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Cory Sandhagen knows he’s ‘couple mistakes away’ from being UFC champ, makes prediction for Sterling vs. Yan 2

Cory Sandhagen’s year may have ended with back-to-back losses, but the 29-year-old bantamweight isn’t deterred. He knows how close he was to authoring a different story.

“Coming off the two losses kind of sucks, but I’m a little bit more of a deeper thinker than just, ‘Yeah, my last two were Ls,’” Sandhagen said recently on The MMA Hour. “My first L this year was one of the most controversial decisions that the UFC has maybe ever had, and then the second one was a short-notice title fight against one of the best guys in the world. So I’m not too beat up about it, man. I really think that I’m just a couple mistakes away from beating these guys, and that just means that I just need to work that much harder.

“I still know I’m going to be champ.”

Sandhagen suffered a controversial split decision loss to former UFC champion T.J. Dillashaw in July, then dropped a short-notice opportunity against Petr Yan in October with an interim UFC bantamweight title on the line. While the result of Dillashaw fight still bothers him, it’s the latter bout that was the bigger missed chance for Sandhagen.

Even after stepping in on just one month’s notice, Sandhagen was in control of the fight’s early stages before a third-round knockdown turned the tide for Yan. Sandhagen went on to drop the championship rounds at UFC 267 and lose a unanimous decision to the Russian.

It’s been a bitter pill to swallow, especially considering what a win could’ve meant for Sandhagen’s career. But the Colorado native has tried to keep some perspective about what he accomplished in an admittedly tough spot.

“I feel OK about it, man,” Sandhagen said. “I thought I fought really well. I’m not one to make excuses. I really would’ve liked some more time because Yan is one of the best guys in the world, so I would’ve definitely preferred to have some more time. But no, man, I thought that the fight went really good for me. I think that [in round] one, I was doing well. Two, I was doing well, even though the judges gave it to him.

“I still think that probably in Colorado, I would’ve taken [round] two. Round 3, I was doing good all the way up until that last minute when I got dropped in that one, and then kind of had to fight the rest of the fight on wobbly legs a little bit. So I think I was just one mistake away from taking that fight. And all the credit to Yan for knocking me down and hurting me, and making it so that I couldn’t fight the same for the rest of the fight.

“He protected himself really well,” Sandhagen added. “That was a little bit [of] something that I thought I would have a little bit more of an edge on, is I thought that I would be able to hurt him a little bit better than I was able to hurt him. But the guy protects himself really well, and that was a tough thing. And that’s why I kind of go back to me only having five weeks to get ready for it, is, I do a lot of figuring people out in those kind of later weeks of training camps. So to only have four [weeks] against one of the best guys in the world, it’s tough to try to figure someone out in that amount of time.”

Since its conclusion, Sandhagen’s battle with Yan has drawn plaudits as one of the best fights of 2021. It was also one of those occasional results you see in MMA where even the loser’s stock doesn’t take much of a hit — Sandhagen is still ranked No. 4 on MMA Fighting’s global bantamweight rankings — yet an “emotional response” to the disappointing result was inevitable. The Team Elevation product admitted that he’d already visualized what it’d be like to pack his glimmering new golden belt into his suitcase, bring it home, sit it on his couch and just stare at it for a while as the title of UFC champion washed over him.

That dream appeared to be within reach after an opening round at UFC 267 where Sandhagen nearly doubled Yan’s offensive output. But it wasn’t meant to be.

“That’s kind of his style, right?” Sandhagen said. “We anticipated that. He doesn’t start the fastest. He started a little bit quicker than I think he normally does, with me. But yeah, in [rounds] two and three, he just picked up the pace a little bit, and that’s kind of how he fights. And in four, he kicked my ass in Round 4. But like I said, man, I was kind of on stilts from getting dropped. I have a really good chin, so if you drop me, you must’ve hit me really hard, and that’s not going to be something that isn’t going to play a factor into the rest of the fight. So I made that mistake, man, and I paid for it. So that’s how the sport works.”

Sandhagen said he doesn’t have any immediate plans to return to the cage. After a busy 2021, he wouldn’t mind taking some time off to focus solely on improving his craft. It’s hard to be creative when you’re in camp for a fight, he said. His biggest leaps in skill historically happen when he has the free time to let his creativity roam on the mats in Colorado.

It’s a good time for a break anyway, considering that the UFC bantamweight division is essentially stuck at a standstill again — at least until Yan and shelved champion Aljamain Sterling are able to settle their business sometime in 2022. The two rivals fought previously in March at UFC 259, with Sterling earning a disqualification victory in a bout that Yan was winning before throwing an illegal knee late in the fourth round.

Sandhagen sees a similar result playing out whenever the two meet again, only without the illegal strike that ultimately gave the belt to Sterling.

“I think Yan’s got it,” Sandhagen said. “That’s based off of the first fight and that’s just based off of — Yan’s good, man. Yan’s good. Sterling’s good also, but I think Yan just protects himself so well and he’s super dangerous guy to fight, and that’s not an easy match.”