Cory Sandhagen’s recent streak of competitive losses came to an end in his 5-round bantamweight main event against Song Yadong. The long, lean striker returned from a year’s layoff after his interim title defeat against Petr Yan and looked like a consummate Mixed Martial Artist, complete with takedowns and clinch-work seldom seen in his prior bouts. Despite facing adversity in the early rounds, the strategic prowess of Cory Sandhagen saw him outwork and finish the Chinese contender by TKO.
Meet Cory Sandhagen
Sandhagen is traditionally a volume striker with specific tools that allow him to create stoppages. His constant strike variety allows him to mix up his attacks and create openings for new weapons. This was apparent in his knockout win over the recently un-retired Marlon Moraes. In this, spinning attacks to the body forced Marlon to focus his defence, having left his head unguarded. When Sandhagen spun again, Marlon’s instinct was to guard the body. Sandhagen took his kick upstairs, however, planting his heel to Moraes’ skull and finishing the bout.
Sandhagen’s best trait is undoubtedly the Max Holloway-Esque pace and pressure he fights under. Sandhagen’s footwork is amongst the elite at bantamweight, showing shades of former training partner TJ Dillashaw and idol Dominick Cruz. Whilst transitioning between ranges, Sandhagen throws his jab like a smokescreen to disguise his entries and frustrate his opponents. When dealing with this jab, a fighter has two choices; to retreat or to bite down on their mouthpiece and plough forwards. Sandhagen, on the front foot, shows beautiful hooks to the head and body alongside spins, kicks, and a switch knee as his opponents back towards the fence. When pressured, Sandhagen prefers to use kicks, side-kicks to the knees, and reactive takedowns to break his opponent’s pace. When an opponent barges into the pocket, Sandhagen can use distance traps to walk them onto straights, elbows, and a killer flying knee.
A Challenger Approaches
If Sandhagen is a new-age striker, Yadong is far more traditional in his approach. Where Sandhagen keeps light on his feet and emits static to hide his punches, Yadong plants his feet and fires. This isn’t to say that Yadong’s form is sloppy; his combinations appear tight and complimentary to one another. A Team Alpha Male graduate, his signature weapon is naturally his big right hand. Yadong’s right is a cannon, using his left hooks and jabs to crowd his opponent into the firing line. When his opponents start to make reads on this and dip to avoid it, Yadong can catch them with the right uppercut.
When matching these strikers up, the obvious narrative thread is one of pressure vs power. Where Sandhagen may have been able to dance around Yadong and light him up, Yadong’s great equalizer will always be there to put Sandhagen on skates. In a pre-fight piece for MMA Junkie, analyst Dan Tom aptly compared this matchup to the two bouts between Max Holloway and Jose Aldo. If Sandhagen was allowed to work, he would surely flood and overwhelm the young fighter. That being said, Yadong is visibly improving in each outing. He would undoubtedly have the ability to find solutions to such pressure.
New Tricks and Old Skills
Sandhagen looked like the striker we’d come to know for all of 13 seconds. For a man who had previously complained about being held against the fence, he clearly learned from his loss to TJ Dillashaw. The takedown game of Sandhagen (despite failing most) did an excellent job in providing another element to the already stocked arsenal he possesses. His desire to clinch served as relief from the pressure of Yadong, working his takedowns to the fence and scoring points with knees. Yadong’s reactions to the takedowns were exaggerated, sprawling onto the floor at times and giving away his desire to keep the fight standing. When Sandhagen wanted to tie up for a clinch or break the pace, he’d often feint the takedown first. Yadong would leap to overcorrect, whilst Sandhagen would output some offence. Moments later, once Yadong had dismissed the takedown threat, Sandhagen would actually shoot.
Sandhagen’s intentions seemed not to be wrestling Yadong for 25 minutes but instead to show his opponent new looks. This is a tactic we saw Alexander Volkanovski use in his most recent bout with Max Holloway, also using the clinch to make Holloway’s pressure-fighting style impotent. By making Yadong have to consider the wrestling threat Sandhagen also made him less willing to pressure forwards for fear of presenting his hips on a silver platter. This tactic aids Sandhagen’s usual strategy of overwhelming volume and pressure. Adding a desire to clinch and wrestle to his utility belt presents yet another weapon for Sandhagen to inundate his opponent with.
Alongside his shiny new toys, Cory Sandhagen showed us his regular exciting style as per usual. The patented lead body hooks made an appearance, hooking off the lead hand in an analyst’s rapture. Leg kicks were landed in abundance in tandem with body and head kicks. Using a similar philosophy to Dominick Cruz’s kicks, the awkward footwork of Sandhagen disguised his own as he switched stances and darted around before firing off a kick. The pressure-diffusing flying knees were also back but oft-slipped with Song’s constant side-to-side head movement.
Slicing and Dicing
Song Yadong’s willingness to eat what Sandhagen fed in his pursuit to close the distance proved somewhat troublesome for Sandhagen. However, the utilization of a hard-hitting yet short-range weapon completely changed the dynamic of the fight. The elbows of Cory Sandhagen were perfect, first slicing Song on the clinch-break and creating a cut on the eyebrow.
From there, Sandhagen thrived within this new fight he’d created. The superb movement and footwork of Sandhagen made his half-blind opponent chase him around the cage, planting and swinging at where Sandhagen was moments earlier. Throughout the fight, Sandhagen had been using his outstretched arm( a stiff arm) to keep Yadong at bay as he retreated. With Song’s eye now damaged, the stiff arm gained a new purpose; to block his vision as he tried to advance.
Unable to gauge the range at regular punching distance, Song was forced to rely on crashing in on Sandhagen to find his shots. The disadvantage of this, of course, is the weapon that put Song here initially. As Song entered a range in which he could work, he became vulnerable to yet more slicing elbows. Sandhagen’s ability to stigmatise close-range engagements, wrestling, and clinching, all whilst forcing Song to enter into those arenas, was his key to victory. As the damage piled up, the ringside physician gave his disapproval. The fight was stopped, being declared a Cory Sandhagen TKO due to the cut.
In Defence of Song Yadong
Despite losing, Yadong fought a genuinely impressive fight. The 24-year-old striker did accomplish much in unsettling Sandhagen with a complete disregard for his jab. Where other, more acclaimed fighters have crumbled under the pace and pressure Sandhagen brings, Yadong seemed to relish it and begrudged the jabs in order to land his big power shots. Yadong also looked freakishly fast at points, sliding out of the side door as Sandhagen lunged in and at one point making him dive onto the floor as Yadong dodged a takedown.
Yadong also managed to land well against a generally slippery opponent (at least whilst he had both eyes). By occasionally backing up and allowing Sandhagen to control the pace, he was able to create traps. Upon retreating and allowing Sandhagen to jab his way into boxing range Yadong would plant his feet and fire off counters that made Sandhagen reconsider his approach. Yadong also took great advantage of the periods during which both fighters were engaged in the clinch. Sandhagen’s position as a stationary target neutralised his primary method of defence, that being his footwork. Unable to slip and weave to safety, Sandhagen devoured knees in the clinches he himself often initiated.
It also feels relevant to give some acknowledgment to Urijah Faber in the corner of Yadong. Yadong’s style as a power-puncher relies a great deal on him planting his feet to fire off his shots. Unfortunately for Yadong, stationary striking played perfectly into Sandhagen’s game of movement punching. Song may land one or two big punches, but Sandhagen was already out of range for the rest of the combination. When it became clear that Yadong needed to make adjustments, Faber began to call for volume over the power hitting that allowed Sandhagen to alleviate pressure and work his game. As Yadong started working into blitzes he managed to catch Sandhagen in a tendency that often troubles him. When blitzed, Sandhagen will frequently back up in a straight line and leave himself vulnerable in the process. Song exploiting this habit knowingly or by happenstance was a great development that would have been valuable earlier in the fight.
Despite a recent rough patch, Cory Sandhagen’s skill as both a fighter and a student of strategy remains undeniable. Returning after a year away and being known as a lengthy bombastic striker, nobody would have thought an active takedown and clinch game would be in Sandhagen’s arsenal. However, citing a desire to work as a true mixed martial artist, this is exactly the Cory Sandhagen we saw. Just 30 years old, the next 5 years of Sandhagen look bright as he enters his athletic prime.
Yadong entered this bout at just 24, fighting well above his ranking. As a result, he was expected by many to succumb to Sandhagen’s pressure. Instead, Yadong managed to make this fight ugly for Sandhagen. He showed a smart acknowledgment of how his power-hitting style is best utilised alongside receptiveness to his corner’s advice. The future is bright for Song Yadong, who will surely return against another top 10 fighter and continue to impress.
Featured image credits to Embed from Getty Images