UFC on ESPN: T.J. Dillashaw wins hard-fought, long-awaited comeback
Josh McNally

When the opening bell rang for the bantamweight main event of UFC on ESPN: Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw, T.J. Dillashaw immediately came forward and forced Cory Sandhagen into the gap between the Octagon center and the cage.

This kind of intensity is a trademark of Dillashaw and, if you didn't know his story, you wouldn't think this was his first fight since January 2019.

At UFC Fight Night: Cejudo vs. Dillashaw on January 19, 2019, then-reigning bantamweight champion Dillashaw dropped 10lbs to challenge for the flyweight championship. He lost in the cage to Henry Cejudo by TKO and then lost even harder to USADA when he tested positive for the banned substance EPO.

Instead of making up excuses like other fighters such as Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, Dillashaw admitted to his wrongdoing, got stripped of his championship and accepted the standard punishment of a two-year suspension.

Cory Sandhagen lands a flying knee on T.J. Dillashaw. /Zuffa

Cory Sandhagen lands a flying knee on T.J. Dillashaw. /Zuffa

In his absence, the bantamweight division has been chaotic; as it stands, the current champion Aljamain Sterling won the belt via DQ and has yet to mount a defense, even though he is all over social media acting as if he's undefeated and undisputed.

Dillashaw's status pre-suspension – not only did he not lose the championship to a rival, he had won eight of his last nine before the suspension with only a tight split decision loss to Dominick Cruz tarnishing his reputation – and the lack of a clear ranking at the top of the bantamweight division set the scene for a big comeback fight.

Cory Sandhagen was third ranked, directly behind current champion Sterling and ex-champion Petr Yan, fresh off two highlight-reel knockouts and Dillashaw went for him like his was nobody. He even fought off a flying knee (which knocked out Frankie Edgar earlier this year) and a spinning heel kick (which broke Marlon Moraes orbital bone last year) as well as decided the best way out of a kneebar from Sandhagen wasn't to wriggle free but to push through, on top and start punching.

This backfired in the second. Visibly limping, the sniping Sandhagen started to figure out Dillashaw's timing. He clocked him with a handful of punches that caused Dillashaw to wince. He rotated directly into one right hand and got cut badly over his right eye, forcing the doctor to intervene.

He patched it up and the fight continued into the third frame. Typically in a five-round main event, the bout proceeds along standard lines for the first three and then the fighters really prove themselves, for better and worse, in the "championship rounds."

This fight went in reverse. For Rounds 4, 5 and 6, Sandhagen and Dillashaw fought like men who had gotten the flashy stuff out of their system and were now ready to fight properly. Sandhagen had Dillashaw's number and slid in and out of range, peppering him with hard strikes. Alas, each time he looked to be in the ascendancy, he went for one of his trademark high-risk spinning maneuvers and got grappled by Dillashaw up against the cage.

T.J. Dillashaw hits Cory Sandhagen with a straight left punch. /Zuffa

T.J. Dillashaw hits Cory Sandhagen with a straight left punch. /Zuffa

At 5'11" (180cm), Sandhagen is considerably larger and rangier than his 5'6" (168cm) opponent. Any time he left a split-second gap in his timing, Dillashaw would close in on it. At first this was primarily with the aforementioned waistlocks but, as the rounds progressed, he chipped away with leg kicks slowing Sandhagen down, allowing him to land significantly more strikes overall. According to, in Round 1, T.J. attempted only 26 strikes, in Round 5, he attempted 88. All the while, his right eye was weeping blood in a manner even more outrageous than that of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

When the final bell rang, the two men embraced. Their nervous body language made it clear that neither thought they had a considerable upper hand. When ring announcer Bruce Buffer revealed T.J. Dillashaw had won, it was by a split decision (47-48, 48-47, 48-47) and T.J. looked more relieved than ecstatic to hear it.

After 30 months away from the sport and with a reputation in tatters, a tick in the win column was necessary for T.J. Dillashaw, however, going forward, the method in which he achieved it will surely prove to be more important. Anyone who can go 25 minutes with Cory Sandhagen has more than earned a shot at the strap.

(Referee herb Dean raises T.J. Dillashaw's hand following his victory over Cory Sandhagen in the five-round bantamweight main event of UFC on ESPN: Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw at the UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., July 25, 2021. /Zuffa]

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