UFC San Antonio: Cory Sandhagen smothers Chito Vera for big bantamweight win
Josh McNally

One of the surest signs that the COVID-19 pandemic is over is that the UFC is now taking its big fights back on the road again. For three years, almost anything that wasn't a PPV level blockbuster that could be held in Abu Dhabi was consigned to the Apex, the UFC's TV studio on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The bout between #3 Marlon "Chito" Vera and #5 Cory Sandhagen was intended for the Apex in February, but pushed to March 25 so it could be held in front of a packed crowd at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, and it's easy to understand why.

Chito is on a four-fight win streak that includes brutal KO wins over legends Dominick Cruz and Frankie Edgar, but outside of immediate history, in his 20-8 career, he has 16 stoppage wins and is constantly setting and chasing records for knockdowns and knockouts at 135lbs.

Likewise, his opponent Sandhagen is nicknamed Sandman because of his incredible taekwondo. This has led to highlight reel stoppages of Frankie Edgar (a recurring victim in his later career) and Marlon Moraes. Even when he doesn't finish a fight directly, Sandhagen's style is simply overwhelming; he hit Song Yadong with so many precision elbows through his guard that it opened a gash wide enough that the doctors had to step in and stop the bout.

Putting two vicious strikers together guaranteed wild MMA action that the Texas crowd would lap up – but Sandhagen didn't read the script.

Cory Sandhagen lands ground and pound punches on Marlon Vera. /Zuffa
Cory Sandhagen lands ground and pound punches on Marlon Vera. /Zuffa

Cory Sandhagen lands ground and pound punches on Marlon Vera. /Zuffa

He entered this main event with losses to Aljamain Sterling, Petr Yan and T.J. Dillashaw in his past six fights. Each one a championship eliminator, each rival a current or former divisional champion, and each highlighting Sandhagen's obvious issue. Specifically, that his offense is sublime but his defense doesn't exist.

On the verge of another glimpse at gold, the big question was if he would finally have developed beyond being such a linear fighter. The answer is yes and no: Cory Sandhagen realized that the best defense is a good offense.

As soon as the fight began, he swarmed Chito and overwhelmed him with strikes to such a degree that he couldn't get anything off. And when he did, Sandhagen responded with some all-new wrestling, taking Vera off his feet and pounding him on the ground.

But here, on his back, Chito showed just how dangerous he can be by cutting Sandhagen open with a rare 6-12 elbow. The Ecuadorian showed his skills at the start of the second round too when, in the middle of being taken down, he locked in a guillotine choke. It wasn't enough, however, and he ended the round in the same position as the first.

According to, in those 10 minutes, Sandhagen limited Chito to only 40 attempted strikes while he landed 102.

Cory Sandhagen hits Marlon Vera with one of his trademark flying knee attacks. /Zuffa
Cory Sandhagen hits Marlon Vera with one of his trademark flying knee attacks. /Zuffa

Cory Sandhagen hits Marlon Vera with one of his trademark flying knee attacks. /Zuffa

In the third round, Sandhagen couldn't nail a takedown – and he didn't have to. Having established it, Chito was visibly wary anytime he came into range. Much like in the NFL, where setting up a good passing game allows more run plays and vice versa, by making his takedowns a potential threat, Sandhagen had made Vera more susceptible to his punches and kicks.

Yet, even on the backfoot, unsure whether to defend high or low, unable to set his feet to land power shots, Chito managed to land the more dangerous strikes per round. He nailed Sandhagen with a perfect one-two in the fourth round that left him stunned and, if the American had a weaker chin, would have knocked him clean out.

It wasn't enough. When the final bell rang, save for a last minute flurry, Marlon Vera looked as if he hadn't got out of first gear, and it was confirmed by the stats. Fifty-eight significant strikes in 25 minutes; zero takedowns and nine seconds of control time. Not even close to Sandhagen's finally tally of 128, three and seven minutes, eight seconds.

This was a commanding and mature performance from Sandhagen – the best of his career so far – and it was reflected in two scorecards of 45-50 and 46-49, but not the third. Judge gave the fight 48-47 to Vera, making the official result a split decision and instantly drawing the ire of professionals and pundits alike. It was the one sour note on a very good night for the Sandman.

[Header: Referee Dan Miragliotta raises Cory Sandhagen's hand in victory following his win over Marlon "Chito" Vera in the bantamweight main event of UFC Fight Night: Vera vs. Sandhagen at the AT&T Arena in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. on March 25, 2023. /Zuffa]

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