It's been less than one month since former UFC bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo unexpectedly announced his retirement from MMA, but the 135-pound division is ready to move on in a big way at UFC 250 on Saturday.
The pay-per-view event, which will take place inside the UFC's Apex facility in Las Vegas, features three bantamweight bouts on its five-fight main card. The lineup includes a former champion in Cody Garbrandt (squaring off against Raphael Assuncao) as well as one of the division's brightest prospects in Sean O'Malley (facing Eddie Wineland).
The marquee matchup, though, is Aljamain Sterling (18-3, 10-3 in the UFC) vs. Cory Sandhagen (12-1, 5-0 UFC), who hold a combined record of 10-0 in the Octagon since 2018. UFC president Dana White has said he wants to book Petr Yan against Jose Aldo for the vacant 135-pound championship -- but were that not the case, Saturday's matchup could have easily been a title fight.
ESPN caught up with Sterling and Sandhagen to discuss the fight and the state of the division.
How, if at all, did circumstances caused by the coronavirus impact you in the lead-up to this fight?
Sterling: My girlfriend got pretty sick with COVID-19 at the beginning of it, when they were first shutting things down in New York, mid-March. So that impacted me a lot, because no one wanted to come train. She was housing with me because she didn't want to get her parents sick, so I didn't have any training partners during that time period. As she started to get better, people started to come down and work out. And once we got the fight announcement, guys jumped on board.
Sandhagen: I had to change the amount of people who were around, because I live with my girlfriend and a roommate, and my two parents are from Colorado and they are a little older, so I didn't want to be around a million people. I only chose three training partners and three coaches to work with, kept the circle really small. Other than that, it was pretty much the same, if not better, because I was able to learn a lot more with the spotlight only on myself at practice.
What were your initial thoughts when Henry Cejudo announced he was retiring and vacating the bantamweight title?
Sterling: I thought he was f---ing with me. I thought he was f---ing with everybody. I thought he was trying to leverage it for more money. But then, when he started talking about having a kid and how long he's been competing, I definitely empathized with him. I know exactly how he feels.
My plan is to retire around 32 (Sterling turns 31 next month). Cutting weight gets to a point: "This s--- sucks." And it's a selfish sport. My girlfriend, when I'm in fight camp, she gets the short end of the stick on everything because it's about me. Nothing is about her. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to not be selfish anymore and start a family. And fighting hurts, if I'm being honest. And I like to drink and have a good time. I get big. Cutting down from 170 pounds to 135 sucks. At some point, I think I'll have to visit the idea of fighting at 145.
Retiring at 32 just seems like a good time. I don't know, things could change -- but I don't want to be one of those guys who stays around too long. We had a quote from a friend of mine's dad, Andrew Quarless, who was drafted out of Penn State and won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. [His dad] would say, "Do what you got to do, so you can do what you want to do." And that always resonated with me. That's where I'm at now.
Sandhagen: I threw my hands up. I was pumped. It felt like order could maybe be restored a little bit. I think Cejudo is a great competitor and I think he's a good guy, but his act was a little bit annoying to me -- [including] his decision-making of choosing guys like Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz as opponents over a lot of other contenders we have right now. I'm glad I don't have to stress about whether or not he's going to try and pick off one of those legend-type guys who aren't necessarily winning versus one of the contenders, which seemed to be where his head space was.
What do you make of the UFC's decision to pair Petr Yan and Jose Aldo for the vacant title?
Sterling: I think it's a great fight, but at the same time, dude, Aldo is 2-4 in his last six fights. He lost his bantamweight debut. I know that fight was close against Marlon Moraes, but at the end of the day, the judges said he lost. I had close split decisions against Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao earlier in my career. Two of the three judges said I lost, so I lost the f---ing fight. I just want to know if Dana White is going to constantly do this. If guys with big names have close fights, is he going to reward them and act as if they won?
I just hope the UFC gets back to what built them, which is "the best fight the best." A guy doesn't get to jump the ladder because it's a fight they think can sell more. And I know things are different because the sport has become more corporate and it's a business, but from the standpoint of an athlete and a fan, I hope we get the matchups that make the most sense, so that divisions don't get tied up like we've seen the last few years.
Sandhagen: Yeah, I feel like such a hater when I talk about Yan as much as I feel I have to talk about him. But I get he's had some impressive fights, but let's give him someone who is really good, you know? Let's give him a Raphael Assuncao or a Marlon Moraes before he fights for the title. But he doesn't have to. That's OK with me, though, because my goal isn't necessarily to just win a championship belt. If you want to call yourself a world champion for winning a belt once, then cool, but that's not for me. My goal is to be better than everyone and beat them all impressively. That's going to make me a champion. That's going to hopefully make me one of the best to ever do it. So hitting the restart button on the division right now and Yan and Aldo fighting for the belt is kind of no big deal, as long as I get my title shot after I beat Sterling on Saturday.
With a win on Saturday, would you accept anything other than a UFC title shot as your next fight?
Sterling: If I've got to take another fight, it would suck. But I can't control that, man. I think it's title shot or bust, because I think my work speaks for itself. I just have to go out there and put on a good performance against a tough, highly ranked opponent in Sandhagen and go from there. Cory wants this just as bad as I do. He's not going to quit in there. I'm excited about this opportunity, and it is my sole focus.
Sandhagen: The UFC can do whatever they want and they know that. That being said, I think the way I fight, and my style, and all of the factors I bring with my style -- how exciting it is -- it's going to be hard for people and the UFC to watch and be like, "That guy shouldn't get a title shot." That's what I'm hoping for after this fight, is if I go out and do what I know I'm capable of doing, it's not going to be about me going out and convincing anyone anymore. They're going to be on board with it after I do my thing on Saturday. I just need to do my thing.