UFC on ESPN 43 breakdown: Marlon Vera is no easy out, but can Cory Sandhagen frustrate him?

·8 min read

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC on ESPN 43.

UFC on ESPN 43 takes place Saturday at AT&T Center in San Antonio. The main card airs on ESPN following prelims on ESPN+.

Marlon Vera (20-7-1 MMA, 12-2 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’8″ Age: 30 Weight: 135 lbs. Reach: 70.5″

  • Last fight: Knockout win over Dominick Cruz (Aug. 13, 2022)

  • Camp: RVCA Gym (California)

  • Stance/striking style: Switch-stance/muay Thai

  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:
+ “TUF: Latin America 1” alum
+ Regional MMA title
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt
+ 8 KO victories
+ 8 submission wins
+ 7 first-round finishes
+ Steadily builds pace and pressure
+ Improved overall striking
^ Boxing, bodywork, shifting combos
+ Hard kicks and knees
+ Offense-heavy clinch game
^ Elbows, knees, trips, etc.
+ Improved wrestling
+ Excellent transitional grappler
^ Active and attacking guard

Cory Sandhagen (15-4 MMA, 8-3 UFC)

Cory Sandhagen

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’11” Age: 30 Weight: 135 lbs. Reach: 70″

  • Last fight: TKO win over Song Yadong (Sep. 17, 2022)

  • Camp: Elevation Fight Team (Denver, co.)

  • Stance/striking style: Switch-stance/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ WKA world kickboxing champion
+ Amateur kickboxing accolades
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt
+ 7 KO victories
+ 3 submission wins
+ 6 first-round finishes
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Excellent feints and footwork
^ Manages distance/draws out attacks
+ Variates shot selection
^ Punctuates well with bodywork
+ Hard leg kicks
+ Improved wrestling ability
+ Underrated scrambling ability
+ Solid transitional grappler

Point of interest: Kicks and counters

Aug 13, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; Marlon Vera (red gloves) fights against Dominick Cruz (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Pechanga Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The main event on ESPN features a fantastic bantamweight fight between two men who are familiar with kicks and their associated counters.

Coming up through the kickboxing ranks in the quiet martial arts hotbed of Colorado, [autotag]Cory Sandhagen[/autotag] has clearly studied and absorbed a lot in what has been a fun career to watch thus far.

Utilizing his long and lean frame like second nature, Sandhagen is a rangy kickboxer who appears comfortable poking and prodding his opposition with accurate jabs and leg kicks from either stance. Shifting or drop-stepping at a moment’s notice, the 30-year-old talent can piece together flowing, varied offense off of whatever building materials are offered up to him.

Whether Sandhagen is bringing back Jose Aldo’s patented “Dutchie” combination or launching jumping switch-knees that give me flashbacks to Liu Kang’s bicycle kick, he certainly knows how to keep things spicy. And when Sandhagen is feeling in stride, it’s not uncommon to see the good samaritan show a sadistic smile after punctuating his presence with deep hooks or uppercuts to the body.

However, despite the multi-leveled attacks, Sandhagen is not exactly impervious from a defensive standpoint and will have to respect the heat being slung his way.

Enter [autotag]Marlon Vera[/autotag].

Vera may not exactly be a pinpoint counter striker, but the Ecuadorian fighter has come a long way since his stint on the first season of “TUF: Latin America.”

Carrying a long frame for the division, Vera initially focused on a kick-heavy approach from a southpaw stance after making the move to California to train with Team Oyama. Vera will still shift forward while connecting kicks and punches, but the 30-year-old has really cleaned up his boxing fundamentals since working with noted striking coach, Jason Parillo.

A former boxer who has helped former UFC champions like B.J. Penn and Michael Bisping, Parillo has seemingly imparted a lot of his knowledge to Vera. Fighting much more competently and confidently out of an orthodox stance, it is now much more common to see Vera attempt to hit catch-and-pitch counters off of rear-handed parries, demonstrating good eyes in the pocket from start to finish.

Vera is also a fan of mixing things up to the body, doing a bulk of his striking damage in the clinch. Whether he is launching knees up the middle or slashing up-elbows off of collar ties that give me flashbacks to the ones that Jim Miller hit Joe Lauzon with back at UFC 155, Vera is a certified woodchipper within closed quarters.

I also suspect that Vera’s leg and calf kicks will serve him well in this contest, but he’ll need to be mindful of the potential counters and change-ups from Sandhagen.

Point of interest: Potential grappling threats

August 17, 2019; Anaheim, CA, USA; Cory Sandhegen pins Raphael Assuncao to the mat during UFC 241 at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the potential for chaos on the feet, no one should be surprised if this party hits the floor.

Despite Vera carrying a higher rank in jiu-jitsu and owning more submission wins on paper, I suspect that Sandhagen will be the more likely pursuer of takedowns in this spot.

After dropping a closely contested decision to T.J. Dillashaw in the summer of 2021, Sandhagen started to smartly round out his game and incorporate more takedown looks into his offense.

Although Sandhagen hasn’t exactly gotten any finishes through his newfound appreciation for wrestling, you can argue that these looks help overload opposition and plant potential level-changing seeds that the Colorado native can capitalize on down the road.

However, in Vera’s defense, out-wrestling the Ecuadorian is becoming even more difficult as the years go on.

Despite wrestling traditionally being Vera’s weakest link, he’s made diligent efforts to improve in this department – particularly defensively.

From intelligently fighting grips to displaying an overall uptick in urgency, Vera seems much more equipped to deal with sticky situations. And when Vera is grounded, the 12-year pro is good about staying active with everything from submission chains to slicing elbows off of his back.

Nevertheless, Vera has shown that he is not beyond being out-scrambled in past outings and will need to be respectful of Sandhagen’s skills.

Slippery inside the scramble, Sandhagen has shown that he is not one to settle for bad positions, displaying a stoic composure that – outside of his fight with Aljamain Sterling – has surely assisted him in adverse spots before. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt in his own right, Sandhagen is far from a slouch when it comes to fighting for positions in the grappling department.

Even when Sandhagen is taken down, he is quick to attack, whether he is throwing armbars off his back to going for triangles from an inverted guard. Still, despite showing some savvy in tough spots, Sandhagen still will need to be careful when returning to his feet given his propensity to tripod up and expose his back (I warned about this in my breakdowns prior to his fights with Sterling and T.J. Dillashaw).

Vera, unlike Yan or Yadong Song, does offer palpable threats from those positions, scoring rear-naked chokes in two of his three submission wins.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

The oddsmakers and public seem to be slightly favoring the American, listing Sandhagen -165 and Vera +140 via Tipico Sportsbook.

Considering that the betting line hasn’t budged much from the opener, the general public must be just as trepidatious as I am in regards to taking a side.

It’s incredibly easy to justify a Vera pick (particularly at plus money) given his recent form in five-round affairs.

Not only does Vera have an incredible chin and gas tank to boot, but he also appears to have a knack for finding damaging shots toward the end of rounds. Couple that with his impeccable proprioception and improvements with an ability to absorb damage like a prime B.J. Penn, and Vera makes for a tough ask for anyone at this point in his career.

That said, I still find myself slightly leaning toward Sandhagen.
Even though I see Vera having moments from both southpaw and inside of the clinch, I suspect that Sandhagen’s style could frustrate his counterpart inside of the larger octagon (as Vera self-admittedly had trouble tracking down a diminished Dominick Cruz when it came to leg kicks).

Sandhagen has also made it a habit to carve the faces of his opposition with elbows – which might be the only thing capable of marking up Vera at this point. I believe that Vera will be extra dangerous down the stretch as the fighter more likely to find a finish, but I’ll semi-reluctantly side with Sandhagen to stay ahead on numbers enough to swing the judges his way.

Prediction: Sandhagen by decision

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie