The last time Angels Camp native TJ Dillashaw stood in a UFC octagon with an opponent staring him in the eyes, was in January, 2019. In that bout, Dillashaw, who typically fights in the bantamweight division, dropped down to the flyweight division to take on champion Henry Cejudo. The bout ended just 32 seconds into the first round, as referee Kevin MacDonald called the fight for Cejudo after Dillashaw was struck behind the ear in what, at the time, was a controversial decision.
Two months later, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) discovered an “adverse finding” from a test taken before his fight with Cejudo. As a result, Dillashaw relinquished his bantamweight title and was fined $10,000. And in April, 2019, Dillashaw was suspended by the UFC for two years after testing positive for recombinant human erythropoietin (EPO).
Dillashaw's two-year suspension was over in January, 2021, but he didn’t get a chance to fight again until Saturday night. In his first fight in over two-and-a-half years, Dillashaw beat the No. 2 fighter in the bantamweight division, Cory Sandhagen, in a five-round split decision victory in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas.
Dillashaw, a two-time bantamweight champion, entered Saturday night’s fight with an overall record of 17-4, went toe-to-toe for 25 minutes with Sandhagen, who entered the cage with a record of 14-2 and was fresh off of victories over Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes.
“I love Cory Sandhagen,” Dillashaw said in the octagon after his five-round victory. “I believed in that guy before he believed in himself. He’s a great opponent and it was a great fight. It was a little sloppy on my end, but I pushed the pace and got the win.”
Dillashaw confidently walked to the octagon as his traditional entrance music, “Can’t Stop,” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasted through the UFC Apex. Early in the fight, Sandhagen, who was the favorite heading into the bout, caught Dillashaw on the bridge of the nose and drew blood and it wouldn't be the only time the former champion was cut.
Late in the opening round, after controlling the first four minutes, Dillashaw appeared to suffer an injury to his left knee, but was still able to land five consecutive strikes to the face of Sandhagen, while the former champion had his challenger on his back.
In the second round, Sandhagen landed a number of big punches to the face of Dillashaw, with the most violent above the right eye, which split the eyebrow and bled the rest of the fight. With 2:04 left in the second round, the fight was stopped for doctors to check out Dillashaw’s cut, but after a 30-second stoppage, the fight resumed and Sandhagen held his own the rest of the round.
After the fight, when asked about his eye and knee, Dillashaw said, “It’s the same cut that opened up twice in the last camp, so it was vulnerable. My knee; I popped it in that first round. I got lazy. I knew he had a leg lock and I was just chillin’ on top and I got lazy and let him pop it there at the end. I couldn’t throw my hooks in when I took him down. I tried to throw my hook in and he popped it and I had to bail out. My game plan was to throw the hooks in and that went out of the window, obviously.”
After Sandhagen out-struck Dillashaw 37-20 in the second round, Dillashaw could be heard in his corner telling his coaches, “I’m being lazy,” before heading back to begin the third round. Dillashaw came out hot to begin the third round, but the blood flowing from his cut into his right eye compromised his vision. Even with the blood flowing down his face, Dillashaw recorded a takedown and landed 26 significant strikes, while Sandhagen connected with 23.
After a strong third round, Dillashaw started fast in the fourth by connecting with brutal leg shots and strong strikes. With just seconds remaining in the round, Sandhagen caught Dillashaw in the jaw with a backhand for the loudest strike of the previous five minutes, but Dillashaw stayed on his feet. The round concluded with total strikes in Dillashaw's favor (35-28), but the significant strikes went to Sandhagen (26-19).
Dillashaw had not been in a five-round fight since 2016, but in order to have his hand raised in victory, he had to go the full distance against Sandhagen. Before the fifth round began, the chants of, “TJ, TJ, TJ,” could be heard from those in attendance.
In the final five minutes, Dillashaw out-struck Sandhagen 44-42, as well as significant strikes 40-38. When the 25-minute battle was over, both Dillashaw and Sandhagen were still standing and embraced one another in a sign of respect.
With the outcome in the judges’ hands, both fighters looked confident as the scores were being read. The first judge ruled 48-47 in favor of Sandhagen. The second ruled 48-47 in favor of Dillashaw. And the third judge ruled 48-47 in favor of Dillashaw.
“I knew I made some mistakes early, just trying to (do too much), and it wasn’t working and I adjusted,” Sandhagen said in the cage following the fight. “I didn’t take any serious damage the whole time. He was kicking my leg, but they weren’t compromising me at all. It was like, I don’t know man. I don’t know.”
When asked what he thought about Dillashaw's performance, Sandhagen said, “I didn’t think he’d be able to take a shot the way he was taking shots. I think a lot of those shots knock people out. I had him hurt a number of times and I wasn’t hurt at all. I don’t know man; I should have done better and I should have won.”
As for Dillashaw, after a two-and-a-half-year absence from fighting, his victory over Sandhagen has to now put his name in the conversation for a future title fight. And that’s exactly what Dillashaw wants.
“Daddy is getting that belt, easy,” Dillashaw said before exiting the octagon. “Easy money for that belt right now. (I want) a title fight. As long as (Petr) Yan and (champion, Aljamain) Sterling get their fight on pretty quick, I wanna fight. Otherwise, I’ll take someone else in the top-five. I’m here to fight.”
After his win over Sandhagen, Dillashaw now has 13 bantamweight wins, which is No. 1 overall in the history of the UFC bantamweight division. He is also first in title fight wins (5), knockouts (7) and significant strikes landed (1,114) in the bantamweight division.