Cory Sandhagen, like many other UFC fighters, wasn’t able to go to his gym early this year at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, the bantamweight contender was home, working striking techniques on an inanimate “body opponent bag.”
One of the techniques he drilled ended up paying dividends at the most opportune of times.
Sandhagen stopped Marlon Moraes with a spinning-heel-kick TKO at 1 minute, 3 seconds of the second round Saturday night in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Sandhagen dropped Moraes with the kick, then pounced with strikes on the ground until referee Marc Goddard pulled him off. It was only the ninth spinning-heel-kick finish in UFC history.
“That’s putting in hard work in that quarantine — when you can’t go to the gym and all you have is that BOB,” Sandhagen said in his postfight interview.
The victory was a huge one in the bantamweight division. Coming in, ESPN had Moraes ranked No. 2 in the world at 135 pounds and Sandhagen at No. 6.
Sandhagen said the only two people who could have a better case for a title shot than him are former UFC champions TJ Dillashaw and Frankie Edgar. But he wants a crack at the belt next, following champion Petr Yan’s next defense.
“All the respect to both of those guys [Dillashaw and Edgar], but I want that belt,” Sandhagen said.
Moraes started strong, landing hard calf kicks and sharp punches. It seemed Sandhagen was playing the long game in the first round, not being too aggressive and trying to attack Moraes’ body and legs with kicks.
The kicks ended up being crucial. Sandhagen threw a left head kick in the second round that Moraes blocked. But some of it got through and Moraes’ right eye began to swell. During the fight, Sandhagen told Moraes that he had a broken orbital bone “to get in his head a little,” Sandhagen said.
Just moments later, Sandhagen ripped off the spinning kick and put Moraes on his rear. The finish came soon after.
The card took place at the Flash Forum inside a virus-free safe zone on Yas Island, which the UFC has dubbed “Fight Island,” the promotion’s international home during the pandemic.
Sandhagen (13-2) has won eight of his past nine bouts. He lost for the first time in his UFC run at UFC 250 in June, a submission defeat to top contender Aljamain Sterling. The Colorado resident was on a seven-fight winning streak prior to that. Sandhagen, 28, is thought to be a future star in the division, with precision striking and unorthodox footwork somewhat reminiscent of former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
“I came back from one of the most embarrassing losses I’ve ever had. I was able to show up and take out Marlon Moraes, who is a monster,” Sandhagen said. “That guy is really good.”
Coming in, Sandhagen had the highest striking rate in UFC bantamweight history (6.48 strikes per minute).
“Hopefully I’m not just this little name after this,” Sandhagen said. “Hopefully I have some pull in this sport. … I never felt like if I called someone out, it had a lot of juice. I think I got some juice tonight.”
Moraes (23-7-1) had won five of his previous six fights coming in, with the only loss in that time coming to Henry Cejudo in a fight for the then-vacant bantamweight title. Moraes, a 32-year-old Brazilian, was coming off a split decision win over former featherweight champ Jose Aldo at UFC 245 in December. Moraes, the former World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion, already owns wins over UFC bantamweight contenders such as Sterling and Jimmie Rivera.