Welcome back to Fightful's Sunday Morning Matchmaker, this time after UFC Vegas 32 arguably one of the best offerings of the year from the promotion. The night saw a stacked card of fights deliver in multiple ways, but unfortunately, the scab MMA can never seem to get rid of in its judging issues were on full display as well. The event was also a showcase of the UFC's bantamweight division, portraying why the 135-pound division is the best in the sport currently.
The headlining bout between former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and Cory Sandhagen, the co-main event between Raulian Paiva and Kyler Phillips, and the main card opener between prospects Adrian Yanez and Randy Costa were in my opinion three Fight of the Year candidates. So open up your Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, crack open a fresh Dr. Pepper, and let's look ahead to what could be next for some of the big winners and losers on the night's card.
T.J. Dillashaw vs. Aljamain Sterling-Petr Yan Winner
After being suspended in April 2019 by USADA for testing positive for EPO following his loss to Henry Cejudo at UFC Fight Night 143, Dillashaw made a successful return to the Octagon against an incredibly tough test in Sandhagen. The former bantamweight king was able to secure a split-decision win over the Aurora, Colorado product, but many people believed the decision could've gone either way.
Dillashaw survived getting hurt multiple times, being brutally cut above his right eye by a flying knee in the second round from Sandhagen, and what appeared to be a left knee injury after Cory attempted a heel hook or what to me looked like an inverted calf slicer towards the end of the first round. He utilized his wrestling to get to the waist lock to put Sandhagen on the cage to nullify his length and ranginess on the feet while landing some good ground and pound when Cory would go for any sort of leg submission attempts in the scrambles. Striking wise, Dillashaw had more of a struggle, taking a ton of damage from Sandhagen but having success doubling up on his shots off of shifts or stance switches that allowed him to land offense of his own and utilizing the low calf kicks to limit the number two ranked UFC bantamweight contenders motion.
There's no doubt in my mind that this win puts Dillashaw in line to reclaim his UFC title from the winner of the announced October rematch between current UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan. If things go according to plan with that fight happening on Halloween essentially and we get a definitive winner in the bout, Dillashaw should be right on deck to face them in the first half of 2022. However, the knee injury he seemed to have suffered on Saturday night and the cut that reopened in the fight that Dillashaw himself said was the same cut he suffered during training in April that delayed the initial May date for this bout with Sandhagen, could lead to a potential title shot being pushed back further. Dillashaw also revealed in the post-fight press conference that he dealt with a multitude of injuries during the camp for this fight, adding more concern to when he could potentially compete for a title.
"I've been injured the whole camp," he said (h/t ESPN MMA). "I didn't get to spar at all for this camp. Tore my MCL in my right knee, I had a pinched nerve in my left foot, hurt my left shoulder, so there was no sparring this camp. I couldn't stay healthy, couldn't spar. Coming into this thing injured, two days before the fight I was limping around. I had to work out with shoes on."
“That was the real title fight in the weight division.”@TJDillashaw believes he reminded everyone that he is the cream of the crop in the bantamweight division with his split decision win over Cory Sandhagen.— UFC News (@UFCNews) July 25, 2021
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Cory Sandhagen vs. Rob Font
Many fans and media members alike seemed to have felt Sandhagen did enough to win at least three of the five rounds on the judges' scorecards, including me. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be and the decision win, as well as the next title shot at 135 pounds, went to Dillashaw instead. I still don't see where the loss really diminishes Cory's value all that much though, his performance was also stellar even in defeat.
Sandhagen won the majority of the striking exchanges in my opinion and clearly did more damage, even hurting T.J. on the feet with a left hook in the second round. He constantly had success pulling Dillashaw into his counter punches, setting him up with consistent feinting, slick footwork, stance switches, and repeatedly getting the superior angles on the former UFC bantamweight champion. Sandhagen even was crafty with utilizing Granby rolls to try to initiate scrambles or get out of Dillashaw's takedown attempts, but it ultimately wasn't enough.
Although he seemed to be disappointed immediately following the loss, Sandhagen told ESPN's Megan Olivi following the fight that he spoke with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby who reassured him he's still only one win away from a title shot. With that in mind and given the way he performed against Dillashaw, the only reasonable matchup for Sandhagen next to me seems to be against Rob Font. The Leominster, Massachusetts native has reeled off four straight victories and is coming off a decisive, dominant unanimous decision win over former UFC bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt back at UFC Vegas 27. Font's currently ranked in the top five of the division and seems like the suitable opponent to keep Sandhagen within reach of a title opportunity.
Raulian Paiva vs. Jimmie Rivera
In his return to 135 pounds, Raulian Paiva got possibly the biggest win of his career over a ranked opponent in Kyler Phillips. The bout earned Fight of the Night honors to garner both $50,000 bonuses for their efforts. The 25-year old Brazilian prospect looked like he wasn't going to be able to withstand the onslaught from Phillips in the first round, almost getting finished several times and not even being able to stand in his corner after the opening frame.
After an epic rally in rounds two and three though that saw him hurt Phillips multiple times, Paiva did enough to earn a majority decision victory. Social media was not fond of the judges scoring, feeling Phillips's effort in round one earned a 10-8 score to justify a draw in the end.
Regardless of the scoring controversy, Paiva still secured a win that should put him in the back end of the UFC's top 15 bantamweight rankings. He's now won three fights in a row and with a new home at Team Alpha Male with UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber in his corner, along with the move back to bantamweight, Paiva seems to be rejuvenated. His ascension up the rankings should continue and I think Jimmie Rivera would be a tremendous next step for him. Rivera is only 1-3 in his last four bouts, but two of those losses are via unanimous decisions to Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan. I still believe he's a competitive entity in this division and with him sitting at twelve in the rankings currently, Rivera could be a great next option for Paiva.
Darren Elkins vs. Alex Caceres
There are three guarantees in life it seems, death, taxes, and Darren Elkins coming back to win in a fight after he's been bloodied. The 24-fight Octagon veteran created magic again, surviving an early bludgeoning from Darrick Minner to TKO the Auburn, Nebraska native in round two. The pair engaged in a series of hectic scrambles, that saw Minner at one moment catch, Elkins, in a deep armbar attempt.
Nonetheless, donning his signature crimson mask Elkins was able to pull through and get his second consecutive win by way of a finish. I'm not sure at 37 years old and given the amount of damage he's taken throughout his career that I would be rushing to give Elkins a top fifteen opponent in his next Octagon outing. I do think he's earned the right though to gradually move his way back into contention and I believe Alex Caceres would be a good test to see if Elkins could still do that. The fighter affectionately known as "Bruce Leroy" has gone 8-4 since returning to the featherweight division in January 2016. Caceres is currently on a four-fight winning streak and I don't see how a pairing of him and Elkins together doesn't lead to an entertaining scrap.
Adrian Yanez vs. Kyung Ho Kang-Rani Yahya Winner
Yanez has become one of the most endearing figures to MMA Twitter and the fans in the online sphere, while also being touted as one of the best prospects in the entire sport. His rise to stardom was almost halted by fellow prospect Randy Costa, who gave Yanez more trouble than any other Octagon opponent has up until this point. In the fight's opening frame, Costa did a fantastic job of cutting the cage off and pressuring Yanez behind a stifling snappy jab that bloodied his nose badly.
The complete tide of the fight changed in round two though when Yanez started pressuring Costa himself and controlling the center of the cage behind his own jab. He showed off the ability to make in-fight adjustments and the insane shot selection that has so many believing in his potential as a future champion. Yanez landed a left hook to the liver followed by a right uppercut to put Costa away and move his UFC record to 4-0.
While proving he's the better fighter than Costa and simultaneously winning the battle of favorite junk foods, the urge to push Yanez to superstardom will be high. I think he's more than capable of beating anyone in the top fifteen at 135 pounds in the UFC right now, but I'd manage his development a little more carefully. The winner of next week's UFC Vegas 33 main card bout between Kyung Ho Kang and Rani Yahya would be my choice for Yanez's next test. Kang and Yahya are a combined 7-1-1 in their last eight Octagon appearances, I'm sure either would love to try to derail the hype train that Yanez is becoming.
Mickey Gall vs. Khaos Williams
In a preliminary card full of impressive performances and victories, none spoke louder to me than Mickey Galls. The 29-year old submitted Jordan Williams via a rear-naked choke in just under three minutes, displaying what some believed was the best version of Gall as a fighter to date. The man best known for defeating former WWE wrestler CM Punk and UFC wonder kid Sage Northcutt was in desperate need of a win after only going 2-3 inside of the Octagon since November 2017.
Gall hurt Williams with a big right hand early and never really looked back from there, staying on him like white on rice. He spammed Williams with constant submission attempts before eventually getting his back and fishing for the rear-naked choke to secure the finish.
I wouldn't mind seeing Gall against a high profile or ranked foe next, it would make sense for a plethora of reasons off of a performance like this. I just think a fighter like Khaos Williams seems to be a more reasonable move in the right direction for Gall. Williams is a knockout artist who is 3-1 on his current run with the promotion and just defeated Matthew Semelsberger via a unanimous decision victory at UFC Vegas 29 in his last outing.