T.J. Dillashaw's rapid ascension up the bantamweight ranks has been filled with impressive performances.
The Team Alpha Male member has successfully parlayed his highly touted prospect status into that of a bona fide title contender on the strength of a dominant run up the ladder at 135 pounds. After making it to the finals of the 14th installment of The Ultimate Fighter, the 28-year-old has carved out his place as one of the elite fighters in the bantamweight division by winning five of his six showings inside the Octagon.
The only setback during this stretch came as the result of a controversial split-decision loss to Raphael Assuncao in October 2013, in a fight many believe Dillashaw should have won.
Nevertheless, "The Viper" bounced back strong in his next showing against Mike Easton in January, outworking and overwhelming the Washington, D.C. native en route to a lopsided unanimous-decision victory.
Dillashaw's victory over "The Hulk" elevated him into the upper tier of the 135-pound fold and put him in a position where a title opportunity was certainly a possibility. When he was tapped to face Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 173 in Las Vegas, it appeared he was still at least one big win away from getting a chance at UFC gold.
Yet, the world of mixed martial arts is unpredictable, and when the organization's annual Memorial Day event lost the headlining bout between Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort due to "The Phenom's" licensing issues, the Sacramento, California-based fighter received the call to face Brazilian wrecking machine Renan Barao for the undisputed bantamweight crown.
Dillashaw has been in the UFC less than three years and has only been competing as a professional for slightly more than four, but the opportunity to face one of the sport's pound-for-pound best with a title on the line was simply too much to pass up. He is in the UFC to be a champion, and facing Barao will bring that dream front and center.
While competing for a world title on the sport's biggest stage could add a unique sense of pressure to the situation, Dillashaw believes he'll enter the Octagon in Las Vegas completely free of expectations.
"I don't feel any pressure coming into this fight," he told Bleacher Report. "He's the champion and the one who has this huge winning streak and is supposed to be unbeatable, so I think the pressure is all on his side of the table. I like being the underdog and think that is great because it frees me up to fight my fight and go in there with a clear head. I can go in there loose and fight like I have no expectations on me. I think that is going to bring out my best performance."
Dillashaw will be looking to put on a career-defining showing at UFC 173, and his attack will feature a much more diverse arsenal than when he came to the UFC through TUF. The bantamweight contender has vastly improved his striking skills over the past 18 months, and those additions have come as a product of the work he's invested in with former UFC veteran and muay thai specialist Duane "Bang" Ludwig.
While multiple members of the Team Alpha Male squad have displayed sharper stand-up games since Ludwig arrived in Sacramento, no fighter in that stable has flourished more than Dillashaw. Whereas he once counted on his wrestling and athleticism to secure victory, his striking and speed have been the keys to his recent run of success.
"Working with Bang has been amazing, and the proof has shown inside the cage," Dillashaw said. "He has helped me improve my striking immensely and found a way to incorporate it with my other strengths. It has almost reached a point where I'm just as comfortable striking as I would be wrestling. Bang has helped me develop my own style of striking, and it has really made my overall game that much stronger."
Although this will be the first time Dillashaw will face Barao inside the Octagon, the Brazilian champion is a familiar name inside the walls of the Ultimate Fitness gym facility that the team uses for its training. TAM leader and former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber has faced "The Baron" on two different occasions, and while he was ultimately turned back in both, those experiences have served to strengthen Dillashaw's preparation for his fight with Barao.
"With Faber having fought him twice, there are certainly things he does that we are aware of," Dillashaw said. "For Faber's second fight with him, I actually played the part of Barao in sparring, so I had to mimic the way he fights in our sparring sessions. He's a very tough fighter who is good everywhere, so there are going to be some things I'm going to have to do in order to take him out of his game. I have to be aggressive in there but still fight a smart fight. Barao is dangerous, but I think there are some things I can do to create problems for him."
While he will step into the Octagon alone on May 24, his teammates in Sacramento provide a huge support system. TAM is a tight-knit collective and is one of the premier squads on the MMA landscape. In addition to Faber's impressive resume, the team also includes former and current title challengers Joseph Benavidez and Chad Mendes as well as a list of other notable fighters like Danny Castillo and recent TUF winner Chris Holdsworth.
The team enjoys one of the most talent-stacked rosters to be found anywhere in the sport, but the biggest knock on the group is its inability to claim championship gold in the UFC. Several of Dillashaw's teammates have been in position to lay claim to a UFC championship but have been thwarted on multiple occasions.
That said, he believes things are about to change where titles and Team Alpha Male are concerned. His opportunity will present itself next weekend, and Mendes is set for another showdown with Jose Aldo later in the year. Dillashaw can see two championship straps coming back to Northern California and plans on making the most of his chance to do so next Saturday night.
"It is going to be a great year for us," Dillashaw said. "We are going to have two belts, and it is going to be awesome. We have a great team, and we all really push each other to be the best fighters we can be. We are like a family and we all want one another to succeed. They have all helped me prepare for this fight and I'm motivated to go out there and get the title."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.