Cory Sandhagen still needs a more time before he can fight again after two surgeries. But he believes his return could include a bantamweight title shot.
Following a dominant win over Rob Font this past August, Sandhagen revealed he had suffered a torn triceps during the fight, and the injury dramatically affected his performance. Afterward, he went under the knife to repair the damage and then he had a second procedure to clean up some issues with his elbow that played a part in his initial injury.
Several months removed now, Sandhagen, 31, anticipates he’ll be ready to fight again in approximately three to four months. He has his sights set on the winner of the UFC 299 main event featuring reigning 135-pound champion Sean O’Malley and Chito Vera.
“I kind of haven’t given up hope on being able to fight for the title next,” Sandhagen said on The MMA Hour. “So [the injury] hasn’t taken too much wind out of my sails. It was a bummer. I hate to talk about and feel like I’m giving a ton of excuses about the last fight but it was a real bummer I had to navigate an entire fight on a really big stage with such a significant injury in the fight, which was just not fun. I know in this sport you want one big fight going into the title fight so that there’s some momentum. The UFC wants that. I want that and just due to an injury, I wasn’t really able to do that at that level of performance.
“All that set aside, that’s something completely out of my control. If I could go back and do it again, it would be tough but you’ve got to just walk away with the win in some situations and when you have to fight with one arm, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Despite his layoff, Sandhagen still remains near the top of the rankings in the bantamweight division. Overall, he enjoys a three-fight winning streak. He also dispatched Vera in fairly lopsided fashion when they met in March 2022, which he believes gives him an advantage when arguing for a title shot sooner rather than later.
“I still see a lot of argument for me fighting for the belt,” Sandhagen explained. “I beat Chito less than 365 days ago. Me and O’Malley is definitely one of the most exciting fights you can certainly make, maybe in [all] the UFC, in the top five, top 10 most exciting matchups that could potentially happen.
“You have two guys in their prime that have really exciting styles. That would be an awesome matchup, so I have a lot of hope. I feel like the fans really want to watch me and O’Malley fight if he comes out with a win. If Chito wins, that’s an easy argument for myself, too, being that I [beat] him less than 365 days ago.”
As far as whom he believes will win, Sandhagen leans more toward O’Malley. But he admits the five-round main event could look like a “soccer match” with both competitors approaching the fight with extreme caution.
“I think O’Malley checks the boxes of what a better striker is, just as far as athleticism goes,” Sandhagen said. “Defensively, he just checks more of those boxes. It’s not going to be a grappling and wrestling match, so those two just completely cancel each other out almost fully, and I think O’Malley checks more of the boxes of what a good striker is.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in Sandhagen’s way of a title shot is fellow bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili, who faces Henry Cejudo at UFC 298 in February.
Dvalishvili currently sports an impressive nine-fight winning streak, and he would move to 10 in a row with a win over Cejudo. Even Sandhagen confesses it would be tough to leapfrog Dvalisvhili in that situation, so that might require him to become part of Cejudo’s cheering section for at least one night.
“Merab’s done a lot,” Sandhagen said. “He’s been working really hard. The kind of only arguments I have over Merab, if Merab were to win, is that I just beat Chito not too long ago, and then me and O’Malley is just a banger of a fight. A really exciting fight. But I do completely understand that from Merab’s point of view.”