The UFC bantamweight throne may lie vacant at the moment, but on Saturday night – two of the division’s guaranteed future mainstays clash to determine the next emerging force. It’s been billed as “the people’s main event” by many; Aljamain ‘Funk Master’ Sterling vs. Cory ‘The Sandman’ Sandhagen.
Neither of these two relies solely on one aspect of their game, but rather, excel as two of the most creative strikers, grapplers, and wrestlers of the new age of the mixed martial artist. With a combined nine consecutive wins – both Sterling and Sandhagen could have featured in the targeted bantamweight title matchup between fellow streaking force, Petr Yan, and José Aldo, instead of the Brazilian.
Aldo’s history in the sport is undeniable that’s for sure. However, his defeat to one-time challenger, Marlon Moraes, however close it was, marked his second straight loss. Overlooking either Sterling or Sandhagen in favour of the veteran Muay Thai practitioner just seems inherently wrong, and brings the integrity of the division into major question.
Taking main card status at UFC 250 – the pairing of Sterling and Sandhagen should unquestionably identify the next challenger at 135-pounds, although, don’t expect the defeated contender to fall into an extended period of downturn. These two are major players in a constantly shifting bantamweight division for the considerable future.
I touched on the ability of both to mix-up their offensive wherever the bout ends up, to almost unmatched effect. Sterling utilises front kicks to the body, early and often, spinning elbow attacks, reverse, and step-in elbows, and some shrew head-movement. Sandhagen – another customer of the front kick offence to the mid-section, has utilised lethal flying-knees in the Octagon already, and targets the liver with hooks, after some boxing entries and setups.
With NCAA Division III credentials, Sterling scores with his wrestling in the Octagon – twenty-two times in fact. Aurora native Sandhagen has managed four successful shots in his five-fight stint in the organization, but it’s his work in the scrambles which catches attention. The Elevation Fight Team trainee managed an armbar over Mario Bautista, but his offensive grappling prowess in the runup to the finish was high-level. After a flying-knee knockdown, Sandhagen was taken down, but immediately scrambled to a reverse triangle, and then almost secured a Suloev stretch, before eventually wrapping up the arm.
The Suloev stretch is rare a submission you’re likely to find in the sport amongst the elites, but Sandhagen’s opponent, Sterling can lay claim to it. During his meeting with Cody Stamann at UFC 228, Sterling secured the kneebar, before featherweight contender, Zabit Magomedsharipov notched his own later on during the main card.
in his tie with division mainstay, Iuri Alcântara, Sandhagen somehow weathered the storm in the form of a taut armbar and slashing elbows and hammer-fists, to score a victory via ground-and-pound. Even against the Brazilian’s compatriot, Raphael Assunção – Sandhagen struggled to defend the takedown, four times in fact but managed a unanimous judging as a result of accurate work on the feet. Sterling may look to utilise his wrestling ability off the back of Assunção’s success.
In his most recent outing, Matt Serra and Ray Longo product, Sterling displayed arguably his most impressive performance. Meeting with Pedro Munhoz at UFC 238 last June, the 30-year-old managed a constant output for all three rounds on his way to a unanimous decision triumph. A composed yet urgent, and disciplined display from Sterling prevented Munhoz from drawing him into a fire-fight, similar to his stunning knockout of former champion, Cody Garbrandt.
For an opponent who presses and pressures well like Sandhagen, Sterling may look to that almost patented front-kick to maintain range, as well as that stiff jab which played such an important role in his win over Munhoz. Sandhagen, who just seems to improve each and every time he enters the Octagon – can look to his ability to scramble offensively, and fire off calf kicks which took a huge effect on Sterling during his pairing with Munhoz.