Interim title or not, Cory Sandhagen says he will consider himself the best bantamweight in the world should he dispatch former UFC champion Petr Yan in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
The American, the division’s No 3-ranked contender, stepped in last month as a replacement at UFC 267 for current belt-holder Aljamain Sterling, who withdrew through injury from his rematch with Yan.
Sandhagen, whose pro record stands at 14-3, was for some time viewed as genuine championship material, especially following blockbuster knockouts of Marlon Moraes - in Abu Dhabi in October - and Frankie Edgar.
However, a razor-thin split decision defeat to former champion TJ Dillashaw three months ago checked his momentum.
Losing the belt to Sterling in controversial fashion in March, many view Yan as the bantamweight’s current king. The Russian, 15-2, surrendered his 10-fight when he was disqualified for an intentional illegal knee on Sterling.
Dillashaw, meanwhile, would have reportedly been a contender to face Yan at Etihad Arena, but he was forced to undergo knee surgery following the gripping five-rounder with Sandhagen.
“I think Aljamain had to retreat, and TJ’s village is still on fire from when I set it on fire,” Sandhagen said on Wednesday. “So if we're talking ancient-war type stuff, which is how I like to view this game, I'm the guy that can take the land. Those other guys can't right now,
"I'm the guy who can take the land. I'll see myself as champ, I know the public sees Yan as the champ anyway, I know that I definitely have making up to do. I need to make up my two losses against Aljamain and TJ also, but I'll go home with a smile on my face, calling myself the champ."
Sandhagen, 29, added: "It would mean a lot, man. I worked really, really hard for it. It's years and years of hard work. I didn't do a lot of partying at college because I was at practice, I didn't make a lot of friends in the last few years because I was at practice.
"I don't have a lot of the same relationships with old friends because of me working my [butt] off every single day and putting all my energy into becoming a world champ. The reason I'm sitting here is because I've been doing that a long time now."
Yan, meanwhile, was not giving much away on Wednesday.
“Everything is great. I am feeling very good,” he said. “[Sandhagen] is a well-deserving opponent who is versatile and good everywhere. I just want to showcase in which aspects I am better than him.”
On Sterling’s withdrawal, Yan said: “I am not annoyed at all – my goal was to win the belt and it doesn’t matter who is standing across from me. Sterling needs the rematch to prove he can do something.
“I am not interested in the rematch if I win the belt this Saturday. As you know, he ran away. He could have got his surgery. He has had this injury for 10 years, but ran away.”