When highly ranked bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen faces off with two-time former champion TJ Dillashaw on Saturday at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas, the five-round main event won't be the first time the two 135-pound fighters have squared off.
Dillashaw (16-4), who returns for the first time since 2019 following a two-year USADA suspension that saw him stripped of his title, previously used Sandhagen (14-2) as a sparring partner ahead of his 2016 title loss to Dominick Cruz by split decision.
The circumstances for the two fighters then compared to now couldn't be anymore contrasting. Dillashaw was fresh off a demolition of former champion Renan Barao in their rematch that served as the second defense of Dillashaw's initial bantamweight title reign. Sandhagen, then just 23, was a mere handful of months removed from his pro debut on the regional scene in North Dakota.
The results of sparring have produced wildly different recollections from spectators who were present inside the Colorado gym where Dillashaw was training. Even the fighters themselves seem to remember what took place very differently.
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"I have a really terrible memory so, to be honest. It has been a long time," Sandhagen said during Wednesday's media scrum. "I don't really remember anything. When we were training together, we were friendly training partners. That was our relationship. If [the sparring] happened six months ago, it would feel different emotionally but I don't have an emotional connection to TJ. It will feel like just another fight.
"I don't think I have talked to him since we fought on the same card [in 2019]. It doesn't feel that strange. I don't think it will be that hard to hit him in the face."
Dillashaw, 35, was a guest Thursday on "Morning Kombat" and said he thinks the results of the sparring will benefit him much more when they touch gloves for real this weekend some six years later.
"He's tall, he's lanky, he has good kickboxing and good footwork. Us being training partners is more beneficial to me than it is him, I will say that," Dillashaw said. "And I'm going to go out there and finish him."
But how much does Dillashaw, who hasn't competed in 30 months, believe Sandhagen has improved since they once trained together, especially considering he is fresh off stoppage wins over Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar?
"I'm sure he is, right? I'm sure he is," Dillashaw said. "But from what I have seen, he is who he is. He does the same stuff. I knew he was that good before he was even that good. He has the same attributes."
Asked how much he expects Dillashaw's game to have diminished as a result of his layoff, Sandhagen wasn't sure.
"We will all find out at the same time," Sandhagen said. "Who knows how he is? It would be really foolish of me walking into a fight and thinking TJ hasn't made improvements and hasn't added tools to his tool belt. You expect hell in there every single time."
Regardless of how much their history might play a part in the result of this de facto No. 1 contender's bout at 135 pounds, both fighters are expecting to compete next for the UFC title should they win after Aljamain Sterling completes his rematch with former champion Petr Yan.
"Being in there with the best guys is the way that I'm going to become the person that I want to be. TJ is no joke and I'm anticipating a tough fight and I'm ready for that," Sandhagen said. "This is the fight that I wanted. I know building a name is what is important in this sport. This is just about taking out anyone else's argument. That's what I'm going to do until I get my title shot."
Elsewhere on the card, Kyler Phillips looks to keep rolling against Raulian Paiva in the co-main event at bantamweight. Phillips, 26, is 3-0 since joining the promotion in February 2020. He has decent power, too, with five TKOs in 10 career fights. Plus, a pair of rising contenders at women's flyweight meet up when Miranda Maverick takes on Maycee Barber in a featured bout. Both are young to the sport at 24 and 23, respectively, while looking to catapult toward a title shot in a noticeably shallow division.
Here's the fight card for UFC Fight Night with the latest odds from William Hill Sportsbook.
Fight card, odds
- Cory Sandhagen -200 vs. TJ Dillashaw +170, bantamweights
- Kyler Phillips -280 vs. Raulian Paiva +230, bantamweights
- Darrick Minner -160 vs. Darren Elkins +135, featherweights
- Miranda Maverick -150 vs. Maycee Barber +125, women's flyweights
- Adrian Yanez -220 vs. Randy Costa +180, bantamweights
UFC Fight Night viewing information
Date: July 24 | Start time: 7 p.m. ET
Location: UFC Apex -- Las Vegas
TV Channel: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
The close betting odds reflect just how much potential this fight has to become an absolute thriller.
On paper, Sandhagen's length mixes well with his unorthodox striking patterns and strong submission grappling to represent a particularly horrible style matchup for Dillashaw, regardless of the layoff. At the same time, it might be tempting to forget just how dominant Dillashaw was over a six-year run in which he went 12-2 with two disputed defeats via split decision and was in consideration for the title of best 135-pound fighter in the sport's history.
Dillashaw has the combination of speed and power to offset his physical disadvantages and a top game capable of taking over fights with his wrestling. While very few 35-year-old fighters typically remain among elite fighters in a division like bantamweight that is so reliant upon speed, Dillashaw has also stayed free from damage the past two years while undergoing surgery on both shoulders.
Expect some high-speed chess to be played among technically great fighters who both rely on creativity offensively to constantly keep their opponent's guessing. This fight should also have a great shot at going the full distance as Dillashaw has historically been durable with an excellent gas tank.
Pick: Dillashaw via UD
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