Last week, I followed TJ Dillashaw as he prepared for his UFC 173 bout against Renan Barao. He was one of the biggest underdogs ever to participate in a championship bout, and few gave him a chance of making it out of the first round, much less pulling off the historic upset.
In my time spent with Dillashaw, I saw a man completely unfazed by the task ahead of him, as though he had no idea what the fans and oddsmakers were saying.
He was relaxed, loose and absolutely confident that he’d be taking the title back to Sacramento. He spoke of all the things he’d need to get used to as bantamweight champion, such as spending fight weeks in the nicest hotel suites available instead of standard rooms.
Where did his confidence come from? How was he able to overlook the long odds he faced?
“Duane (Ludwig) always said he had the utmost confidence in me beating Barao. He isn’t going to blow smoke up my butt when he tells me what he believes. The way he went about it made me super confident getting in there,” Dillashaw says. “And then the rest of my team, Urijah, Joseph, Chad, they all tell me how good I am. Urijah really believed that I could beat Barao.
“Team Alpha Male really tuned up my confidence.”
Dillashaw was on to something. He went in the Octagon and beat Barao from pillar to post before finishing him in the fifth round to become the new bantamweight champion.
He knocked Barao down in the first round, then used the same tactics to befuddle the champion and keep him off balance in the second. He knew then that he had a chance to win. After a dominant third, he realized he’d won the first three rounds going away. Barao had nothing to offer him.
“After that, I was like ‘I’ve got this guy’s number. I can put it on him,’ Dillashaw says. “After the third, I knew I had him.”
The historic underdog hadn’t just defied the odds; he’d trampled all over them and then kicked them out the door. He’d dominated one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world and turned in one of the single best performances in UFC history.
Dillashaw believes his footwork, which greatly resembled the stuff former champion Dominick Cruz used during his rise to the top, was too much for Barao. He danced backward and sideways and leaped forward with jabs; Barao, a devastating counter-striker, never figured it out.
“I got interviewed about Barao and Dominick a long time ago when I was working my way up the ladder, and I said that Dominick was the better fighter, but Barao was more dangerous, and he’d be a tough fight for Dominick,” he says. “But I knew that Dominick had the footwork to beat him. So, having that in my mind, I knew I had to step up my footwork, use good angles and keep him confused.”
Dillashaw went home with the belt and a $100,000 bonus check. He says he slept with the belt on, but it digs into his side, so it doesn’t work out.
He wore the belt in numerous media appearances this week; he is, for a moment, Sacramento’s most famous resident, and the whirlwind media tour that followed his win has kept him too busy to think. His tiny hometown of Angels Camp wants a piece of the Dillashaw action, as well.
“They want to throw some sort of parade,” he says. Parades, interviews and autograph sessions are part of his life now.
In three weeks, he will travel to Mexico to marry his longtime fiancee. They will depart on a short honeymoon, and then he’ll return to Las Vegas for the UFC Fan Expo, where he’ll meet thousands of the new fans he made last Saturday night. After that, he’d like a little downtime to relax and enjoy life. That enjoyment won’t include spending much of his newfound money, however.
“I’ve always kinda been a tight-ass, and I’ll probably continue to be one, even though I’ve got a little bit more cash,” he says with a laugh.
When he’s through relaxing, he’ll start training. He would like to return to the Octagon in late October. Raphael Assuncao is likely to be his next challenger, and that’s fine with Dillashaw, as he would like to even the score after dropping a loss to Assuncao in 2013. After that? More challengers await, and Cruz might finally be healthy enough to make a long-awaited return to fighting.
“I got to beat Barao, and it would be nice to beat Dominick. He was the champion when I first started fighting, so it would be nice to beat both of those guys,” he says.
He has come a long way since the first day he walked into Faber’s Ultimate Fitness and began training. Benavidez, Faber and others will tell you that Dillashaw is the fiercest and most competitive fighter in a gym that houses plenty of world-class talent. He was always considered a prospect to watch, but few could have seen him advancing this far, this fast. He is no longer a prospect; he is a champion.
“I definitely didn’t envision it happening this fast,” he says. “It’s been a crazy whirlwind, but everything has worked out the way it’s supposed to."
All quotes were obtained firsthand.