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Cory Sandhagen expects the best version of T.J. Dillashaw at UFC Vegas 32

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No. 2 ranked bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen doesn't think former champion T.J. Dillashaw will have any ring rust when they meet Saturday in Dillashaw's return to fighting after a two year suspension for PEDs.

Video Transcript

KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole. Welcome to Yahoo Sports. And my guest right now, I think, is probably the frontrunner for Knockout of the Year. If you saw his fight in February, you did what I did and you jumped out of your seat, and you went "oh my god!" Or some other bad word that you might have said. Because that was a crazy knockout of Frankie Edgar.

Of course, I am talking about the number two rated bantamweight in the world, Cory Sandhagen. Cory, tough fight on Saturday at APEX against TJ Dillashaw. But we're still thinking about that KO of Frankie Edgar.

CORY SANDHAGEN: Yeah, that was a good one. It was a big one. Got me a lot of attention, just kind of like how highlight reel knockouts work. I knew that it was kind of just going to be a matter of time before I was able to secure one of those, and I'm glad that it happened on such a big stage. And yeah, a really tough fight coming up this weekend, and looking forward to it.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, I think one of the predictors of success for fighters is how they overcome adversity. And you know, you have two losses in your career. And both times after those losses, you went on these incredible streak. You know, you lost to Jamall Emmers. I think your next five fights, you had three first-round finishes and two second-round finishes after losing to Aljamain Sterling in kind of a disappointing performance. We've talked about that. You come back with a second-round knockout of Marlon Moraes and this crazy KO of Frankie Edgar.

Is there something you think, when you face that kind of adversity in your career, that turns something on in your brain and makes you a little bit better the next couple of times out?

CORY SANDHAGEN: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, sometimes, every once in a while, you need a kick in the ass. I needed a kick in the ass after the Sterling fight. I don't want to be a middle-of-the-run fighter. I don't want that for myself. I don't want that for my life. So I've done a lot of hard work in order to improve the areas that I felt like I needed to improve in order for me to be able to compete, one day fight for a world title and consider myself a world champion and the best in the world.

But that comes with a lot of heavy consequences, like you know, a lot of hard work is involved, and being able to do so. So I kind of just made the decision after that Sterling fight that I'm not going to be that guy. I'm going to be the guy that's the world champion. And that's what I want for my life, and I'm willing to work however hard I got to work in order for that to be the case.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, there's good news, bad news, when you beat a guy like Frankie Edgar in, what was it, 28 seconds, I think it was. Because you come out of that unscathed, no injuries. But you also don't know, "what do I need to work on? What do I--" because you don't make any mistakes, I mean, basically. So what did you-- what was, coming out of that fight, how did you approach it? Like, what did you say, "I need to work on going forward, to be better for Dillashaw?"

CORY SANDHAGEN: Oh, I don't need fights to tell me that I need things to work on. I got a whole training room full of people that kick my butt if I'm not on top of it. So I had that-- I feel like I'm always in a constant state of learning. It's what makes this fun for me. It's what keeps me mentally engaged. I feel, if I don't have things to work on in the sport, then I get very kind of nonchalant about training, which is something I don't like feeling.

So I'm always kind of trying to make my game more of a circle. And I feel like I'm always just doing my best to be the best. And I don't need sometimes fights to tell me that. A lot of the times, it's just happening in the training room. But of course, it does get highlighted in the fight more often, too. But I got a whole team full of guys that can beat me up if I don't show up.

KEVIN IOLE: That's always amazing. Now, you know, going against TJ Dillashaw, obviously, you know, the elephant in the room is his EPO, his two-year suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug. But you know, obviously, he was a very, very good bantamweight champion.

And do you s-- like, I'm starting to think that these layoffs are not bad. Miesha Tate the other day, almost five years, came back, looked good. You know, Georges St-Pierre won the title against Michael Bisping. So what can you reasonably expect from a guy like Dillashaw, given the fact that he hasn't fought in 30 months? I mean, are you anticipating him being as good as he ever was, you know, because he had time to clean up? Or do you expect to see a little rust out of him?

CORY SANDHAGEN: I think I would be such a fool to walk into that cage thinking that TJ wasn't going to have made a lot of improvements in the two years that he took off. And I'm no fool, so I anticipate TJ being the best version of TJ that we've probably seen. And if that not be the case, then OK. But I definitely always land on the side of caution, as far as how good my opponent is.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, I want to ask you about the EPO situation in a second, but I first want to talk about specifically the fight. And one of the things that I find, I always thought you had tremendous footwork, but so did he. You know, he showed that against, you know, to me, the guy that's been the standard for that has been Dominick Cruz. You know, a guy that really used footwork very well, and set up his shots and everything he was trying to do.

You know, so when you have an opponent that has you lead footwork like you do, how does that change the dynamic of the fight?

CORY SANDHAGEN: Well, it makes it-- footwork makes it very hard to hit people. And it can make you very elusive, and it can put you in a lot of positions in order for you to be able to, obviously, close distance, close distance at an angle, which is much safer. And I think TJ does that really good.

And I'm no rookie in the way of knowing a lot of footwork, too, of course. But it does change the dynamic of the fight a little bit. It just makes it more like a salsa dance and less like a waltz, maybe.

KEVIN IOLE: Interesting. You've been asked this a lot, but I would be remiss not to ask you what you make of him having-- you know, and he admitted that he took EPO for the fight against Henry Cejudo. Which I should note that he was stopped, and so he has all these wins where he says he wasn't taking anything, and that one fight where he gets stopped, he was taking something. What is your sense of fighting somebody that you know has had a PED conviction?

CORY SANDHAGEN: What do you mean by my sense of it?

KEVIN IOLE: Well, like, are you angry or does it bother you? How do you take it?

CORY SANDHAGEN: I don't have any feelings about it. For me, the only thing I need to have in my mind in order for me to want to beat the person up that's standing across from me, is the fact that everyone that I face is trying to take a dream away from me that I've had for over a decade now. They're in the way of me wanting to live the type of life that I want to live, and they're in the way of me being the best. And I don't really need any other animosity or narrative or anything like that in order for me to go out and compete at the highest level that I can, other than, like I said, this person wants to take away the dream that I've had since I was a teenage kid, and I'm not going to let that happen.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, years ago, Oscar De La Hoya, the boxer, fought archrival Fernando Vargas. And they had a bitter rivalry. And Vargas was never a guy that had this great cut body. And when he fought De La Hoya, he shows up at the weigh-in and it was like he was in a bodybuilding contest. He looked incredible. And it turned out after the fight he tested positive for PEDs.

But my question is, Oscar said then, "I'm not worried about how he looks because that showed mental weakness, the fact that he felt he needed to take something." Do you subscribe to that? And do you feel like that showed any weakness on TJ's part, that into what was the biggest fight of his life, he felt the need to take a performance-enhancing drug?

CORY SANDHAGEN: I would say it definitely shows some type of flawed character, in life and in the cage. Whenever you're putting yourself at that much of an advantage in a combat scenario, to me, something has to be wrong with you. Like, something has to be going on in your head, I don't know what it is, that is just wrong. And that's certainly the case.

KEVIN IOLE: Interesting. Do you expect a wrestling-heavy style out of him? I mean, is that how you think he's going to attack you? Is that what you're preparing for?

CORY SANDHAGEN: Yeah, I'm prepared for a grappling match. But I'm also prepared for everything. I think TJ's a very dynamic guy. He knows how to strike, he knows how to wrestle, he knows what he's doing in jiu-jitsu. So I'm expecting a very dynamic fight that could go anywhere. I'm looking at an MMA fight. That's what it's going to be. If it's striking the whole time, then OK. If it's he wants to wrestle, OK. If it's I want to wrestle, OK. And we'll just kind of, we're going to treat it very flexible.

KEVIN IOLE: One of your knockouts you had, I wonder if it'll be applicable in this fight, was José Aguayo. I think it was an LFA fight, where he tried to clinch you and you came up with that knee up the middle and knocked him out. Is that kind of a move that when guys try to clinch you, that that's a move that becomes open for you?

CORY SANDHAGEN: Yeah. I think that I have a very-- it's kind of a-- I don't like to think in terms of moves, I like to think in terms of targets. So I'm always looking for an open target. And whether I'm able to punch it, kick it, knee it, elbow it, whatever it may be, that's kind of more in the terms of the way that I think is, if they're going to give me an open target, then I'm glad to take it. And that's kind of in the way that I think more.

KEVIN IOLE: Have they told you anything-- I mean, have they made it clear that the winner of this fight fights the winner of Yan-Sterling II?

CORY SANDHAGEN: How clear have they made it, I guess, is what you're asking?

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah. I mean, have they said to you, hey, you win this fight, you're going to fight the winner of that fight.

CORY SANDHAGEN: I believe so. I think this sport is very dynamic, and a lot can happen in a very short amount of time. So it's very hard for them to say things that concrete. And if they even did say that, it would be very hard for me to receive that as a very concrete thing that they were saying. So while I do think that will be the case, I know that, you know, a lot can happen in this sport very quickly. And if need be, I need to take out another contender just to make my argument, to hold the argument, I have no problem with it.

KEVIN IOLE: One or two other things and I'll let you roll. I was curious. You have history with Aljamain, but what was your take on the controversy in his fight? Like, I thought he was hurt against Petr Yan. What was your take on that?

CORY SANDHAGEN: It was quite an awkward fight, in my opinion. Neither one of them seemed, really, to get into a really good rhythm. I think Yan was winning that fight. I think Yan made a really stupid decision. Like, you got to be more present than that. Like, you can't just throw that away, man. Like, you were winning.

And I think Aljamain's reaction to it was kind of embarrassing. I think while he might have been hurt or might not have been hurt, it's just going to be speculation and I don't like to waste my time on a ton of speculating. But I know that if I was Sterling, I probably wouldn't have handled it the same way that he's handled it, in the way that like, you kind of got beat up in a fight and you're walking around, you know, like flaunting the belt, as if you didn't just get your ass kicked.

So not the way that I would be handling it. But we all live with our own choices. He'll live with his. It seems like he's kind of a heel a little bit. I don't think the fans are too crazy about the way that he's been acting, and he'll have to kind of live with those consequences.

KEVIN IOLE: Well, that is one of the good guys in this sport, Cory Sandhagen. A big fight on Saturday at APEX against TJ Dillashaw. Cory, always great to talk to you. All the best to you. Good luck on Saturday.

CORY SANDHAGEN: Thanks a lot, Kevin. I'll talk to you later.

KEVIN IOLE: Thanks, my man.

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