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UFC Vegas 32: What will T.J. Dillashaw look like after his long absence?

Get the lowdown on the main card action of UFC Vegas 32, featuring the return of former champion TJ Dillashaw looking to derail a streaking Cory Sandhagen.

Cory Sandhagen after his win over Frankie Edgar UFC Vegas 18
Cory Sandhagen after his win over Frankie Edgar UFC Vegas 18
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

While I knew the main event for UFC Vegas 32 between Cory Sandhagen and TJ Dillashaw was one of the most anticipated Fight Night main events of the year, I get the feeling I underestimated how much interest the MMA fanbase had in it. What I’m not ignorant towards is the reasoning: the vast majority of those interested in the contest want to see Dillashaw fall and fall HARD. The former two-time bantamweight champion is not only coming off a two-year suspension, he wasn’t particularly liked even before he was stripped of the title when he popped for blood doping. Lots of people want to see him fail.

It would be unfair to say this is a one fight card as the rest of the fights on the main card are perfectly acceptable contests, but the loss of the co-main event between Aspen Ladd and Macy Chiasson put a real damper on the rest of the card to the point that it’s hard to say otherwise. Well at least it’s one hell of a fight.

Cory Sandhagen vs. TJ Dillashaw, Bantamweight

It’s a bit of a shame all the focus on this contest is being directed on Dillashaw. If Sandhagen wins this, it’ll be damn near impossible to deny him a shot at the bantamweight belt once Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan settle their differences. The problem is there are so many X-factors around Dillashaw that it’s right to focus on the former champion.

Obviously, a two-and-a-half year absence is an obstacle in itself for Dillashaw. Whether he’s going to look like his old self now that he’s off his brand of juice is another factor to take into account. Throw in that Dillashaw is going to be 35 – an old age for the bantamweight division – and it feels like the world is stacked against him. Of course, followers of Dillashaw’s career are well aware he’s used to stacked odds as the first time he won the title, he was one of the largest underdogs to claim a belt in the history of the UFC.

Still, blood doping’s primary function is to increase stamina, something Dillashaw has long been known for, pushing a hard pace from beginning to end. His footwork isn’t the novel feature it was when he first emerged as an elite talent, but it’s still difficult to replicate and makes it difficult to touch him up. Of course, that’s provided he hasn’t lost a step. See what I mean when I say there are X-factors? Dillashaw doesn’t just outvolume his opposition either. He’s intelligent about knowing when to sit down on his punches and can deliver a KO blow in the process. Plus, though he rarely uses it at this point, his wrestling base can win fights too. Dillashaw isn’t a lockdown wrestler, but he sure as hell can rinse and repeat as much as he wants.

We pretty much know what to expect out of Sandhagen. At 5’11” with a 70” reach, he’s massive for the division and continues to improve in his ability to make good use of his length. However, that length isn’t the basis of his attack. At first glance, many would label Sandhagen as a risk taker as he employs a high amount of spinning and flying attacks. It would be more accurate to classify him as crafty as he expertly manipulates his opponents right where he wants them with subtle tells and his footwork, his flying knee of Frankie Edgar being a perfect example. He didn’t secure that finish by chance.

What is Sandhagen’s biggest potential hole is his wrestling, owning a miserable 30% success rate at stuffing takedowns according to UFC Stats. Much of that has to do with opponents having little difficulty getting into his hips. Of course, closing the distance to get in on his hips is far easier said than done. Sandhagen has had a bad habit of exposing his back in scrambles, but given how savvy Sandhagen is about learning from his mistakes, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he’s addressed that to the nth degree following his loss to the aforementioned Sterling.

It’s impossible to rule out a Dillashaw win. He’s got too much of a proven track record at the highest level. But it also feels like he’s on the downside of his career and Sandhagen is either in his prime or entering his prime. Plus, the last time Dillashaw faced an opponent with a definitive size advantage of him, he lost his title for the first time. Sandhagen isn’t impossible to figure out, but he is a difficult puzzle and I have problems believing Dillashaw will have all of the tools at his disposal that he had when he was in his prime. Expect Dillashaw to express some frustration after a while and Sandhagen to find a finish as the desperation begins oozing from the former champion. Sandhagen via TKO of RD4

  • It isn’t a major surprise Raulian Paiva is moving up to bantamweight after his recent struggles to shrink down to 125. What is surprising is seeing him get such a high-profile opponent in Kyler Phillips. Of course, he is filling in for Raphael Assuncao on short notice. Paiva was a bit of a rarity at flyweight in that he’s a bit of a brawler, but it’s hard to see that working to great effect at bantamweight as he is less likely to be the harder hitter now that he’s moving up a weight class. What may be even worse for him is it’s more than plausible Phillips is still faster man in this contest despite being the larger man. With his karate stylings, Phillips has had to be reliant on his speed and has done so to great effect. His boxing in the pocket has improved enough that most have forgotten that his base is actually his grappling, seeing as how he has rarely been forced to go to the mat. Paiva has enough power that an upset isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, but it’s too far of a longshot for me to give it strong consideration. Paiva is a sound physical talent, but he’s not on Phillips’ level. Phillips via decision
  • The contest between Darrick Minner and Darren Elkins comes down to how much Elkins has left in the tank. After plugging away in the UFC for over a decade, his body has taken a lot of punishment and it can’t do the same things he formerly asked of it. Sure, he was never a top-flight athlete, but how much athleticism can someone who was never much of an athlete stand to lose? While his durability appears to have taken a hit, the other primary factors to his success – his relentlessness and stamina – are still there and may very well be enough to overwhelm a Minner who has long been known for having a shallow gas tank. However, Minner is coming off the most complete performance of his career, taking a decision on the basis of long periods of control. Controlling Elkins is a completely different chore than Charles Rosa as Rosa is content to stay on his back for long stretches. Elkins never stops moving and will put Minner’s gas tank to the test. Perhaps Minner can catch Elkins with a guillotine – Minner’s signature move – but the only person who has ever caught Elkins in a sub is Charles Oliveira. It isn’t going to be a pretty fight, but Elkins gets a late stoppage. Elkins via TKO of RD3
  • The UFC has been pushing Maycee Barber hard. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if she was ready for it, but when it became clear Barber needed more time to simmer, the UFC kept the heat on high and it looks like they could end up burning the crap out of their potential filet mignon. Even now, after two losses in which she wasn’t competitive, the UFC isn’t pulling back on the reins, at least not very much. With Barber’s progress stalled out, Miranda Maverick is the shiny new toy on the block. A stout powerhouse with an absolutely stifling top game, Maverick has also developed a respectable striking game behind a solid jab. Barber’s striking isn’t nearly as consistent, but it is far more dangerous as Barber’s physical skills are near the top of the food chain, thus why the UFC has been so willing to push her as hard as they have. Until Barber picks up more nuance in her skills – both in her striking and grappling – it’s going to be hard to pick her in these type of contests as she’s too dependent upon big moments. She has a path to victory if she can put Maverick on her back, but I don’t trust her to do so as needed. Maverick via decision
  • It’s been five years since Mickey Gall burst onto the MMA scene by brutalizing CM Punk and proving absolutely nothing about his viability as a UFC fighter. Now that Gall’s been around the UFC offices for a while, he isn’t going to be given much of a leash anymore. To be fair to Gall, he’s always been a talented grappler once the fight hits the mat. The problem has been getting the fight there in addition to a striking game that still has a long way to go despite all the progress he has made over the last few years. The gap between Gall’s striking and that of Jordan Williams is sizeable enough that everyone’s first instinct is to go with the DWCS product. However, Williams is going to be cutting to welterweight, a proposition that could be a brilliant move or a disaster for him. Williams has the frame for 170, but his diabetes could result in major problems with the weight cut. Both Gall and Williams have struggled to go strong for 15 full minutes, so it’s easy to see the road to victory for the one-dimensional Gall. I’ll go with Williams weight cut going smoothly, though I wouldn’t be willing to put money on the contest. Williams via decision