October 10, 2020 | 10:01am
Saturday’s main event from UFC’s Fight Island in Abu Dhabi is another bantamweight bout, this time in the ultra-competitive men’s division championed by Russian Petr Yan.
Now that we’re abroad again, the flavor of these fights turns international, the matchups become more diverse in fighting specialty and, as we saw from the first set of cards from Fight Island, future stars can be made in 15 minutes or less. This card will have 13 scheduled bouts featuring fighters from 14 countries.
The main event pits -134 favorite Cory Sandhagen against Marlon Moraes (+110). Moraes is the No. 1-ranked bantamweight contender, though he is not a top-4 combatant in this division, in my handicapping. A black belt in Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Moraes complements his well-rounded fighting arsenal with quickness, explosion and precision striking. Devastating are the results of Moraes’ strikes and spinning kicks, especially early in fights.
Moraes has fought the top of the division and has produced consistent results. He is highly effective early, as opponents find it difficult to withstand his aggressive offensive onslaught. But later in fights, he fades badly.
The key to overcoming Moraes is to withstand that early barrage and force him to fight a full three rounds. In Saturday’s case, it’s going to be five rounds. In Moraes’ previous five-round bout, he was painting Henry Cejudo’s fence early until he ran out of steam. Cejudo finished him late in the third round.
As Moraes expends energy on his diverse striking attack, his cardio tends to fade, and so does his fight IQ. He will have to prove he can effectively manage 25 minutes of high-paced championship fighting before I begin to buy into him as a legitimate contender. His switch to American Top Team in Florida further proves to me that, at 32, Moraes is searching. And searching at this stage of his career is a red flag.
Sandhagen enters this fight off adversity, suffering a knockout at the hands of Aljamain Sterling in his last fight. Sterling was KO’d by Moraes a few years back, which is the only reason Moraes is ranked a notch above Sterling.
Sandhagen has some physical advantages. He’ll be younger by four years, taller by 5 inches and longer with 3-inch reach advantages with both his arms and legs. Sandhagen’s background is based in kickboxing, and he has a brown belt in BJJ. Training at Team Elevation in Colorado is a premium for Sandhagen, as it will allow him to overcome, to some degree, his disadvantage in professional fight experience.
Sandhagen is a cerebral fighter who uses his size and length to maintain spacing, which allows him to levy punishment at distance, where he is most effective. Sandhagen has power, but his best work is accomplished via the accumulation of strikes and kicks. Defensively, Sandhagen will be tested by Moraes early as Moraes works to earn his way inside the pocket.
How successful is Moraes pressing for inside presence? Can Sandhagen utilize fluid movement and counterstriking to batter the incoming Moraes?
Sandhagen’s level-headedness, youth, counterstriking and size will allow him to overcome the frantic first round or two from Moraes, then eventually swing the fight in his favor as we enter the championship rounds.