You might not think so while watching a particularly brutal fight, but MMA is a pretty forgiving sport.
Barely 16 months ago, Marlon Moraes was knocked out by Henry Cejudo in his bid to become UFC men’s bantamweight champion. Moraes later suffered a different sort of indignity, defeating Jose Aldo in December but then seeing Aldo, not him, get booked against Petr Yan in a July fight for the then-vacant 135-pound title.
Cory Sandhagen has an even fresher reminder of how quickly things can fall apart. His No. 1 contender showdown with Aljamain Sterling in June had barely got started before Sandhagen found himself trapped in a chokehold. He ended up seeing his big opportunity evaporate in less than a minute and a half.
But here come Moraes and Sandhagen again, right back under the spotlight. They meet on Saturday night in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, with the evening of fisticuffs being broadcast from “Fight Island” on ESPN+ (8 p.m. ET main card, prelims at 5 p.m.). The winner will surge back into the title mix at 135 pounds.
It’s good to see that these two have not been derailed by one slip-up, because both have been on otherwise strong runs.
Moraes (23-6-1, 5-2 in the UFC) was on a four-fight winning streak before succumbing to Cejudo, and among his three finishes during that spell was a 2017 knockout of Sterling, who now is the presumed No. 1 contender. Could a strong performance on Saturday enable the 32-year-old former WSOF titleholder from Brazil to leapfrog his way into a championship challenge?
Sandhagen (12-2, 5-1 UFC), who is 28 and fights out of Aurora, Colorado, had won seven straight prior to the loss to Sterling. He likely needs more than a win this weekend to earn a shot at gold, but his date inside the cage with Moraes sure can serve as a solid building block. And future implications aside, Sandhagen is not taking for granted his first UFC main event opportunity.
“When I was signing the [event] posters earlier, and I was signing on my own face,” he told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani this week, “that was a really cool moment.”
This fight promises to deliver plenty of cool moments for the fans as well. Moraes, who is No. 2 in the ESPN men’s bantamweight rankings, has 10 knockouts and six submissions over his career, and the KOs always come early. The only one that didn’t happen in the first round came just 38 seconds into the second.
As for the sixth-ranked Sandhagen, he scored finishes in his first three UFC fights. At 5-foot-11, tall for a bantamweight, he’ll have a big reach advantage, and between that and his deft footwork, Sandhagen has shown adeptness at hitting while not being hit. Let’s see how he fares against Moraes’ power out of the gate.
And then let’s see what the UFC does with the winner.
By the numbers
6.49: Strikes landed per minute in the UFC by Sandhagen, the best average among active bantamweights.
0.93: Knockdowns per minute in the UFC by Moraes, the third-highest rate among active 135-pounders with at least five fights, behind only ex-champion Cody Garbrandt (1.58) and current champ Petr Yan (1.3).
8:12: Average UFC fight time for Sandhagen, the fifth shortest among active bantamweights.
5: Victories for Moraes since his UFC debut in 2017, tying him with Pedro Munhoz for the fourth most in the division during that span. Yan and Marlon Vera lead the way with seven wins, one more than Aljamain Sterling.
23: Combined finishes by the two main event fighters. Moraes has 10 wins by knockout and six by submission. Sandhagen has four KOs and three subs.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information research and UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Marlon Moraes’ most recent results
Win: José Aldo (SD, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Henry Cejudo (TKO3, June 8, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Raphael Assunção (SUB1, Feb. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jimmie Rivera (KO1, June 1, 2018)
Win: Aljamain Sterling (KO1, Dec. 9, 2017)
Cory Sandhagen’s most recent results
Loss: Aljamain Sterling (SUB1, June 6, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Raphael Assunção (UD, Aug. 17, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: John Lineker (SD, April 27, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Mario Bautista (SUB1, Jan. 19, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Iuri Alcântara (TKO2, Aug. 25, 2018)
And the winner is …
I was all set to predict an upset, but then I looked at the odds. Sandhagen is actually the favorite, which surprises me, since he was quickly finished in his most recent fight by Sterling, whom Moraes had previously knocked out. I bring up Sterling here because I believe he will play a pivotal role in the outcome of this bout. Sandhagen came away from the Sterling fight recognizing the danger of starting slowly, and he has set his mind on not allowing it to happen again. That’s key against Moraes, a fast starter who has been known to slow down as a fight wears on. And questionable cardio does not bode well in a five-rounder against Sandhagen, who trains a mile above sea level and — if he can steer clear of early power — should be good to go for a strong 25 minutes. Sandhagen by decision.
Saturday’s fight card
ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Marlon Moraes vs. Cory Sandhagen | Men’s bantamweight
Edson Barboza vs. Makwan Amirkhani | Men’s featherweight
Ben Rothwell vs. Marcin Tybura | Heavyweight
Markus Perez vs. Dricus Du Plessis | Middleweight
Youssef Zalal vs. llia Topuria | Men’s featherweight
ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET
Tom Breese vs. KB Bhullar | Middleweight
Chris Daukaus vs. Rodrigo Nascimento | Heavyweight
Impa Kasanganay vs. Joaquin Buckley | Middleweight
Ali AlQaisi vs. Tony Kelley | Men’s bantamweight
Giga Chikadze vs. Omar Morales | Men’s featherweight
Tracy Cortez vs. Stephanie Egger | Women’s bantamweight
Bruno Silva vs. Tagir Ulanbekov | Men’s flyweight
How to watch the fights
Watch the fights on ESPN+. If you don’t have ESPN+, get it here.
There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Five more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
2. Ben Rothwell will be in the 51st fight of his professional MMA career when he faces Marcin Tybura in a heavyweight bout. Among UFC heavyweights, only Aleksei Oleinik (64) and Alistair Overeem (56) have more pro fights than “Big Ben.”
3. South African middleweight Dricus Du Plessis will be making his UFC debut, facing off with Markus Perez. Du Plessis, a former KSW middleweight champion, has never been to a decision in his 16-fight MMA career.
4. Eight fighters on the card will enter Saturday night having won three UFC fights this year. Youssef Zalal, 3-0 in 2020, will open the main card in a featherweight bout against Ilia Topuria, who will be making his UFC debit. Zalal will be looking to become the first UFC fighter to amass four wins this year.
5. Topuria is 8-0 in his MMA career, making him one of five fighters on the card who will enter the night with an undefeated record. Middleweight KB Bhullar (8-0) will be making his debut as a 2-to-1 underdog against veteran Tom Breese. Rodrigo Nascimento will put his 8-0 record on the line against heavyweight Chris Daukaus. Middleweight Impa Kasanganay (8-0) will make his second UFC appearance, facing Joaquin Buckley. And featherweight Omar Morales will look to move to 11-0 when he faces Giga Chikadze.