Marlon “Chito” Vera will headline UFC Fight Night on Saturday, facing off against Cory Sandhagen in a bout critical in determining the top of the bantamweight division.

At the moment, bantamweight is a complicated division. Reigning champion Aljamain Sterling is expected to move to featherweight after his title defense in May against the returning Henry Cejudo, and a win would allow Sterling to set the record for most consecutive bantamweight title defenses. Cejudo’s winning would throw a wrench into those plans, potentially leading to a rematch, but the current No. 1 contender is Merab Dvalishvili (who has said he will not fight Sterling because of their friendship). Dvalishvili is followed by Sean O’Malley, and Vera is third. A win against Sandhagen should allow Vera to jump O’Malley, whom he defeated in August 2020.

The immediate future of the division is dependent on what unfolds in the Sterling-Cejudo title bout, but one certainty for Vera is that he needs to defeat Sandhagen (15–4, ranked fifth in the division) to reach the heights he wants to climb.

“F--- the rest, I need to go win this fight,” says Vera. “Then we’ll figure the rest out. I have nothing planned or scheduled until then. Not a drink, a dinner, or a party. I’ve got a fight. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

Riding a four-fight win streak, Vera is coming off the most significant victory of his career. He knocked out the great Dominick Cruz with a kick to the head last August, continuing his rise. Vera (20-7-1) stalked Cruz for the first three rounds, absorbing punishment along the way, then finished him in the fourth.

“I’m in there to hunt you, and that’s what I was doing,” says Vera, who is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. “I want to get a hold of you and send you home.

“A lot of people want me to start faster, and I get it. But I need to get a feel. These guys are fast and tough and explosive. The risk is there for me to get hurt, but I’m not letting them just throw. I’m seeing things and catching things. It’s hard to finish guys at this level, but that’s what I’m working to do.” In that fight, Dom was up rounds, 2–1, but I was making the damage.”

That marked Vera’s 10th finish, the most in UFC bantamweight division.

His intelligence is a separating factor in his bouts. The 30-year-old observed that his cerebral nature is often overlooked by opponents, but he prefers it that way—as it means they are underestimating an integral part of his attack.

“My madness is very calculated,” says Vera. “It’s easier to say, ‘F--- it’ and go crazy, but it’s a lot harder to stay calm and collected. That’s not easy to do. I’ve prepared myself for a proper fight, and I’m way better than I was before. I’ve been in the gym and put in the time.”

Sandhagen is part of the upper echelon of the bantamweight division for a reason, and he poses a legitimate threat on Saturday. But Vera has more layers to his arsenal and an explosiveness that Sandhagen does not possess.

“Cory’s a really tough fight,” says Vera. “He knows what he’s doing, he’s been around. But he already fought for the belt. He already fought Sterling before, too. This is my time. I’m fighting to be the best fighter in the world. Saturday night is one more step forward.”

Vera is clear about his objective, which is seizing hold of the bantamweight gold. He vowed that he is willing to work as hard as humanly possible to get there.

“I want to be champion,” says Vera. “You can only do that through work. Not money or fame. The more I make, the more recognition I get, it just means I have to work even harder to get better.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.