T.J. Dillashaw isn't thinking about the past.
Granted, the date (May 24, 2014) will forever be burned in his brain as the night he shocked the MMA world by doing the unthinkable and upsetting and dethroning the reigning bantamweight king. It will be remembered as the night he transitioned from a prospect filled with potential to a certified UFC title holder—and in doing so—brought a tremendous sense of pride to his Team Alpha Male brethren and ended the gym's seemingly never-ending and highly publicized drought from championship gold.
It's a moment Dillashaw will sit and cherish long after his fighting days are behind him, because no matter how the outcome on the road ahead, he put on a career-defining performance at UFC 173 and did what very few believed he could achieve. While that night in Las Vegas was just three short months ago, Dillashaw has already tucked that evening away for something to look back on when the twilight sets in on his days as a mixed martial artist. Right now, the only thing on Dillashaw's mind is what comes next.
As it turns out, his first step out as bantamweight champion will be to face the very man he took it from in Renan Barao. While most immediate rematches are granted when the first fight was a closely contested affair, that wasn't the case in the initial go between The Ultimate Fighter alum and the Nova Uniao representative. Dillashaw jumped on the champion from the go and pounded him from pillar to post until he finished Barao off with a flurry in the fourth round.
Yet, due to the Brazilian knockout machine's previous decade-long reign of dominance, the UFC believed an immediate turnaround between the two fighters would be the best option. And it was a choice Dillashaw took no issues with. He out-struck and out-fought the pound-for-pound great to win the title, and the 28-year-old believes he will do it once more when the two fighters collide in the main event at UFC 177 in his adopted hometown of Sacramento this Saturday night.
Their first fight is in the past and Dillashaw is thinking about the future.
"I'm treating this fight like every fight because every fight is huge in my mind," Dillashaw told Bleacher Report. "You get the exact same nerves and jitters for every one, and I treat them the exact same way. There is no added pressure and I'm going out there and I will feel the way I always do.
"My focus going into every fight is to focus on improving my skills and what I need to do to improve, and I don't worry too much about what they are going to bring to the table. But I make sure I'm prepared for it. I went through and watched the tape of our first fight, and even though it went perfectly for me, there are still things I could have done better and things I need to watch out for. I'll be prepared for what he's going to bring to the table and I'm going to continue to surprise him. Surprising your opponent and doing things they don't expect is how you become the best.
"My focus is always on getting better," he added. "If I want to hold onto this belt and continue to reach the goals I've set for myself, then I have to keep improving. You set these goals for yourself and start doing the work in the gym. I'm working hard right now than I ever have."
While constant progression is the key focus for Dillashaw, he will be attempting to duplicate or outdo a maestro performance at UFC 173 back in May. Where he was once considered a wrestler with speed and athleticism, Dillashaw's striking game has improved tremendously with former UFC veteran-turned-coach Duane "Bang" Ludwig at the helm.
Working with Ludwig has completely changed the former TUF finalist's straightforward attack into something unpredictable and varied, and that approach gave the former champion fits in their first meeting inside the Octagon. It didn't take long for the rematch to materialize, therefore Dillashaw and Ludwig wasted no time getting back to work.
Despite the Muay Thai guru parting ways as the head coach at Team Alpha Male, Ludwig returned to Sacramento in order to prepare Dillashaw to once again dance with the Brazilian striker.
"Duane just wanted to move back to Colorado and start his own gym," Dillashaw explained. "He wanted to start something of his own and start his own legacy. His family is from Colorado and he wanted to go back there. All of us understood that was the case, but as soon as my fight got announced, Duane actually came back out to Sacramento.
"He moved his family back to Colorado, but then moved into my house with me for this training camp. He's been living with me at my house for the past eight weeks, we train during the week then he flies home to see his family every weekend."
Despite coming into the matchup as a heavy underdog, Dillashaw put on the best performance of his career in his first fight with Barao. Few in the MMA community gave him a chance to upset the reigning 135-pound king, his victory sent a shock wave across the sport's landscape. Such tilted odds and his previous dominance in the division could have forced Barao to take the young challenger lightly, but Dillashaw doesn't care if that is the case.
He believes he exposed holes Barao has always had in his game and has every intention of doing it again this Saturday night.
"I don't know, it's possible, but I just think that is the way he fights anyways," Dillashaw said in regard to being potentially overlooked at UFC 173. "The things I saw and capitalized on were things I have seen him do in every fight. I studied a lot of his tape, saw his weaknesses and decided to go for them.
"Solidifying my place at the top of this division is absolutely my goal. I have to continue to build my name. I have to try to become a legend in this sport and defeating Barao again in the way to do it. He's the one who is still ranked ahead of me in the pound-for-pound rankings, so if I want to get my name as big as possible he's the guy to beat."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.