Before anyone loses their mind, Cory Sandhagen isn’t looking past Marlon Vera. But in the day and age when calling your shot matters, the one-time interim title challenger is already plotting his future after UFC San Antonio is over.
As he prepares to headline his fourth UFC card in the past three years, the 30-year-old bantamweight contender knows there’s a path for him back to another title shot, but he understands a win over Vera probably won’t seal the deal. That’s why he believes beating Vera on Saturday and then asking for a fight against Sean O’Malley is exactly what he needs to earn that opportunity to battle for UFC gold.
“[A win over ‘Chito’] obviously moves me closer to taking out someone who has a lot of hype,” Sandhagen told MMA Fighting. “It moves me closer to the title. But also, why wouldn’t they do me and O’Malley afterward? I can’t really think of a reason the UFC wouldn’t want to have that fight, especially with Cejudo and Sterling booked all the way in [May]. Why wouldn’t they do me and O’Malley?
“That, on paper, will be one of the most exciting fights in the 135 division. A lot more exciting, in my opinion, than the Sterling and Cejudo matchup. I don’t really know why they wouldn’t do a fight with me and O’Malley. I think that’s honestly what makes the most sense after this one.”
As it stands, O’Malley was previously declared as the No. 1 contender at bantamweight following his split decision win over ex-champion Petr Yan this past October.
With UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling matched up against Henry Cejudo in the UFC 288 main event in May, O’Malley will likely stay sidelined for most of 2023 if he decides to wait for a title shot.
That only adds to why Sandhagen believes O’Malley should try to stay busy rather than just sitting and hoping he remains next in line at 135 pounds.
“I know there was some promise made or at least that’s the way O’Malley’s been talking, but he doesn’t have a contract,” Sandhagen said. “He hasn’t fought in a five-round fight and he arguably, maybe, lost the fight to the guy [in Petr Yan] who lost twice to Sterling.
“I don’t think giving O’Malley the title shot is well-earned. I think they should do me and O’Malley afterward, and I don’t really see a reason to not do that.”
Perhaps the biggest criticism that O’Malley faced prior to his razor-close win over Yan was that he hadn’t faced top competition at bantamweight despite being hyped as a future champion in the division.
Outside of that win, O’Malley doesn’t hold a single victory over an opponent who is still on the current active UFC roster.
Sandhagen believes O’Malley needs to deepen his résumé to justify a title shot, which is just another reason why he feels that a fight between them would help determine a true No. 1 contender in the division.
“Earn your stripes a little bit,” Sandhagen said of O’Malley. “I haven’t had an easy way to the top. O’Malley has had his fair share of easier opponents to the top and he did beat Yan, but it was major close, it was in a three-round fight. I think this will be my third or fourth main event and all my other ones lately have been co-main events. I think I’m the guy over him, but I know that a following matters. Outside of that, logistically on paper, to me, that’s the fight that makes the most sense, especially since he’s not even next in line right now.
“Hopefully the UFC will do that. I think I can get them on board with a really badass performance against Chito, so that’s what I’m going to focus on. Hopefully, I’ll do that and the UFC will give me what I want.”
Sandhagen understands that a future showdown against O’Malley likely won’t happen if he doesn’t get through Vera on Saturday, so that’s still his only real focus.
The five-round main event pits two of the most exciting bantamweights together in the octagon, with both looking for a definitive win to inch closer to an eventual title fight.
During his current four-fight win streak, Vera has displayed incredible durability as well as jaw-dropping power with knockouts over a pair of UFC legends in Frankie Edgar and Dominick Cruz. In particular, Vera has shown the ability to come back from losing rounds to then score devastating finishes, but Sandhagen warns that can also be a recipe for disaster.
“I think that it’s clear his way to win has been very one way,” Sandhagen said. “I don’t think it’s a really reliable one way to do it. He banks on his durability a lot. He gets hit in his fights a lot, but he wears punches really well.
“There’s no sport in the world where being durable takes you further than in this sport, which makes this sport super interesting and that much cooler. I definitely have the chin to go out there and swing like that. To me that’s just not good martial arts. To me, good martial arts is going out, pitching shutouts, not getting hit at all and peppering the guy the whole time, and hopefully something lands that knocks him out. That, to me, is good martial arts — not just being really durable, walking guys down and taking advantage of that. That just seems like a not great way to win.”