It's not easy to stand out in the UFC's absolutely stacked 135-pound bantamweight division, but Cory Sandhagen is finding a way to do just that.
Sandhagen (16-4) was brilliant over the course of a five-round split decision over Marlon "Chito" Vera (22-8-1) on Saturday, in the main event of UFC Fight Night in San Antonio. Two judges scored it convincingly for Sandhagen, via scores of 50-45 and 49-46. A third judge inexplicably scored it 48-47 in favor of Vera.
Despite the split result, there was virtually no question Sandhagen had won -- dominantly. According to UFC Stats, he out-landed Vera in total strikes 193 to 71 and converted three takedowns. Vera's own coach, Jason Parillo, pleaded with his fighter to turn it up in the late rounds, acknowledging he was down on the scorecards.
"[The strategy was to] win the early rounds and then know he was going to come at me," Sandhagen said. "I knew that was going to happen. So, I took him down early and moved my ass around in [Rounds] 3, 4 and 5. That's how you beat Chito. Chito is a good fighter."
In addition to praising Vera, Sandhagen called for a No. 1 contender fight against Merab Dvalishvili (16-4), who is on a nine-fight win streak.
"I would feel so slimy if I asked for a title shot before Merab," Sandhagen said. "Merab is an absolute animal. I respect him a ton. I want that No. 1 spot. Merab, you're hungry, I got something for you to eat and it don't taste good."
Sandhagen, who fights out of Denver, executed his game plan to a tee against the always dangerous Vera. He took Vera down in the first and second rounds and racked up offense with elbows from top position. As Vera tried to grow more aggressive in the later rounds, Sandhagen used feints, footwork and takedowns to keep him guessing.
Vera is known as one of the most dangerous knockout artists in the division, but Sandhagen more than held his own on the feet. He did absorb a few hard left hands from Vera, but nothing that ever appeared to significantly hurt him. He made use of a clever right uppercut in the third round and leg kicks throughout.
Sandhagen's record is now only 4-3 in his past seven appearances, but there's a case that's very misleading. He suffered a very quick submission loss to current champion Aljamain Sterling in 2020, in a result that was legitimate but also unlikely to be duplicated. He also had a loss on short notice against former champion Petr Yan and a somewhat controversial split decision loss to another former champion in TJ Dillashaw.
Vera, of Ecuador, sees a four-fight win streak snapped.
The UFC's next move at bantamweight will be interesting. Sterling is scheduled to defend his title against Henry Cejudo at UFC 288 on May 6, and Sean O'Malley is expected to face the winner later this year. Dvalishvili should be available in the meantime, as he has said he does not intend to fight Sterling at any time because they are teammates.