By Michael Jones - @keepingitrealmma & Dave Manley - @mmabobblehead
A love letter to chaos...
1. Marlon "Chito" Vera (20-7-1) vs. Cory Sandhagen (15-4)
There are perhaps two ways to look at the current trajectory of Chito Vera:
a. The primary look is centered around his current 4 fight win streak, highlighted in the mainstream by two vicious knockouts, albeit over ex-champions who are a little bit longer in the tooth. However, the more impressive win was his bludgeoning of Rob Font, where he showcased competitive boxing and superior power. The stats speak for themselves, he officially out-landed Font by over a hundred significant head strikes and knocked him down 3 times, according to ufcstats.com (formerly known as Fight Metric). As one outlet put it, Font was left "unrecognizable".
b. The other, less popular perspective to consider... he lost to Jose Aldo. Yes, that fight was relatively close, and yes, losing to a legend like Aldo is nothing to be ashamed of. That being said, let's take a look at a few of the guys Aldo has lost to since 2019. The first was Alexander Volkanovski, I don't think I need to say much about this guy. He beat Max Holloway 3 damn times, when it's all said and done, he may be considered the best featherweight (145 lbs.) of all time. Then there's Petr Yan, excusing his current streak, the guy is an absolute savage. He damn near took Aldo's soul to win the vacant bantamweight title (135 lbs.). Then there's Merab Dvalishvili. Immediately after this fight, we thought maybe Aldo got snubbed as he defended all 16 takedown attempts. Alas, we are awarded the gift of hindsight and have seen what Merab did to Petr Yan, how he uses takedown attempts as feints to drown you with an onslaught pace. Suffice it to say, Aldo lost to another absolute savage. All of this long-winded backstory leads to my final question, if Chito can't beat Jose Aldo, how the hell is he going to compete against the Yans and Merabs of the division? In the case of his upcoming opponent Cory Sandhagen, Cory is another clever striker with great defense and legitimate 5-round stamina.
This fight could be dangerously close, Sandhagen is coming in around -150 while Vera is clocking in as the +130 underdog. The oddsmakers know that Cory is good for the distance and will likely out-strike Vera in at least 3 of the 5 rounds. So why is this fight so close? Because Chito will land at some point, and when he does he can break your whole $h!%. We have seen time and time again when Chito has 25 minutes to work, there are far too many opportunities for him to catch you. To conceptualize the imminent danger that is fighting Chito Vera, we must remember... "he will lose every round, but he’ll send you to the hospital". That might sound hyperbolic, but if you look closely at his recent wins, he is typically getting outworked.
The huge difference is the damage he inflicts, disguised by impossibly patient setups. Cory might land the more beautiful combos, and he might take a few rounds, but Chito will try to use that against him. He lulls his opponent into a false sense of security, alternating his stance and attacking each round, constantly showing you different looks. By round 4 you're not sure what Chito to expect and then Bam! He hits you with something he hasn't thrown the entire fight and you're in your corner asking them what happened. They meet you with blank stares and insecure recollection, "you got caught, we didn't even see it coming". Will Cory take the smart way out, remaining vigilant over all 5 rounds, keeping up his own unrecognizable pattern of attacks? Or will he unleash his own dog and become another unsuspecting victim of the long-con Chito so patiently employs? We can't wait to find out. Dave, order the pizza. It's show time!
Hardcore History: Marlon Vera was born in Chone, Ecuador. He grew up street fighting and found MMA at some point in high school when his friend showed him a Pride tape (editors note* thank God for that friend). From there Vera knew he would make it a profession, it was always what he enjoyed and he was blown away that you could make money doing it. As for his family, this was all new to them. As for Vera's thoughts on his involvement in combat sports, maybe my favorite is this, "I don't know why I like this, nobody in my family was a street fighter, nobody was a gangster. So I really don't know why", taken from an interview with MMA Junkie's Fernanda Prates. Sometimes we don't choose a lifestyle, but a lifestyle chooses us. In the case of Marlon Vera, he was meant for this. Vera currently lives in Southern California where he splits time with Team Oyama in Irvine and BJ Penn's former boxing coach Jason Parillo at RVCA Training Center in Costa Mesa. He lives with his wife and two children in Irvine. Life is good for Chito. He doesn't dwell on his story being a rags-to-riches success, because that's not really accurate. He just enjoys it.
We have no less love for the scrappy savant that is Cory Sandhagen. Born in Colorado where he attended high school and college. The man is exactly that, a savant. He graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in psychology. Pairing that with his introduction to martial arts through kickboxing, he has transitioned into a sensational mixed martial artist. In some ways he is very similar to Marlon Vera, he has lost rounds where the judges rewarded his opponent for "control time", while he was more focused on delivering the pain. In the case of his match with former champion T.J. Dillashaw, you can see who did the far better damage, outscoring T.J. 110-59 with significant head strikes. Alas, the judges preferred T.J.'s heavy grappling and sneaky kicks, awarding him the split decision nod. In this match with Vera, grappling will most likely not play a factor, expect fireworks. Cory currently trains with Elevation Fight Team, having shared the mats with the likes of UFC vets Neil Magny, Curtis Blaydes, and Justin Gaethje.
2. Holly Holm (14-6) vs. Yana Santos (14-6-1NC)
A.K.A. The ridiculous case for another Holly Holm title shot...
Both women are coming off losses, in Yana's case a 1st round TKO loss to Irene Aldana. Holm is 41 and coming off a split-decision loss to Ketlen Vieira. With similar records and both struggling to keep a win streak going, 2-2 in their last 4, this fight begs the question... why am I relevant? Because not much is going on at Women's bantamweight and at any point, a fighter with a big name can sneak into a title fight. We might see current champ and female GOAT Amanda Nunes in a trilogy fight with Julianna Pena, because... well, not much is going on. Only 1 fighter in the divisions top 10 stands out, and that's Raquel Pennington. She's the only fighter in that mix with at least 3 wins in a row, currently riding a 5-fight win streak. Who was her last loss? Holy Holm. Who has she lost to twice? Holy Holm. If Holm can get it done here and Raquel wants a rematch with Nunes, then a trilogy fight with Holm is the path. She lost to Holm 3 years ago, her last loss before this current run, and she is a much wiser fighter than she used to be. As for Holm, she got brutally knocked out by Nunes at featherweight in 2019, so her name alone might not be enough, but if she can get a spectacular win here and double that up against Raquel, who knows what might be in store for Holm? She may even get a second crack at The Lioness, they've never fought at bantamweight, so she's got that going for her.
3. Nate Landwehr (16-4) vs. Austin Lingo (9-1)
We were promised Landwehr vs. Caceres, I guess that was asking too much.
In another stroke of brilliance, the MMA Gods have once again spoiled our good time. Alex Caceres is out and Austin Lingo is in. This fight takes place in Texas and Lingo is from Texas, so of course it makes sense. Throw in the local guy, worst case scenario you get a small extra pop in ticket sales. Best case scenario, Nate Landwehr gets an impressive finish and his 3rd win in a row. These UFC matchmakers are freakin' chess masters. At 34 years old and only fighting once a year, it will take a lot for Nate to get a big fight, but he's exciting to watch and with a decent streak he may just get his wish. He may even get that fight with Caceres, and a win there might just be enough to push him into the top 15 at featherweight. So let's enjoy the wild ride as "The Train" takes on a local underdog. If you need a little push yourself, jump back to August of last year and watch his fight with David Onama. What a beautifully violent treat that was.
4. Andrea Lee (13-6) vs. Maycee Barber (11-2)
At one point, Maycee was considered "The Future" of the division... (see what I did there?)
Then she lost to "The Happy Warrior" Roxanne Modafferi, and the actual future of the division, current champion Alexa Grasso. She has bounced back nicely with a 3-fight win streak, and with a solid win here she could be right back on that original course for glory. Having lost to the current title holder makes for a great revenge story, but if you lose again and they stay champion, then you're shit out of luck. Because of that, it's important not to rush her trajectory. With Lee hanging around number 16 in the division this is a great challenge for Barber. As for Andrea Lee, she is coming off a hard-fought loss to Viviane Araujo last May, before that she had two finishes in a row. With an impressive win here, she could leap back into relevancy and really boost her status in the hunt for the title. Both of these fighters pack a serious punch, this should be fun.