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Though many fans will be excited to see T.J. Dillashaw back in a high-profile main event, the reason for his absence casts an indelible shadow over it.

The two-time UFC champion’s impressive list of accomplishments will always be colored by his failed drug test for EPO that resulted in him receiving a two-year suspension that ended this past April. What impression it leaves on his future fights is yet to be determined and we’ll find out a lot about how Dillashaw is viewed going forward when he fights MMA Fighting’s no. 3-ranked bantamweight Cory Sandhagen in Saturday’s UFC Vegas 32 main event.

There’s no question it’s a banger of a main event, one that wouldn’t look out of place at the top of a pay-per-view if it simply had a few extra pounds of gold added to it (either of the undisputed or interim variety). But Dillashaw’s comeback fight was never going to be just about the fight itself, no matter who he faced. He’s battling his self-created demons now as much as he is Sandhagen.

If he loses, critics will freely lobby accusations that his past success was at least partially due to performance-enhancing drugs, no matter how many drug tests he’s passed since. If he wins emphatically, does it mean that his failed test was simply a one-time mistake or will it only create suspicion that he’s found a new way to game the system? Or perhaps the narrative has changed completely in his absence and fans really are ready to just turn the page.

It’s truly a fascinating main event in more ways than one and that’s before we even get to what it means for Sandhagen. Outside of a lopsided submission loss to Aljamain Sterling, Sandhagen has shredded the opposition and strung together the kind of knockouts that make life easy for the UFC’s highlight package team. Should he put Dillashaw away as he has Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes, he’s all but guaranteed a shot at the bantamweight title at a future date and perhaps a chance at revenge if Sterling still holds it by then.

In other main card action, undefeated bantamweight Kyler Phillips takes on short-notice replacement Raulian Paiva, featherweights Darren Elkins and Darrick Minner throw down in what should be a gritty contest, blue-chip flyweights Miranda Maverick and Maycee Barber face off, and Randy Costa fights Adrian Yanez in a bantamweight bout that both have built up as the people’s main event.

What: UFC Vegas 32

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, July 24. The entire event airs on ESPN and ESPN+, beginning with a six-fight preliminary card at 4 p.m. ET, followed by a five-fight main card at 7 p.m. ET.


(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)

Cory Sandhagen (3) vs. T.J. Dillashaw

If you ask me who the best bantamweight of all-time is, I’m going to tell you it’s either Dominick Cruz or T.J. Dillashaw. If you ask me who the better bantamweight is right now, it might just be Cory Sandhagen.

Sandhagen is worthy of fighting for a title now and in a fair world he could afford to just sit on his laurels while the Aljamain Sterling-Petr Yan drama (hopefully) sorts itself out later this year. But he didn’t make his name by waiting and he’s wanted the Dillashaw fight for some time, so here we are. It might not be a necessary fight for Sandhagen, but one day when we’re looking back at his resume, a win over Dillashaw would be a defining moment.

On the feet, Sandhagen can get it done. He’s a thrilling striker with great length capable of exploding when he finds his opponent’s timing. He can win on points, but he’s rarely content to do that. If Dillashaw is a step slow after two years away, Sandhagen is going to hurt him and hunt for a finish.

Having said all that, I can’t count out Dillashaw. I consider him to be the best 135er I’ve ever seen (I thought he beat Cruz five years ago) and his standup was unmatched during his time at the top. Whether it still is with hungry challengers like Sandhagen constantly evolving is the question.

One of Dillashaw’s biggest strengths was always his ability to win rounds early and turn it on late and I see that happening here, especially when you consider that Sandhagen has never fought past the third round before. Unless he finishes Dillashaw early, he’s going to be tested in an area where we already know Dillashaw excels.

It would be so much easier for the matchmakers and for us in the media to figure out where the bantamweight division is going if Sandhagen just holds serve on Saturday, but I predict Dillashaw upsets the apple cart in a major way.

Pick: Dillashaw

Kyler Phillips vs. Raulian Paiva

Kyler Phillips was originally scheduled to fight Raphael Assuncao until an injury forced the bantamweight veteran out of the contest. That was a great win-or-learn booking for Phillips as he’d either get to share some valuable cage time with one of the division’s most enduring contenders or he’d take Assuncao out and accelerate his rise up the rankings.

Instead he draws short-notice replacement Raulian Paiva, a dangerous flyweight transplant who could become a dangerous out at 135 pounds after struggling to make the cut to 125. This has become a trap game for Phillips. It’s also a great opportunity for him to showcase himself in his first-ever UFC co-main event (the same could be said for Paiva who fights on a UFC main card for the first time).

Phillips has shown himself to be a speedy, athletic striker, and like his training partner Sean O’Malley, he can attack from a number of unexpected angles. It’s a good skill set to counter the more traditional kickboxing of Paiva. Phillips will have to mind Paiva’s leg kicks and manage the distance to stay ahead on the scorecards.

In the end, I think Phillips is better defensively and that will make the difference in a fun contest.

Pick: Phillips

Darren Elkins vs. Darrick Minner

This featherweight clash could be a wild one, and I’m glad it’s on the main card.

Darren Elkins almost always lives up to his nickname “The Damage”—either giving it out or receiving it—and that should be the case when he fights Minner, a veteran of 37 pro bouts with 22 submissions to his name. There will be a ton of grappling and clinching in this one, plus some entertaining scrambles thrown in for good measure. There could also be some ugly stalemates against the fence, but let’s focus on the positive here.

Even though Minner has just one knockout win on his record, he’s not afraid to throw bombs and he likely won’t be too cautions with Elkins, who isn’t known for his one-punch knockouts. No, what Elkins excels in is wars of attrition. There are few better than him at making a meal out of a 15-minute fight, even if the decision doesn’t always go his way.

I see this one going to a decision, and if that’s the case, I have to pick Elkins, who just has more experience with these kinds of grind-it-out scraps. It won’t be pretty, but Elkins’ wins rarely are.

Pick: Elkins

Maycee Barber vs. Miranda Maverick (14)

The tide has turned quickly for Maycee Barber. The top Contender Series prospect is in the midst of the first losing streak of her young career and now it appears as if she’s being teed up for another up-and-coming flyweight in Miranda Maverick.

Maverick, 24, is the “it girl” at 125 pounds right now and for good reason. She’s consistently been matched up with more experienced competition and not just survived, but thrived. This will actually be the first time in Maverick’s career that she fights an opponent younger than her (Barber clocks in at 23). So the good news for Barber is that for the first time in a while she’s the underdog and that should alleviate some of the pressure even though she’s in need of a victory to stop this skid.

I give Barber the slight edge in power here as she has made up for a lot of her technical deficiencies with a natural ability to put heavy leather on the opposition. Maverick has never been knocked out, but Barber has the potential to be the first to do it. Where Maverick should have an advantage is in speed and strength, the latter attribute evident in her wrestling ability. She can mix it up better than Barber and if she gets stung on the feet, Maverick has more ways to change the direction of the fight.

Maverick by decision.

Pick: Maverick

Adrian Yanez vs. Randy Costa

It’s time to settle this blood feud between Adrian Yanez and Randy Costa, two of the bantamweight division’s hottest prospects, destined to be at odds because of Yanez’s devotion to Dr. Pepper and Costa’s reverence for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

(Side question: Why is this a point of contention between the two? Not that I would, but can you not have Dr. Pepper and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups together? It would make more sense if they compared favorite soft drinks or favorite candies, not one with another. I don’t get it.)

This will be a fascinating clash of striking styles as Yanez exudes patience inside the octagon while Costa tends to be more of a wild man. Yanez is so still and steady on the feet that at times it looks like he’s hardly doing anything, then he unloads with a three- or four-punch combination that sends a body reeling. Costa has a much looser stance and is more likely to throw techniques out there at a whim and see what sticks.

Not to say that one style is necessarily more effective than the other. Both are coming off of back-to-back UFC knockouts and neither is likely to be too concerned about testing out their wrestling on fight night. However, I favor the more focused finishing power of Yanez in this one as I feel that his emphasis on accuracy is more conducive to a Fight of the Night-level bout that could go the distance.

I’m going with Yanez to win a decision or finish in the third.

Pick: Yanez

Preliminaries

Brendan Allen def. Punahele Soriano

Ian Heinisch def. Nassourdine Imavov

Mickey Gall def. Jordan Williams

Julio Arce def. Andre Ewell

Sijara Eubanks def. Elise Reed

Diana Belbita def. Hannah Goldy