Brutal or a thinking man’s game? For introspective Cory Sandhagen, fighting’s a bit of both.

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·4-min read

LAS VEGAS — Talk to just about any fighter and they’ll tell you the importance of using your mind during a fight. A good fight IQ, they’ll say, is critical.

Cory Sandhagen would tell you, though, that being intelligent can be a curse as well as a blessing in the fight game.

Sandhagen, who fights the legendary Frankie Edgar on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Apex in the co-main event of UFC Vegas 18 in an important bantamweight fight, is one of the brightest, most introspective fighters in MMA.

He earned a degree in psychology from the University of Colorado and he’s a thoughtful, curious guy.

But as he learned from friend and occasional training partner Ryan Hall, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to thinking your way through a fight.

“You can’t really outsmart your way into being brutal,” said Sandhagen, who is ranked No. 2 in the loaded 135-pound division. “What we’re doing is quite brutal, and it’s really intense. The only way to get good at doing the act and putting yourself into a headspace of being really brutal, because that’s how you have to be to walk into a fight, at least for me, is balancing that with making really good decisions in a fight.

“It’s tricky, and it’s not easy. That’s where it can kind of overtake you. You start to put yourself in this compartment of, ‘Oh, I’m this smart thinker guy. Let me try to outsmart everyone.’ There’s also a lot of other really smart guys and you need to balance that with being brutal and not thinking sometimes because thinking can sometimes get in the way of reacting. Just balancing the two can be a little tricky.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 11:  Cory Sandhagen celebrates his victory over Marlon Moraes of Brazil in their bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Cory Sandhagen celebrates his victory over Marlon Moraes on Oct. 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Sandhagen said that for a while earlier in his career, he was able to think his way to a series of wins. That’s changed as he’s progressed and he said he “needs to reach a certain level of brutality to compete with these guys.”

Sandhagen’s relationship with Hall over the last 18 months has helped his balancing act and made him a better fighter.

Hall, Sandhagen said, thinks differently than other fighters and that has worked for him, as well.

One of those thought processes he’s adopted is being willing to adapt to what is necessary at the time. Asked whether he sees himself as a fighter or a martial artist, he didn’t equivocate.

“It depends on what I have to be,” Sandhagen said. “If I have to be a fighter for a fight, then let’s get brutal and I’ll be a fighter. If I need to be smarter in a fight, then I’ll be the martial artist. Bruce Lee calls it the art of fighting without fighting, or having no style is style.

“That’s what I try to be: Whatever I need to be, I’ll be. Everyone has a fighter instead of them. They might not always know how to bring it out of themselves, but they have it. But they also have a martial artist side to them where they care about that, too, whether they know it or not. But I’d say I’m both, depending upon what I need to be.”

What he needs to be on Saturday is a winner. The bantamweight division is one of the sport’s most fascinating. Newly crowned champion Petr Yan will make his first defense of the belt next month against No. 1 Aljamain Sterling.

Former champion T.J. Dillashaw is off suspension and is about to return to competition, and ex-champion Henry Cejudo has been making murmurs about a return. In addition to them, Jose Aldo and Rob Font are right near the top of the division.

It’s easy for anyone to start stressing over what may occur down the line. It’s especially true for a self-aware guy like Sandhagen.

He tries to not think of it, but a major part of his job description is to promote his bouts, and so he’s asked questions like, “What do you think of Dillashaw getting a title shot before you?”

It’s counter-productive given he’s fighting Edgar, not Dillashaw, and he’s not making that decision, but it’s something he has to deal with.

He’s come up with what he feels is a good way of dealing with it.

“You have to have a good attitude about it,” he said. “They’re things people want to know about. As long as I kind of get back to the space of, ‘Hey, your interview is over. You answered the questions about the future. You’re here because of Saturday, not because of past Saturdays.’ I just remind myself of that, little reminders, and I keep a good attitude about, when I have to do things like this [interviews], it’s part of the game.”

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