UFC Vegas 60: Cory Sandhagen aiming higher as he enters Phase 2 of his MMA evolution

LAS VEGAS — Cory Sandhagen has proven that he’s good enough to be the UFC featherweight champion. But his is one of those cases where good enough is not enough.

Sandhagen will meet Song Yadong on Saturday at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 60 in what best could be described as Phase 2 of his MMA career. Sandhagen enters off of a two-fight losing streak, the most recent of which was to Petr Yan in a bout for the interim featherweight championship.

Before that was a split decision loss to ex-featherweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in a bout that he believes he deserved to win.

Sandhagen showed he is at that championship level in the losses to Dillashaw and Yan, but also understands there is one more step to go. Of his four losses, three of them were to former UFC champions.

To have UFC president Dana White wrap that belt around his waist is the only thing left, and it’s why he hasn’t fought since the defeat to Yan on Oct. 30, 2021.

He’s spent his time in the gym in Denver, honing his craft, attempting to tighten up the weaknesses and enhance the strengths. There is a fine line between winning and losing at the highest level and Sandhagen felt he needed just that much more to push him across the finish line.

“I’m a brutally honest person with myself, almost to a fault, and I think sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit,” Sandhagen told Yahoo Sports. “I have an ego, but I definitely don’t have much of an ego and I definitely recognize in myself where I’m lacking. And maybe other guys don’t do this as well as I do, but making corrections and fixing things is a lot of damn hard work and is a lot harder than people think.

“It’s as simple as changing your stance after you’ve been doing something one way for 15 years. It’s not a difficult task in and of itself, but it takes a lot of hard work making corrections and getting actually better in your weaker areas. I’ve been in the gym a long time around a lot of really good fighters, and even some of those guys don’t care to do that. But that’s not what I’m interested in. The bar for me is being the best in all these different areas. Maybe other people have the bar set in different places, but that’s what I have to do for me.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 30: Cory Sandhagen prepares to fight Petr Yan of Russia in the UFC interim bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 267 event at Etihad Arena on October 30, 2021 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Cory Sandhagen headlines Saturday's UFC Vegas 60 at Apex after going 2-3 in his last five fights. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

That’s led to him being sidelined for 11 months, and it was worth it. He loves to compete and it is always good to get a paycheck and perhaps a bonus or two. Sandhagen has won post-fight bonuses in three of his last four fights.

So he had to accept a little bit of a humbling as well as some short-term pain for some long-term gain. He and his team looked at all areas of his game and try to rebuild and improve.

“For me to compete with guys at the level they’re at now, I probably could have scored a lot of wins or whatever,” Sandhagen said. “But I want to be the best. I want to win that title and then hold it. I’m only 30 years old and I still have a lot of time to accomplish my goals. And so for me, it was important not to just accept where I was and be good enough with that. I need more to get to where I want to be.

“I want to be able to beat everyone at every little thing. If I’m fighting a great striker, I want to be able to beat them at striking. If I’m facing some elite wrestler, I want to be able to out-wrestle them. By no means am I saying that I didn’t have great championship skills, but to be the absolute best, you can never be satisfied and there’s always that next level to reach.”

He called Song “a super-athletic, hard-hitting striker with good hips and good defensive wrestling.” Sandhagen represents the elite for Song, and so Sandhagen knows he’ll be extremely motivated.

And the fear of losing, or of getting knocked out, is plenty of motivation for him.

“Doing a good job and displaying what I’ve worked on is a good motivator, but there’s also the great motivation of not getting the f*** knocked out,” he said. “Sometimes, I imagine those scenarios and how awful it feels for me and how awful it would be for my family to have to see me in that situation. And so I have plenty of motivation because this is the kind of fight I need to win and he’s a very dangerous guy.

“I took this time to make the foundation stronger and get to that next level. It’s time now for me to do that.”