Cory Sandhagen sets sights on being, then beating, idol Dominick Cruz

Cory Sandhagen is awaiting the toughest test of his career as he is set to face John Lineker on Saturday. Anthony Geathers for ESPN

UFC bantamweight Cory Sandhagen says he views himself as "an upgraded version of Dominick Cruz."

On the surface, his statement could easily be interpreted one of two ways: Either Sandhagen, 27, is attempting to poke a potential opponent (Cruz), who is ranked ahead of him -- or he must be incredibly cocky, comparing himself to the greatest bantamweight of all time this early in his career.

But if you know anything about Sandhagen, who will face John Lineker at UFC Fight Night on Saturday, you know he's not arrogant. Nor does he talk trash. He's very thoughtful, and his reference to Cruz comes from respect and is not suggested lightly.

"I got into martial arts by watching the WEC, and I loved Dominick Cruz," Sandhagen told ESPN. "I kind of adopted Cruz's style and then made it my own, to be honest. Obviously, I think what I'm doing is better than what he's doing -- so I would almost call myself an upgraded version of him."

Sandhagen (10-1) has a long, long way to go before his résumé can measure up to Cruz's, but there are similarities between the two fighters.

Cruz, 33, is renowned as one of the brightest minds in the sport, both as a fighter and an analyst. His elusive, complicated style carried him to a UFC title in 2011, and he remains the No. 2-ranked bantamweight in the world by ESPN despite a two-year layoff thanks to injury.

Like Cruz, Sandhagen's style is unique to him, and not by accident. Sandhagen, who fights out of Elevation Fight Team in Denver, has been developing his style since he fell in love with martial arts as a teenager, and had the opportunity to train among UFC veterans like Nate Marquardt and Shane Carwin.

"Winning the fight is not the first thing on my mind when I walk to the cage," Sandhagen said. "I recognize I'm willing to do anything it takes to win, but the first thing on my mind is performance. When I talk about showing what martial arts should look like, I'm trying to live right and do right, and that translates to martial arts.

"I'm trying to fight in a way that is efficient, smart and there is no foolishness in it. It's straight to the point. It's artistic. I work very hard to make my style look like what I want it to look like. I want to be one of those rare guys who fight extremely carefree, relaxed. That's always what I've been chasing. I call it 'truth fighting.'"

Sandhagen's potential has already caught the UFC's attention. The promotion booked him to the first-ever UFC fight on ESPN in January and has him paired with a dangerous fan favorite in Lineker in what will be his fourth UFC appearance.

The 135-pound prospect says he's in no rush to fight for a title but will rise to any occasion the UFC puts him in. Who knows? Perhaps we could someday see him showcase that Cruz 2.0 style against the original.

"I think skill for skill, I can compete with the best guys and probably win a belt where I am right now," Sandhagen said. "But I understand how important things like experience and being able to stay cool in a fight are. A title shot wouldn't scare me at this point, but it also doesn't really feel right this soon.

"[Fighting Cruz] would be a bit of a surreal feeling for me. That dude has been around forever. I think it would be quite an honor. I don't know how long he's going to be around, but that would be so cool."