This past Saturday night’s de facto bantamweight title eliminator between TJ Dillashaw and Cory Sandhagen was a damn good fight. The UFC Vegas 32 headliner was a back-and-forth, exciting, pitched battle between a former champion and a rising star. It reflected and further cemented the lofty, thrilling status the bantamweight division now occupies in this sport—both in and out of the UFC. Despite the action and the thrills, however, that doesn’t mean that the experience was entirely a good one.
On the one hand, we were treated to a highly competitive contest, with high stakes in play. A pairing that producing one of 2021’s best fights to date. I’d even argue that, in some measure, both fighters’ shortcomings helped inform part of what made the fight engrossing. Sandhagen’s offensive firepower and creativity was able to bust up Dillashaw badly, and provide the most entertaining moments of the fight. While Dillashaw used constant forward pressure and crafty veteran wrestling to tie up Sandhagen and stymie his output at critical junctures in the matchup. Neither fighter was perfect, but that helped create a dynamic back-and-forth, in which both athletes’ respective strengths were able to shine light on the other’s deficiencies.
Regrettably, that’s where the uplifting elements ended, and flowed instead into the pernicious aspects of the fight that instantly made it another argumentative MMA brouhaha. The insights of the three official judges – Derek Cleary, Sal D’Amato and Junichiro Kamijo – and that of the fans and pundits seemed virtually unanimous for 15 minutes. Dillashaw took the first and third rounds, while Sandhagen commandingly took the second frame by knocking down Dillashaw and opening up a nasty cut with a right hook. To that point, it was clearly a 29-28 Dillashaw bout. So far, so good. Then things went to hell in a handbasket.
Before continuing, it’s necessary to have a refresher on how the Unified Rules’ judging criteria are supposed to function. Yes, anyone can parrot off ‘effective striking, grappling, aggression and control’, but that’s most critical to understand is that these criteria are not equal and do not exist on any sort of sliding scale. They are prioritized in that very order; effective aggression is not to even be contemplated unless effective striking and grappling are deemed to be essentially identical. Likewise, control of the fighting area is not to be considered if the other criteria are similarly indistinguishable. For many, pointing this out may seem obvious and unnecessary, but trust me, it matters here.
Watching the fight, surveying social media, I was fairly confident that just as seemingly as everyone had it 29-28 Dillashaw after three, the world had it knotted up 38-38 after the fourth round—where Sandhagen outlanded Dillashaw 25-to-7 in terms of significant strikes. And where a charging Dillashaw was unable to take his foe to the mat in five desperate attempts. It was a no brainer, yet Junichiro Kamijo inexplicably gave the round to Dillashaw. Had he scored it like any sane person, Sandhagen would have won the split decision instead.
That brings us to the fifth and final round. One that, for any clearheaded person, should represent the decisive round. I won’t bother making all of this about arguing who won (for reference, I had the fight 48-47 Sandhagen). This round was, by any measure, the most closely contested and competitive—with Dillashaw holding a marginal 40 to 38 advantage in significant strikes, including a barrage of kicks to Sandhagen’s legs. While Sandhagen landed the cleaner blows to the head, he also ate a few. And as mentioned above, was his own worst enemy by constantly turning his back and giving up his waist standing and perhaps most critically, largely circling away from a bullrushing Dillashaw in the final 30 to 60 seconds.
My issue here isn’t that the fighter I believe won ultimately lost, but rather the recurring theme I’ve witnessed in the wake of the fight. It’s a recurring conversation that demonstrates the extent to which the most emboldened voices surrounding the sport don’t grasp the prescribed scoring criteria I mentioned above.
Across the Unified Rules, there is a reason the word ‘effective’ is used. What Dillashaw did produced an ‘effect’ in a strategic sense, by slowing down and stifling Sandhagen. But, ‘effective’ in the context of the Unified Rules refers to creating meaningful scoring opportunities, which is only relevant if you believe the striking component of the final round was even. Furthermore, anyone championing a Dillashaw win for simply the idea of ‘control’, again, has a non-existent grasp of the Unified Rules’ criteria.
Unfortunately, poor judging, a lack of understanding of the Unified Rules’ theoretical function, and how those components operate leads to misinformed, fruitless arguments that are just part of the puzzle when it comes to raining on the Dillashaw-Sandhagen fight parade. In a different context, this could have served as a story of sweet redemption for the former divisional ruler, returning from a two and a half year absence following his 32-second knockout loss to Henry Cejudo in January 2019. On the other hand, the catalyst for that absence was Dillashaw’s positive test for EPO that netted him a two-year suspension from the US Anti-Doping Agency—a truth that muddies that narrative considerably.
There’s still a large majority of sports fans, in and outside the world of just MMA, that are sticklers for rules and keen to brand any athlete ever caught breaking them, especially for PEDs, as ‘cheaters for life’. Even though Dillashaw was forthcoming and candid in his admission of witting guilt, for many of the sporting public, that admission does nothing to absolve him and simply taints his victory, no matter how they feel about the actual outcome itself.
So, even if I find the prohibition on ‘performance enhancing drugs’ to be wrongheaded, counterproductive and downright paradoxical (after all, don’t we want athletes to, as a matter of common sense, always be enhancing their performance, for their betterment and our enjoyment?), Dillashaw’s victory here cannot be written as a simple success story.
He may have fought gamely and shrewdly for 25 minutes, overcame a bum wheel for the final 20+ minutes of the fight, and fought through a nasty cut that threatened to halt the fight in just the second round, but his spoiled reputation was never about an inability to fight well.
None of these spoiling factors are unique or uncommon. Close fights causing arguments within the sport, poor judging coming about as a result of lacking an understanding of relevant judging criteria, and differing but deeply convicted opinions about performance enhancing drugs—none of these are recent or rare happenings. However, the confluence of all these factors within a single fight fells as though it will forever put a damper on what should have been simply remembered as a fantastic fight between two world-class fighters. In a perfect world, Dillashaw-Sandhagen, no matter who anyone believes won, would be remembered as a battle of stars, not a struggle with asterisks.