versatile fighter,” however Yan also claimed that Sandhagen is inferior to him in every aspect that Sandhagen calls a strength. The former champion predicted a finish at UFC 267 and vowed to “drag [Sandhagen] into the deep waters.”
Sandhagen’s response is a simple one: Bring it.
“He tries to do that with everyone. Right? That’s really no surprise,” Sandhagen said. “So yeah, OK, go ahead.”