Four reasons you can't afford to miss UFC Fight Night: Sandhagen vs Dillashaw this weekend on BT Sport

Cory Sandhagen looks to take the biggest scalp of his career as he faces returning two-time bantamweight king TJ Dillashaw exclusively live on BT Sport this Saturday night.

By George Mills Published: 23 July 2021 - 11.23am
Features UFC

Cory Sandhagen

The next bantamweight contender will be crowned on Saturday night, when the surging Cory Sandhagen welcomes TJ Dillashaw back from suspension in a fascinating main event from the UFC APEX.

Having produced two consecutive spectacular knockouts heading into this weekend’s showdown, Sandhagen will be confident he can secure a hat-trick against 35-year-old Dillashaw that would move him one step closer to a crack at the 135lb title.

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But Dillashaw, who competes for the first time since January 2019, will be aiming to put on a performance that puts the rest of his 135lb rivals on red alert as he seeks to claim the throne for a third time in his career.

Elsewhere, rising bantamweight star Kyler Phillips looks to make it three wins on the spin against Raulian Paiva, while fan favourite Darren ‘The Damage’ Elkins returns in a potential fight of the night contender against Darrick Miner.

Here are four reasons you can’t afford to miss out on the action this Saturday, with coverage underway from 10pm on BT Sport 2 HD.

Sandhagen to stamp his mark as the next contender

Number two-ranked bantamweight Sandhagen takes on the most accomplished opponent of his career, seeking to confirm his status as the next guy in line for the 135lb throne.

The 29-year-old is 7-1 in the UFC, dropping his only loss to the incumbent champion Aljamain Sterling at UFC 250 last year.

But many believe despite that loss, he could be the most talented fighter in the division – and his sensational pair of performances since certainly go some way to backing those claims up.

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First, Sandhagen saw off former UFC title challenger and World Series of Fighting camp Marlon Moraes with a jaw-dropping spinning wheel kick in October last year - pocketing a cool $50,000 bonus in the process.

Then the Elevation Fight Team charge doubled his money with an even more eye-catching knockout in February this year, sending Frankie Edgar to the shadow realm with a monster flying knee.

Were it not for the much-maligned logjam atop the bantamweight division as champion Sterling recovers from neck surgery before granting Petr Yan a deserved rematch, Sandhagen may well be challenging for the gold already.

His credentials arguably make him the number one contender already – but to his credit, The Sandman will put it all on the line in search of a win against a big name that would set the table perfectly for his assault on the 135lb throne towards the back end of 2021.

Will he be rewarded for rolling the dice – or can Dillashaw derail Sandhagen’s title aspirations?

Ring rust for returning Dillashaw?

The intrigue around Dillashaw’s return to action was inevitable given the way the two-time champion signed off from the sport more than 30 months ago.

Found guilty of using the banned substance EPO – a hormone that stimulates red blood cell growth to improve cardiovascular and athletic function – after losing to Henry Cejudo for the flyweight title in January 2019, Dillashaw was served a lengthy suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

Relieved of his bantamweight title in the process, Dillashaw stepped back from the sport and became something of a forgotten man during his hiatus while prospects like Sterling, Yan and Sandhagen rose to the top of the division.

“I’m going to be a f*****g animal when I get back in the cage”
- TJ Dillashaw

Now free to return to competition after serving his suspension, the 35-year-old claims he is more driven than ever to summit the 135lb throne – a feat that would make him the first man to win the bantamweight championship three times.

“If I thought I got somewhere because of PEDs, I wouldn’t be calling out Cory Sandhagen,” Dillashaw told Brendan Schaub this week.

“I wouldn’t be asking for someone in the top five. I wouldn’t let it be known that I’m getting my belt back. I’m going to be a f*****g animal when I get back in the cage.

“They tried to offer me fights that weren’t top five, and I said no. I want someone top five. Dude, I’m coming back. I’m 35 years old. I want my belt back. I never lost it.

“I’m here to prove a point that I’m the best in the world, and what better way to do it then get back right to the top?

“Cory Sandhagen is a great opponent. I trained a ton with him. He’s a great athlete, but it’s a great fight for me. Him being No. 1 contender, it’s a great fight for me to win, come back, prove my worth and get my belt back as soon as Aljamain [Sterling] and [Petr] Yan figure out their deal.”

Kyler Phillips targets top 10

He’s not done things the easy way but rising bantamweight star Kyler Phillips believes he is on the cusp of cracking the 135lb top 10 rankings with a statement win over Raulian Paiva this weekend.

Originally slated to face veteran Brazilian gatekeeper Raphael Assuncao before the veteran was forced to withdraw through injury, Phillips confessed his frustration at missing out on the chance to face a marquee name in the division while speaking to UFC.com earlier this week.

“Whoever they give me, it doesn't matter”
- Kyler Phillips

“Of course, I'm human and I'm gonna get p***** off when I get an opportunity like that and it doesn't happen,” the 26-year-old said.

“But my mind and heart said, ‘Hey, on this path, I get to fight on the biggest platform and show who I am as a martial artist and a fighter and get to test myself, so whoever they give me, it doesn't matter.”

Now tasked with facing Assuncao’s countryman, Raulian Paiva, Phillips knows he must restore focus back to the matter at hand with his sights set on reeling in those atop the bantamweight division.

He’ll get an opportunity to see many of his peer up close and personal on a card that contains three further 135lb contests – including the main tilt between Sandhagen and Dillashaw.

“All those guys being there, I can feel that energy, but I'm not actively thinking about it,” Phillips continued.

“I don't care about that; I'm gonna go and perform in my fight against the dude that's standing in front of me and in front of my dreams and my goals to get that belt, and we'll worry about the other people later.”

‘The Damage’

Fight fans should need no more reason to tune in on Saturday night than seeing Darren ‘The Damage’ Elkins on the main card.

The battle-hardened 37-year-old has forged a reputation as one of the toughest men in the promotion over a storied 34-fight career.

Renowned for his relentless aggression and zombie-like durability, Elkins bounced back from a four-fight losing skid in his last appearance, submitting Luiz Eduardo Garagorri to ensure his UFC tenure remains safe for now.

But entering the twilight of his career, the Indiana man knows he cannot afford to slip back into a losing habit against Darrick Miner.

Miner, riding a two-fight win streak, will make no apologies about his attempts to drag the contest to the mat; of his 26 professional wins, 22 have come by way of submission versus just a single knockout.

It should make for a fascinating clash of styles with both men known for their heart and aggression.

Who will triumph? Tune in to BT Sport 2 HD from 10pm on Saturday to find out.