As he sat less than two months out from his fight against Marlon Vera at UFC San Antonio, Cory Sandhagen was nursing a minor injury and feeling like maybe the clock had already begun ticking away towards the eventual end of his career.
He wasn’t contemplating retirement just because he’d gotten banged up while preparing for a fight, but the veteran bantamweight started to realize just how much his own approach to his training camps — along with his expectations for the fights themselves — had really started chipping away at his psyche. That’s when Sandhagen decided to make wholesale changes to his preparation, not to mention the long-term approach to his career.
“I was just tired of being sore because the camp had been so long, I was sitting on the couch and I was like I cannot do this for the next five years of my life if I want to,” Sandhagen revealed on The MMA Hour. “Just because I was being so negative and putting so much pressure on myself, feeling like I had to win and being kind of crummy.
“I was sitting on the couch and I’m like, ‘I’m not doing it anymore. I’m taking all of this pressure off of me. I’m just going to live every day as best I can and be present and enjoy this journey while I have it.’ Because I don’t want to say that I did this whole thing and didn’t enjoy it. So I had this big, big turning point for me about six weeks ago, where I just took a lot of pressure off my shoulders and I started to really enjoy this sport a lot. It made it where I could focus every day on what I need to be doing. But I think it really, really helped out in the fight for this one, where I was just focused on performance.”
Sandhagen admitted he had a tendency to get mired in his own negativity and self-doubt, which was then magnified by the high expectations he set for himself ahead of every fight.
By extension, Sandhagen always felt as if he was walking a dangerous line where he could potentially start pushing those feelings onto the people in closest proximity to him.
“It gets dark in the sense where I feel like I’m breathing off energy that people don’t want to be around me,” Sandhagen said. “I definitely don’t want to do that to my fiancée, who I live with, and I definitely don’t want to do that to my coaches and my friends. And it’s subtle.
“Because I’m a polite guy and I’m not a bad dude. It’s not like I’m being a giant jerk or anything, but I’ll just notice the way I thinking about people and talking about people and things like that. That’s not who I want to be. That’s not the type of art I want to make in this life. They’re subtle, but they don’t need to be there.”
It was only after he heard a quote from famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung that Sandhagen started to transform his mindset — and that made a huge difference as he prepared to face Vera this past Saturday night.
“In the quote, [Jung] said something about, what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it is important,” Sandhagen explained. “I always feel really small in life, like kind of insignificant. I think it’s really easy to have that happen, especially if you have a big scope on what the world actually is and history and all of that stuff, and how none of us are really going to be remembered in the next 100 years anyways. It can get kind of depressing.
“When I read that quote, the way that I am living, the way that I am being and the way that I am acting, it’s important. I don’t really want to go through this whole thing with a bunch of weight on my shoulders because I think that I should be champ and all of that stuff. I let go of all of that stuff and it made me so much lighter. It made me be able to fight the way I fought last weekend. Like, I really, really attribute it to that.”
Sandhagen said his issues really became amplified after suffering a stunning first-round submission loss to future UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling back in 2020.
From there, Sandhagen started ratcheting up the pressure he put on himself to succeed, and though he found some positive results in many of his fights, he still knew that he was heading in the wrong direction.
“When I lost to Sterling, that was a big deal,” Sandhagen said. “It made me almost flip to the other side of the coin, where instead of being super mindful and present, I started being a little bit on the neurotic side. But I think that’s just part of the process.
“Now I have found this nice in between where I’m not as neurotic as I was before, where I’m putting tons of pressure on myself and making sure I’m hitting every single thing that I want to do right on that day. I’m not neurotic about that anymore but I’m also not this free-living hippie, let anything be the way it wants to be, type of way. I think I’ve found a really nice spot for me where I am right now.”
The changes Sandhagen made really showed in his fight against Vera. He hopes he’ll be able to maintain that same attitude moving forward as well.
“For me, I had to let go of the neurosis,” Sandhagen said. “Because I was going down a dark hole. In camps, I can get into a pretty dark place as it is just waking up feeling sore and being negative and all that sort of stuff sometimes.
“I’m glad I got to let that go. I’m glad I won so I can continue to keep trusting that, because it is a much more enjoyable way to live life.”