Cory Sandhagen, Holly Holm emphatically stay in title picture

What were the biggest moments from the first UFC event in San Antonio since 2019? Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim offer up their final thoughts after the 10-fight card Saturday at the AT&T Center.

It was trendy a few years ago to call Cory Sandhagen a future UFC bantamweight champion. After back-to-back jaw-dropping knockouts of Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar in 2020 and 2021, it seemed like only a matter of time before Sandhagen broke through into a title fight and won that gold belt.

It has not been the best stretch since then for “The Sandman.” But those title talks are going to come back after Saturday night.

Sandhagen dominated the incredibly game Marlon “Chito” Vera for a split decision victory in the main event of UFC San Antonio. Do not let the fact that one judge gave the bout to Vera fool you. It was all Sandhagen from start to finish. Sandhagen is very much back in the title picture with two straight victories after dropping two consecutive fights to former champions TJ Dillashaw and Petr Yan.

The reason is that Sandhagen and his team at High Altitude Martial Arts in Colorado looked closely at those losses and made the necessary adjustments. The bout against Dillashaw was very close, and many thought Sandhagen should have won a split decision. But where he lost the fight, at least in the eyes of two judges, was clear: Dillashaw was able to muscle him in the clinch and the wrestling aspects of MMA. Sandhagen did more damage on the feet in that bout — he usually does as an elite striker — but Dillashaw was more rugged. That night, the judges evidently preferred that.

So, what did Sandhagen and his coaches do? They expanded his game. We saw it against Song Yadong in September, a fourth-round TKO win. But it was readily apparent Saturday. It was assumed that Vera would surely be the more physical, stronger fighter, while Sandhagen would have the edge in speed. That was not necessarily the case. Sandhagen was faster, no doubt. But he was also the aggressor in clinch work and wrestling.

Sandhagen was able to come out and put Vera on his back foot right away — not just with his flashy striking and angles, but with changing levels, shooting for takedowns and muscling Vera against the cage. Sandhagen’s pressure was a major difference in the fight. And even if he didn’t land those takedowns, Vera had to be wary of them, which allowed Sandhagen to gain more openings on the feet. He never really hurt Vera but landed well with jabs, hooks, uppercuts and kicks.

“Chito” didn’t seem ready for this version of Sandhagen, who could have been labeled a finesse fighter earlier in his career. He was not that on Saturday — and that evolution has allowed him to climb this minefield of a division once again. At only 30 years old, Sandhagen is only now in his prime. Maybe it’s time to bring back that empty-Apex, pandemic-era conversation about “The Sandman” being championship material. — Raimondi

Pineda got back to his winning ways with a nasty guillotine choke on Lutz. In the first round, Pineda used aggressive low kicks to wobble Lutz’s foundation while fending off strikes from his opponent. Eventually, Pineda pinned Lutz against the fence, and “The Pit” lurched for the neck and locked in the guillotine for the submission win.

Pineda earned his third UFC win by submission, as he’s now tied for second-most submission wins all time at featherweight.

Even at 41 years old, Holly Holm says she still has work to do. We learned that was the case contractually earlier in the week when she re-signed with the UFC for six fights. But we learned on Saturday that Holm’s staying power is genuine.

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She dominated Yana Santos for all three rounds, and did so in a new way. Best known for her boxing prowess — she was a 2022 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame — Holm scored four takedowns, her most ever in a three-round fight. She controlled her former training partner on the canvas and, before settling for a lopsided unanimous decision (30-26, 30-27, 30-27), threatened to finish with what would have been the first submission win in her 21-fight career.

Holm, a former UFC bantamweight champion, said after the fight that she’s sticking around to compete for a title. To do that, she will have to remain healthy and active. In recent times, she’s competed about once a year. At that pace, her new contract would take her to age 46. Only Randy Couture has won a belt after 45. So that won’t do.

If we’re ever going to see a shiny belt wrapped around Holm’s waist again, we’ll have to see her back inside the cage soon. She doesn’t have time to sit back and wait for the right opportunity. Holm needs to keep moving upward, building toward a return to the glorious heights she once saw. — Wagenheim

It was almost over for Vergara after the first round.

Lacerda came out firing against his opponent, as he landed multiple strikes and flurried repeatedly against Vergara with little response. The question of whether the fight would be stopped was in play, but Vergara managed to survive for Round 2.

In the second round, Vergara found his wits and established ground position on Lacerda. Eventually, Lacerda curled up as Vergara rained down ground-and-pound strikes, forcing referee Jason Herzog to stop the fight, giving the Laredo, Texas, native his second win in the UFC.