UFC Fight Night takeaways: Sandhagen strategically takes down Song, but his callout was the head turner

What were the biggest moments from this UFC Fight Night? What’s next for one of the bantamweight division’s top contenders? Jeff Wagenheim, Marc Raimondi and Brett Okamoto offer their takeaways from UFC’s return Saturday night’s fight card.

Cory Sandhagen made 14 takedown attempts and was unsuccessful on every one of them until there was barely a minute to go in Round 4 of Saturday’s UFC main event in Las Vegas. It doesn’t sound like a winning strategy, does it?

Well, it was. By regularly threatening to take the fight to the canvas, Sandhagen essentially disarmed Song Yadong, transforming him from a dangerous puncher into a defensive wrestler. Every moment Song spent sprawling to fend off a shot was one in which he wasn’t unleashing his potent offense.

“Rob the guy of his power, you know?” Sandhagen said. “He’s a hell of a striker.”

Song did get that striking attack going at times, especially in the first two rounds, when he knocked Sandhagen backward a couple of times with straight right hands. But it was Sandhagen who landed the telling blow, an upward lead elbow in Round 1 that opened a nasty gash above Song’s left eye. The bleeding and swelling got worse as the fight wore on, and just before Round 5 began, referee Herb Dean waved it off on the advice of the cage-side doctor.

Sandhagen was disappointed by that. “I think that he deserved a fifth round,” he said. “I wanted to see the fifth round. I wanted to see the scorecards to see if I was winning or not.”

As it turned out, he wasn’t. Had the fight gone on, it would have entered the final round up for grabs. Two of the three judges had 38-38 scorecards.

But Sandhagen did his job to end the fight. When the fighters spoke briefly before the verdict was announced, Song appeared to tell Sandhagen that the streaming blood left him unable to see out his left eye.

Sandhagen badly needed this win after coming into the bout on a two-fight skid. Yes, the losses had come against a pair of former UFC bantamweight champions, Petr Yan and T.J. Dillashaw. And yes, Sandhagen’s only other UFC defeat had come against the reigning champ, Aljamain Sterling. Still, a losing streak redirects a fighter’s career trajectory in a downward direction, which put Sandhagen in the cage with Song, a young star in the making.

This fight should give a boost to both men. Sandhagen is back in the win column for the first time in a year and a half. And Song showed that his future might have arrived. The 24-year-old from China was No. 1 in ESPN’s most recent top 25 MMA fighters under age 25 voting in December, and last month he was named the best 24-year-old in ESPN’s ranking of the top MMA fighters at every age, from age 21 to 42. But neither of those accolades stack up to spending four rounds on even ground with a top-10 bantamweight.

Among those watching from ringside was Sterling, the champ, who was treated to a preview viewing of two contenders headed his way. — Wagenheim

What’s next for Cory Sandhagen?

Cory Sandhagen, bantamweight (defeated Song Yadong by fourth-round TKO)

Who Should be next: Merab Dvalishvili

Immediately after Sandhagen’s win on Saturday, he mentioned Dvalishvili by name as a potential next opponent. That in itself is interesting. Go ahead, cup your hand around your ears and listen. You won’t hear anyone saying Dvalishvili’s name. For Sandhagen to call the man out shows confidence. Dvalishvili seems intent on staying at bantamweight, but he refuses to fight his teammate Aljamain Sterling. Regardless of what happens there long-term, it means Dvalishvili is looking for a top, non-title opponent in the short term. Sandhagen fits the description.

Wildcard: Marlon Vera

Sandhagen did an excellent job with his callouts. Dvalishvili was good, as was Vera. Stylistically, this one speaks to real fight fans. It’s a beautiful matchup between two long, clever strikers with plenty of killer instinct. This fight has to happen at some point. Whether it’s next or not, I don’t know. But it’s a great fight. — Okamoto

Action’ Jackson gets it done for his late brother

On paper, Pat Sabatini vs. Damon Jackson looked like a familiar bit of UFC matchmaking. Sabatini, a prospect with Division-I wrestling credentials on a six-fight winning streak, was matched up with Jackson, a 10-year UFC veteran on his second stint with the UFC. Jackson was positioned here as a gatekeeper. If Sabatini could get by him, he might be a future player in the featherweight division. Sabatini was a 2-to-1 favorite, per Caesars Sportsbook.

Jackson ripped up the UFC’s script — and did so just days after his brother Bradley’s death. Taking on the nickname “Action,” a name given to him by his brother as a child, Jackson ran through Sabatini via TKO in just 69 seconds. Jackson said there was “no chance” he would not fight, even after his brother’s death.

“This is the only time I feel normal, when I get to come out here and compete,” Jackson said.

Jackson, 34, is no stranger to battling back from adversity — and his coach, Sayif Saud, is always willing to get into the foxhole with him. Jackson was cast aside by the UFC in 2016, then went 8-2, mainly in PFL and LFA, to earn a spot back on the UFC roster in 2020. After losing via first-round knockout to Ilia Topuria in his second fight back with the promotion, Jackson is now on a four-fight winning streak, including two finishes. “The Leech,” or in this case “Action,” might never win a UFC title, but he’s one of the people — the inspirational characters — who make MMA unlike any other sport in the world. — Raimondi

Gillian Robertson’s in a league of her own

Gillian Robertson had a hold of a leg as she grappled against the cage, and she refused to let go, even as Mariya Agapova relentlessly smashed elbows to the side of her head. Robertson was sticking with her takedown attempt because she knew that the fight was hanging in the balance even though it was early in Round 1.

“No matter who it is,” Robertson said afterward, “once I get to the ground, I know I’m getting my choke.”

That she did, although the rear-naked choke finish didn’t come until 2:19 of the second round. By then, Robertson had attempted seven takedowns and had been successful on three. She absorbed a lot of headshots along the way, but every time she got the fight to the mat, she relentlessly chased a submission.

That was no surprise. Robertson came into the bout with the most submissions of any woman in UFC history. After adding one more on Saturday, she has six — as many as the combined total of the three women who wear UFC title belts, bantamweight/featherweight Amanda Nunes (three), flyweight Valentina Shevchenko (two) and strawweight Carla Esparza (one).

The unranked Robertson (11-7) is not at championship level, but when she’s fighting on the canvas, she’s an unmatched terror. — Wagenheim

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