TJ Dillashaw’s withdrawal naturally means that Cory Sandhagen needs a new opponent for UFC Vegas 26, but who should the UFC put against him?
With bantamweight being a loaded division, there are plenty of options – so here are five potential opponents for Cory Sandhagen at UFC Vegas 26.
#1 Dominick Cruz (UFC record: 6-2)
Cory Sandhagen was supposed to face a former UFC bantamweight champion at UFC Vegas 26 in the form of TJ Dillashaw – so why not match him with another former champ in the form of Dominick Cruz?
The Dominator is coming off his first win since 2016 – a decision over prospect Casey Kenney at UFC 259. But given that he still has designs on regaining the title he lost at UFC 207, this fight would actually be a risk worth taking for him.
A win over Cruz wouldn’t do a lot for Sandhagen’s ranking or UFC title hopes, as he’s already the de facto number one contender in the bantamweight division.
However, in terms of name-value, The Dominator would represent the biggest scalp claimed by The Sandman, surpassing Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes.
Cruz has only ever been finished by the now-retired Henry Cejudo in the UFC, and so if Sandhagen could repeat that feat, it’d be a huge deal.
The late notice might represent a challenge for Cruz, who probably doesn’t stay as flight-ready as he once did. But if the UFC could make this fight, it’d definitely make sense.
#2 Sean O’Malley (UFC record: 5-1)
Sean O’Malley has been groomed for UFC stardom ever since his debut in the ctagon in 2017. And while a fight with Cory Sandhagen would be a huge step up for The Sugar Show, it might still make sense.
Firstly, a win over The Sandman would instantly vault O’Malley to the top of the division, where he evidently feels that he belongs.
And secondly, if he were to lose, he could easily chalk it off to taking the fight on late notice and would almost certainly learn plenty from the defeat, too.
From Sandhagen’s point of view, he wouldn’t have a lot to gain by defeating O’Malley. But The Sugar Show is a renowned trash-talker who would probably draw as many eyeballs onto their fight as TJ Dillashaw would’ve done.
That alone might make the risk one worth taking for The Sandman, who would have a chance of shutting the loud mouth of The Sugar Show and increasing his star power in the process.
The UFC may well want to continue to build O’Malley slowly instead, but this would definitely be a fun fight to make.
#3 Raoni Barcelos (UFC record: 5-0)
Few casual UFC fans will have heard of Raoni Barcelos, who has flown largely under the radar since his debut in 2018.
However, the Brazilian has an impressive record of 16-1, is 5-0 in the UFC, and is almost certainly a threat to any fighter in the bantamweight division.
Barcelos is a remarkably high-level grappler, and from what we’ve seen of him in the octagon, he has a very dangerous striking game too.
The fact that he doesn’t carry much name value would make him a massively risky fight for a more proven commodity like Cory Sandhagen. But The Sandman might relish a chance to face him on short notice rather than later down the line.
Right now, Barcelos is signed for a fight, but it’s a much lesser one with Timur Valiev on June 26th. And the UFC would likely be willing to scrap that clash if the Brazilian showed an interest in facing Sandhagen instead.
This fight wouldn’t be a huge draw for casual fans, but it might be the best one the UFC could make from a hardcore fan’s perspective.
#4 Cody Garbrandt (UFC record: 7-3)
However, No Love might see TJ Dillashaw’s withdrawal as a chance to jump the queue at 135lbs. And should the UFC offer him the fight with Cory Sandhagen, it feels likely that he’d accept.
Garbrandt looked past his best after suffering three knockout losses in a row. But he bounced back in 2020 big time with one of the most vicious knockout wins of his career over Raphael Assuncao.
Whether he can take out Sandhagen is another matter. But if he can pull off the win, he’d almost certainly put himself in line for a title shot at the winner of the Aljamain Sterling-Petr Yan rematch.
And for Sandhagen, this would be a fight worth taking in order to potentially give him another win over a former UFC champion.
Sure, Rob Font would feel hard done by in this scenario. But the UFC has shown that it’s willing to change future fights before – making this one a definite possibility.
#5 Jose Aldo (UFC record: 11-6)
Another former UFC champion who could be interested in a fight with Cory Sandhagen is Jose Aldo.
The Brazilian legend has never really been one to take last-minute bookings. In this instance, though, he might feel differently given a win over Sandhagen would propel him back to the top of the bantamweight division.
Aldo was last seen in a win over the tough Marlon Vera – proving he’s still got something to offer after his one-sided loss to Petr Yan earlier in 2020.
And while the former champion might be past his prime at this stage, like Dominick Cruz, he’d represent the biggest feather in the cap of Sandhagen to date – making this one a fight that The Sandman would probably love to take.
Whether the UFC could get Aldo to take such a late-notice fight is another matter entirely. But it would be a huge opportunity for him, so it may be worth the promotion considering making the call.