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Inside The Mind Of Cory Sandhagen

After suffering his first UFC loss, Cory Sandhagen re-centered himself ahead of his first main event fight.

Right before the biggest fight of his life, Cory Sandhagen was calm as can be. The stakes were high – a No. 1 contender fight against the streaking Aljamain Sterling – but as Sandhagen waited to make the walk to the Octagon in the UFC Apex at UFC 250, any sense of butterflies were absent, and he was ready to have the kind of performance that would potentially launch him into a title fight just six fights into his UFC career. 

“I was like, ‘Oh man, this is great. I’m going in, and I don’t have a ton of jitters and this and that,’” Sandhagen said. “It ended up being a really bad thing because when I did get in there, I realized how that is not the type of headspace you want to be in when you’re in something as intense as a combat fight.”

UFC Fight Island 5: Cory Sandhagen Learned His Lessons
UFC Fight Island 5: Cory Sandhagen Learned His Lessons
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Cory Sandhagen went back to the drawing board after his first UFC loss and now prepares for his first main event as he takes on Marlon Moraes in a crucial bantamweight matchup on Fight Island.


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Instead of solidifying himself as the next title challenger, Sandhagen was left on the canvas after Sterling secured a rear naked choke just under 90 seconds into the fight. 

With the fight a few months in the rear-view window, Sandhagen spots his own mistakes with clarity.

“I think that the technical errors were a result of a being-in-a-correct-headspace error,” he said. “I realized that I wasn’t experienced enough to know what type of headspace and what type of arousal-level I need to be at in order to perform in a fight.”

Rediscovering His "River"

When analyzing the reasons as to why Sandhagen’s mind wasn’t in the right spot against Sterling, I bring up an interview we had earlier in the year after his fight with Frankie Edgar was scratched. At the time, the Colorado-native was trying to get his “name out there” in the consciousness of MMA fans. He was in the midst of an undefeated five-fight run in the UFC,  just outside the title picture and he hoped a signature win over a former champion like Edgar would bring him the notoriety so often accompanying bigger fights, or at least a comedic jab from then-champion Henry Cejudo.

It’s hard to be sure of it because the conversation was happening over the phone, but I could’ve sworn I could hear Sandhagen wincing at his early-2020 self.

“I’m not really the type of guy that speaks like that,” Sandhagen said. “That makes me kind of feel weird, too. All of that was happening, and I didn’t even really know it. You kind of get caught in this weird river current that is taking you down some river that you just kind of got caught in. I feel like I’m back in my river.”

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 27:   (L-R) Cory Sandhagen punches Austin Arnett in their featherweight bout during a UFC Fight Night event at Spectrum Center on January 27, 2018 in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

The journey to rediscover his “river” and to even realize the wayward path he fell into is an internal conversation few fighters discuss as openly as Sandhagen has throughout his young UFC career. 

He ponders the occasionally clashing lives he leads as a martial artist who hopes to serve his own self-expression but also as a prizefighter competing at the highest level. Having that kind of grounded perspective comes with its advantages in terms of self-awareness of his place in the world, but it can come with a kind of draining cost.

“I wish I just didn’t think as much about what the impact is on other people, and in my life, what fighting is,” he said. “I kind of realized that…there’s a duality between a martial artist, which is someone that is extremely disciplined, takes care of all of the things, is really genuine and honest with who they are and kind of goes on that kind of self-discovery type journey, but then, on the other hand, there’s this intense aspect of the sport that if you’re too much on the being just the martial arts, self-discovery, centered, Zen guy, I think – and I might be wrong because I’m still going on the journey – if you’re too much of that guy, you’re not going to be at a level of intensity that’s enough for a fight. I’m kind of realizing where I have to find that warrior spirit inside of you that everyone kind of has.

“I feel like I rediscovered that, and if you want to call it a darker side of life because fighting is a part of life even though we don’t do it every day, it’s been a huge part of human history.”

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 17: (R-L) Cory Sandhagen punches Raphael Assuncao of Brazil in their bantamweight bout during the UFC 241 event at the Honda Center on August 17, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 17: (R-L) Cory Sandhagen punches Raphael Assuncao of Brazil in their bantamweight bout during the UFC 241 event at the Honda Center on August 17, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Wading through that aforementioned duality allowed him to spotlight some red flags he didn’t necessarily ignore but more so didn’t realize were anything of note in the first place.

“I was realizing about six months ago that I started wanting a lot of things,” Sandhagen said. “I had always lived my life as minimalistic as an American comfort level can get. I started realizing now, looking back, that I was wanting a lot of things. I think that was messing up a lot of my internal motivators and stuff. It went from internal to a lot of external motivators. I’m back to the internal motivation.”

Making Good On Potential Greatness

Although the 28-year-old has just six UFC fights under his belt, he believes he has already accomplished plenty. Not in a cocky or ignorant sense, but just in the understanding of the stage he is on in the world’s highest-level mixed martial arts promotion. This is especially true in the bantamweight division, arguably the deepest and most dynamic division in the UFC, top to bottom. 

In carrying the understanding that he has the goods to compete with the best in the world as well as an environment that promotes growth and greatness, Sandhagen zeroed in on what drives him to put hypothetical success into reality - to not waste the chance to accomplish what he believes can be something “really, really great” in his career.

“If you give a tree enough water and enough sunlight, that thing is going to grow as big as it can in its life, and other trees that don’t get as much water and don’t get as much sunlight, they’re not going to grow as big. Same thing with lions and gorillas. If you’re the biggest, baddest gorilla in the jungle, and you’re able to reproduce or able to own as much territory as you can, you just do it because that’s nature. I’m trying to land in on that as my motivation where it’s like, this is just your nature. Your nature is just that you can do this, and nature wants to keep pushing forward, and something inside of me just wants to keep pushing forward and wants to keep driving. That’s where the motivation is coming from now, I’m finding, so I don’t really have too many selfless reasons to fight. (Laughs) A lot of them are really selfish. It’s like, ‘Well, you can do it, so are you going to do it or not?’”

To further cultivate his own understanding of what drives him, Sandhagen turns to his circle of mentors, training partners and other fighters off whom he bounces ideas and asks questions that pop up daily. Sandhagen cites Christian Allen, his head coach with whom Sandhagen has trained since he was a teenager, as his “number one person” he goes to with ideas, and also  cites wrestling coach Carrington Banks and Elliot Marshall as other people he can turn to with all the thoughts he has about his life as a fighter.

“I just try to surround myself with as many solid people as I can, again, for my own selfish needs,” he laughs. “I’m one of those guys where if I watch enough of one television show, I’ll start talking like the people on the television show. I’m a pretty vigilant person, but I have to be very careful with who I’m surrounding myself with, so I really just try to surround myself with people that are very, very good people because I know that rubs off on me.”

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Another brain Sandhagen picks is that of UFC featherweight Ryan Hall.

Hall said Sandhagen reached out to him out of the blue and asked to train together. From the first training session, Hall knew it was a “very easy relationship” that would become mutually beneficial. Sandhagen described Hall as a “great resource” for him and someone who has a lot of answers to his bevy of questions. Hall chuckles at the praise when I bring it up to him, but he does appreciate the intellectual level at which the two can discuss the intersection of martial arts and fighting. 

“I think that a lot of that is down to his work ethic and the years of training he’s put in, but also the fairly unique approach that I think that he has that resonates a lot, personally,” Hall said. “I feel he’s more than just a fighter, but a martial artist, and it’s always a pleasure to meet and exchange ideas with people like that.”

Of Sandhagen’s last fight, Hall gives credit to Sterling but acknowledges that if the two were to ever run it back, the fight would likely play out a bit differently - in part because that’s how the fight game goes, but also because what mostly matters is who is better on the night.

“I feel like I rediscovered that, and if you want to call it a darker side of life because fighting is a part of life even though we don’t do it every day, it’s been a huge part of human history.”

Cory Sandhagen

Hall said he and Sandhagen discuss the ability to separate the outcome of the fight from short-term feelings about the night and the long-term journey. He understands the weight that these mental battles may carry for Sandhagen, but he also believes that kind of mindfulness has helped Sandhagen in his career.

“I think that Cory is a very smart guy and a very introspective person,” Hall said. “I think that’s an unbelievable strength, but that cuts in two directions. Doubt comes part in parcel with that, but it’s important to recognize that it’s those doubts and overcoming those doubts that makes someone special, and that’s got him to the point that he is.”

Wading through that aforementioned duality allowed him to spotlight some red flags he didn’t necessarily ignore but more so didn’t realize were anything of note in the first place.

“I was realizing about six months ago that I started wanting a lot of things,” Sandhagen said. “I had always lived my life as minimalistic as an American comfort level can get. I started realizing now, looking back, that I was wanting a lot of things. I think that was messing up a lot of my internal motivators and stuff. It went from internal to a lot of external motivators. I’m back to the internal motivation.”

Finding Himself In The Octagon

Like many teenagers – and especially teenage boys – Sandhagen put most of his effort into answering one question: Is this going to make me cooler?

It’s a relatable train of thought, and often one that persists well into young adulthood. Although Sandhagen said he wasn’t much of an angry kid growing up, he admits he was an “intense kid.” He didn’t get into many fights, but there was some anger that he didn’t necessarily feel taught at a young age to understand and work through. That started to change a bit when he walked into High Altitude Martial Arts in Colorado.

“Once I discovered martial arts at the age of 17, and I did a little bit of taekwondo before, but not really seriously – but when I found martial arts, I didn’t really do anything else except for that,” he said. “It was like two- or three-a-days since I’ve been 17, and it’s just been something that has fascinated me, and it’s been something that I really want to be a master of and that I think is such a beautiful thing.”

That fascination persisted as he studied as a psychology major at University of Colorado Boulder, often scheduling his classes in order to allow him to go to the training sessions he wanted to attend.

Eleven years later, Sandhagen’s chase toward martial arts mastery has him at the top of a shark-tank division, and he’s done so in a way that blends technical beauty along with good entertainment value. Beyond that, though, Sandhagen has found tranquility in the midst of something as chaotic as a fight, and the fact that people are entertained by the same thing that gives him a sense of peace is just a positive byproduct.

"I really like myself being completely free and completely expressing myself in the cage,” he said. “I hope that they enjoy it but, for me, that is my sanctuary. That is my church. That is my temple. That is where I should be going to lose myself, to be free. We live in a world with a lot of rules, and in the cage, there’s not a lot of rules. For me, it’s just like, ‘All right, I’m going into this fight, and I’m fully expressing myself, and I’m not having any fears, and I’m not going to worry about losing, and I’m not going to worry that if I lose, I don’t get this, this and this.’ It’s just more about self-expression and self-discovery now.”

Cory Sandhagen trains ahead of his main event bout on UFC Fight Island, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.
Cory Sandhagen trains ahead of his main event bout on UFC Fight Island, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. (Photo: Zac Pacleb)

Sandhagen believes, barring anything drastic, he’s definitely going to be a “lifer” in mixed martial arts and move on to coaching full-time once his career comes to an end. He already has a few training partners under his wing whom he corners, but he is also still focused on his own path and hopes to continue to gather experiences and discover the “formula” to becoming a champion at the highest level. In August, Sandhagen watched Frankie Edgar take home a tough split decision win over Pedro Munhoz in the 38-year-old’s bantamweight debut, an inspiring sight to many, including Sandhagen. 

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“I asked my girlfriend, ‘Could you imagine me doing this for another 10 years?’” Sandhagen said. “She was like, ‘God, I hope you don’t do that.’ I was like, ‘Well, he’s doing it, so it’s in the books. It could actually happen.’”

By and large, Sandhagen is enjoying the ride on which martial arts is carrying him through his life thus far. He feels much more centered back into the idea of what fighting is for him and how that ties into his journey as a martial artist. 

After a brief stumbling away from what he believes is the best headspace for him as a fighter, Sandhagen has re-centered himself in a way that primes him to best handle the inevitable ebbs and flows of career in mixed martial arts. 

“If I’m getting all the sun and the water that I need, then what should stop me being the tree and growing as big as I can?” he asks. “I don’t know. It’s strange because you try to make it logical, and you try to make sense out of it, but it’s really just an internal thing. If you can, and you actually believe that you can, then you will try to be the biggest and the greatest that you can. It’s just kind of something that’s inside that’s really hard to put into words.”

Fight Island 5: Moraes vs Sandhagen - Preview
Fight Island 5: Moraes vs Sandhagen - Preview
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“DON’T THINK, FEEL.”

It’s safe to say Sandhagen was a bit surprised to find himself in a main event against No. 1 bantamweight contender Marlon Moraes, given the nature of his last performance.

“I can’t even believe that I’m going all the way to Abu Dhabi to main event against the number one guy, especially coming off a loss that was – I don’t know, and I know I shouldn’t self-talk like this - but if I was being honest, I would describe it as pretty pathetic,” Sandhagen said. “Me, coming off such a pathetic loss, and then having such a boon of that level seems really, really awesome. I don’t know, man. I’m just really grateful.”

It’s yet another fight that could set Sandhagen just behind Aljamain Sterling in the consensus line to dethrone Petr Yan as the bantamweight champion. Moraes is as explosive and dangerous of a finisher as any at 135 pounds, and his only losses so far have been a split decision in his UFC debut to Rafael Assuncao (which Moraes avenged via first-round submission in a rematch) and a TKO loss to Henry Cejudo for the then-vacant bantamweight title. The latter is a fight Moraes seemed to be running away with until Moraes wore down and Cejudo made the right adjustments.

Since then, Moraes’ only appearance was a controversial split decision win over Jose Aldo. That fight featured some of Moraes’ strengths: explosive, powerful striking. But it also showed his tendency to slow down in a higher-paced fight as the bout stretched into the later rounds. Sandhagen isn’t really paying much mind to Moraes’ past work, though, and is keen to ignore a lot of the chatter around how people believe the matchup will go.

Free Fight: Cory Sandhagen vs Iuri Alcantara
Free Fight: Cory Sandhagen vs Iuri Alcantara
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“When you get a fight, you have to be really careful about how other people around you talk about the person that you’re going to be fighting because most of them haven’t put any thought into it other than ‘Let me just make this person in front of me feel affirmed and validated and tell them they got this and you’re going to work them in this way,’” he said. “A lot of people are saying Marlon doesn’t have a gas tank or my style works really good against guys that are like his style, and this and that. I’m not paying any attention to any of that. I am expecting the unexpected from Marlon. Whatever he comes out with, I’m going to be ready for that. Maybe Marlon will try to wrestle this fight. Maybe he’s been going on 10-mile jogs every single day, so he’s going to be able to hit the gas for the entire 25 minutes. I’m going in expecting the unexpected. That’s where my headspace is.”

Sandhagen focused on riling himself up in the proper manner before he makes his first main event walk. Sandhagen has said that while training for a five-round fight has come with its natural struggles, he has enjoyed discovering a new level of toughness and perseverance, ignoring his desire to occasionally coast through a session when his energy is low. 

Like almost every person involved in martial arts, Sandhagen enjoys the work of Bruce Lee and says Enter the Dragon is his favorite movie. One of his favorite quotes is in the beginning of the movie when Lee’s character instructs a pupil, “Don’t think, feel.” So, when he got the call to headline a card on Fight Island, he was excited to live out the “2020 version” of the movie – although he gladly traded in the boat ride Lee’s character takes to the tournament in the film for the first-class flight provided to the athletes.

On fight night, though, Sandhagen is more or less in the same spot he was before he fought Sterling. A win, and he’s in the thick of the title picture. A loss, and it’s another set of circumstances to process. Ultimately, he feels realigned to do what he loves the most – free himself in the Octagon, embrace all the emotions that come along and perform accordingly.

“Although the world isn’t really like the way it used to be, humans are really wired to engage in combat, and that’s OK,” Sandhagen said. “Having that darker side is something that’s in all human beings, and you have to be OK with that, especially in the career path that I have chosen and the lifestyle path that I’ve chosen. you have to acknowledge that, and you have to harness that. 

“You have to be good at taking that person out of the cage, but also taking that person into the cage.”

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