The redemption arc of TJ Dillashaw advanced in a major way on Saturday night after the former two-time bantamweight champion returned from a more than two-year absence to win a grueling war with Cory Sandhagen in the main event of UFC Fight Night. After five rounds of momentum swings, Dillashaw was awarded the victory by split decision to score his first victory since August 2018.
Dillashaw came out of the gate fast, using quick strikes and wearing on Sandhagen with grappling to minimize his opponent's explosive attacks. The fight almost went bad for Dillashaw early as he appeared to suffer a knee injury after Sandhagen attacked with a leg lock attempt. After the end of the first round, Dillashaw told his corner he felt the knee pop. But the veteran continued to fight with the injury appearing to have little effect on his performance.
"My knee, I popped it in the first round," Dillashaw said after the fight. "I got lazy and I knew he had a leg lock and I just chilling on top. I got lazy and let him pop it in the end. I couldn't throw my hooks in when I took him down. One time I tried to get my hooks in and popped it again."
Sandhagen would storm back in the second round, using his reach advantage to connect with clean straight punches, including a hard right hand that split Dillashaw open above his right eye. The cut appeared to bother Dillashaw off and on for the rest of the fight as blood steadily streamed into his eye. But, just as with the knee, the former champion battled through and continued to apply pressure on Sandhagen.
The fight would settle into a pattern of long range exchanges won by Sandhagen and clinch and grappling work that allowed Dillashaw to slow the fight down and put it at a range more suited for his shorter reach.
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The close rounds piled up as both men would have their moments only to see momentum swing back the other direction. In the end, the judges favored Dillashaw's constant forward pressure, with two of the three official scorecards reading 48-47 for Dillashaw and one judge seeing the same score in favor of Sandhagen.
"I love Cory Sandhagen," Dillashaw said after the fight. "I believed in that guy before he even believed in himself. Great opponent, great fight. A little sloppy on my part but I pushed the pace and got the win."
Dillashaw, who missed those two years of action for a failed drug test that forced him to give up the bantamweight crown, now advances in his quest to win the belt for a third time. The fight had served as something of an unofficial No. 1 contender bout for the winner of the upcoming UFC 267 title fight between champion Aljamain Sterling and former champ Petr Yan.
While Dillashaw said he wanted to remain active and would fight again if the winner of the Oct. 30 bout wasn't ready by the end of the year, the title was clearly on his mind.
"Daddy's getting that belt," he said. "Easy. It's easy money for that belt right now."
Saturday night also saw a handful of wild upsets go down on the main card. Raulian Paiva, a big underdog in the co-main event at bantamweight, rallied from near disaster in the opening round against Kyler Philips to score a majority decision victory. Paiva has now won three straight with this marking his return to the 135-pound division. Plus, veteran Darren Elkins proved age is just a number in his own rally from early adversity to stop Darrick Minner in Round 2. Elkins, 37, picked up his second straight win after early struggles in the opening frame. The win marked Elkins' 11th as an underdog while fighting in UFC.
CBS Sports was with you the entire way on Saturday bringing you all the results and highlights from the UFC Fight Night card.
UFC Fight Night card and results
- TJ Dillashaw def. Cory Sandhagen via split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47)
- Raulian Paiva def. Kyler Phillips via majority decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-28)
- Darren Elkins def. Darrick Minner via second-round TKO (punches)
- Maycee Barber def. Miranda Maverick via decision (28-29, 29-28, 29-28)
- Adrian Yanez def. Randy Costa via second-round TKO (punches)
- Brendan Allen def. Punahele Soriano via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
- Nassourdine Imavov def. Ian Heinisch via second-round TKO (punches)
- Mickey Gall def. Jordan Williams via first-round submission (rear-naked choke)
- Julio Arce def. Andre Ewell via second-round TKO (punches)
- Sijara Eubanks def. Elise Reed via first-round TKO (punches)
- Diana Belbita def. Hannah Goldy via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)