UFC 241 One to Watch: Raphael Assuncao vs. Cory Sandhagen

UFC 241 boasts one of the best fight cards we’ve seen for some time.

If you’re not happy with the heavyweight championship headliner between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic, the fight before sees the scrappy Nate Diaz face the flashy Anthony Pettis.

And if you’re not happy with Diaz – Pettis… Firstly, I don’t know what to say to you. Secondly, a middleweight war between Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa may tickle your fancy instead.

It’s a fantastic fight card, but the depth isn’t confined to those three fights at the top of the billing. The UFC preliminary card is jam-packed with fun fights as well.

The best fight flying under the radar on the UFC 241 undercard is a bantamweight tilt between Brazilian veteran Raphael Assuncao and Cory Sandhagen.

It’s a classic fight which could either see the changing of the guard at 135 pounds, or the elder statesman reign supreme once more.

There are 10 years which separate 37-year-old Assuncao and 27-year-old Sandhagen, while Assuncao has 11 years’ worth of fight experience on his up-and-coming foe.

Assuncao is a fighter with 33 bouts under his belt, boasting a record of 27-6, initially making his name in North America as a featherweight in WEC.

After the UFC bought out WEC, Assuncao found himself on the UFC roster. He lost his debut for the promotion against Erik Koch, but that was arguably the best thing that could have happened to his career at the time.

The loss led to Assuncao moving down a weight class to bantamweight and he went on to enjoy a seven-fight win streak, defeating top names such as T.J. Dillashaw, Bryan Caraway, Johnny Eduardo, and Mike Easton along the way.

That run of seven wins was snapped in a rematch to Dillashaw, where he lost a unanimous decision, but he rebounded with four wins on the bounce – the first two coming against renowned fighters Aljamain Sterling and Marlon Moraes.

Assuncao’s last outing in the Octagon resulted in another rematch loss – this time against compatriot Moraes – which ultimately cost Assuncao a shot at the UFC bantamweight championship. With an impressive resume of big-name wins and a UFC record of 11-3, Assuncao has long been on the cusp of a title shot, but always seems to have fallen at the last hurdle.

Assuming the role of divisional gatekeeper in this fight with rising prospect Sandhagen, Assuncao is more than motivated in maintaining his status as one of the best bantamweights around.

“This guy [Sandhagen] is coming in with good hype, good positive results,” Assuncao told MMAMania. “I had a loss [Moraes] and I wasn’t as motivated. I’m very motivated and I’ve changed and added to the game.

“I think utilising those extra thoughts and those extra little puzzles to the game will help me.

“We always strive for the victory. It’s for God and then it’s for my family,” he concluded.

While Assuncao wants to remain in the upper region of the UFC bantamweight rankings, Sandhagen is hoping to leapfrog his foe.

Sandhagen is positioned ninth in the UFC rankings, with Assuncao cemented in his third-place berth. A win for the Coloradan would certainly propel him into a title picture long dominated by a certain group of fighters.

Amazingly, Sandhagen only started his professional mixed martial arts career in 2015. Less than three years later, the 27-year-old won his UFC debut.

In little over four years, Sandhagen has compiled a record of 11-1 and is unbeaten in the UFC with four victories – three of which came by finish.

Sandhagen’s beginnings in combat sports came through kickboxing and he has since earned his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt.

The Elevation Fight Team product has a penchant for finishing fights by both knocking out opponents and submitting them, boasting a finish rate of 63 percent of his 11 victories, compared to Assuncao’s 52 percent spanning 27 wins.

In the UFC, Sandhagen defeated Austin Arnett and Iuri Alcantara by knockout and submitted Mario Bautista in his first three fights.

His big test came against John Lineker back in April earlier this year, and Sandhagen provided the answers needed to earn the split decision nod and asserted his role as a fighter to watch out for in the UFC’s competitive bantamweight division.

Now on a streak of six straight wins, Sandhagen believes his win over Lineker proved he is ready to take on the best of the bantamweight division.

“I’m not at the point where I’m just going out and doing my thing anymore,” he said in the UFC 241 pre-fight media scrums per the UFC.

“The guys are very good. I would say the margins of being technically better in each category of MMA than a person in the top 10 aren’t going to be that great.

“It’s going to be more about maximising your advantages, and in this weight division, I have a lot of advantages.”

While Assuncao has the experience edge over Sandhagen, the latter shows experience beyond his years in life and in cage time.

Both fighters are cerebral and well-rounded in their skills, but have distinct differences in the way they fight and this contest will provide an interesting clash of styles.

Assuncao is smaller, fights on the inside and very much enjoys the clinch, maintaining a high pace of physicality and seldom looks tired in doing so. Meanwhile, Sandhagen is a tall, rangy bantamweight who uses that to his advantage in both striking and with his developing ground game.

It’s a pick ’em fight with big ranking implications in their division and I can’t wait to see this one goes down.

Jake Hughes

Jake Hughes

Jake Hughes is an MMA writer who has covered the sport since 2013 for publications such as Vice Sports, Fightland, Sherdog and now Fighters Only, where he serves as freelance digital editor.