Sparring past helps me more than Cory Sandhagen

Whenever former training partners get together and fight in front of the masses, it’s only natural for those outside the gym to wonder: Who got the better of it?

Leading up to Saturday’s pivotal UFC bantamweight clash at UFC Apex in Las Vegas between Cory Sandhagen and TJ Dillashaw, who spent years sparring on and off in Colorado, it’s been no different.

Several of their current or previous teammates have weighed in, often pointing out times when Sandhagen (14-2, nine finishes) got the better of Dillashaw (16-4, 11 finishes), who from 2014 into 2019 was one of the top two fighters at 135 pounds. Heck, even Dillashaw has mentioned it over the years.

But results in training and fighting often are like apples and oranges. And Dillashaw doesn’t mind pointing out another former training partner whom he knocked out — twice — as evidence that sparring success doesn’t necessarily carry over into the octagon.

“Cody Garbrandt wanted to talk about practice too, and we know how that ended,” Dillashaw told The Post Thursday. “They can say what they want. But when I’m going through practice, and I’m getting ready for a fight, I’m not expecting to spar great. I’m expecting to be dragging ass through these sparring sessions. I’m bringing in fresh guys. So, yeah, sure, [Sandhagen] got to spar with me, but he got to be the fresh guy every time when I’m training for a five-round fight.”

TJ Dillashaw and Corey Sandhagen
TJ Dillashaw and Corey Sandhagen spent years sparring on and off.
Zuffa LLC

Dillashaw, who is making his return to competition after serving a two-year suspension due to a positive test for recombinant human erythropoietin, said he began working with Sandhagen to get ready for what would become his first championship victory, a fifth-round TKO upset of Renan Barao in May 2014. This would have been before Sandhagen had made his MMA debut, at a time when he was competing in kickboxing.

At that point, Dillashaw was still training with Team Alpha Male in California under then-head coach, Duane Ludwig, who brought Sandhagen out from Colorado. Dillashaw said Sandhagen, now 29, was only there for about a week or less but he appreciated him as “a good striker, a good body, good to work with.”

Ludwig left the gym shortly thereafter to return to Colorado, although Dillashaw continued to work with him while splitting time with TAM.

In October 2015, Dillashaw followed Ludwig to Colorado — after Conor McGregor infamously labeled him a “snake” on “The Ultimate Fighter” and TAM allegedly had him “kicked out of the gym” — and joined Elevation Fight Team, the same gym where Sandhagen trains. The two trained on and off together for the next two years, Dillashaw said, and he was a big proponent of Sandhagen at the time.

“I liked Cory,” Dillashaw, 35, recalls of their time together. “I was the biggest advocate for wanting to get him into the UFC. I actually believed in him before he believed in himself. I knew how good of an athlete he was and that he could be something. I was trying to pump him up when he had his fights before the UFC. I was doing interviews about how, sometimes, he could get the better of me in sparring sessions.”

As for what others say of their training sessions, Dillashaw swears he is unplugged from what has been suggested by those who trained with him at TAM or Elevation. Regardless, the former two-time bantamweight champion believes the familiarity bred from their time together will aid him to a higher degree than Sandhagen.

“I think it’s gonna help me out a lot more than it’s gonna help him out,” Dillashaw said. “I’m a very well-rounded fighter, and I can use game plans to my advantage, whereas a lot of guys can’t because they’re more of a one-trick pony.

“So it’s gonna help me out. It helped me out when I fought [Cody Garbrandt] … because I know what he was good at. I knew how to game plan for him.”

Those two victories over Garbrandt are all the masses remember anyway, not who won in sparring. The same will be the case for both Dillashaw and Sandhagen after Saturday.

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