In May, I spent four days with T. J. Dillashaw during the lead-up to his UFC bantamweight title fight with Renan Barao.
Barao was the UFC's latest pet project at the time. Dana White had spent the previous weeks telling everyone with a camera or a recorder that Barao was, in his mind, the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. What had once been a sure thing and a title of honor when held by Anderson Silva was being used to hype up a largely unknown fighter for the UFC's pay-per-view audience.
It was nebulous. This time, it was Barao; the next time, it would be Demetrious Johnson, the flyweight champion. The audience didn't buy it, and neither did Dillashaw.
I have spent significant portions of time around Dillashaw over the past few years. I talked to him weekly during his run on The Ultimate Fighter for a blog project. I saw him with the rest of the Team Alpha Male roster.
The one thing that has struck me about Dillashaw over the years is his competitive nature. On a team filled with hardcore athletes who are driven to succeed in every area of life, Dillashaw stands out for his monstrous competitive appetite.
Joseph Benavidez once told me the story of Dillashaw's first day at Urijah's Ultimate Fitness in Sacramento. Dillashaw—with no experience outside of his wrestling background—went through sparring sessions with far more experienced veterans while screaming at them to keep coming.
A wrestling kid, with no actual striking experience, wanted to keep striking. He wanted to keep fighting despite the beatings being handed out to him by the entire team.
The fire that kept Dillashaw in the ring on his first day in camp is the same fire that drives him to win at everything. He grew up with a father who drove his three sons to compete against one another, and, even today, Dillashaw has trouble turning it off.
During his early career outside the UFC and during his early days with the promotion, Dillashaw was aggressive. Too aggressive. He didn't want to lose a single millisecond of a fight, and this caused him to overcommit.
In 2013, I covered Dillashaw's fight at UFC 158 against Issei Tamura. It was his fourth fight for the promotion, and he had yet to tame his wildness. Here's what I saw backstage as Dillashaw prepared to walk to the Octagon:
Which is why, as I stood backstage at UFC 158 and watched him heading toward the entrance ramp and the cage for his fight with Issei Tamura, I shouldn't have been surprised that Dillashaw didn't even see me. Didn't even look at me. He startled me by screaming primally every 15 or 20 seconds. They were loud and guttural, and they were real. They were frightening.
And they made me realize just what it might take to be a fighter, or a special operative in the military, or anyone else who puts their body in the way of physical harm.
You have to competitive. You have to be, for lack of a better term, wrong. And Dillashaw is wrong, to be sure, but he seems to be the right kind of wrong for a mixed martial artist.
Dillashaw eventually learned to control himself. Well, perhaps "control" is the wrong word; he is still a man obsessed with winning. But Dillashaw, under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig, learned to harness that desire and focus it toward improvements in his game.
In the days before UFC 173, Dillashaw was surprisingly calm. If you knew nothing of his background, or of his competitive nature, you might have received the impression that he didn't care. He was relaxed.
On Friday morning, Dillashaw went to check his weight with UFC handler Burt Watson. When he got back to his suite, Dillashaw relaxed on the couch. We discussed how UFC main event stars get access to much better treatment than everyone else. Instead of being crammed in a casino hotel room with three of his cornermen, Dillashaw had a spacious four-room suite.
Here is what I observed:
Dillashaw collapses on a couch and turns on the television. He flips through the channels in search of something to watch and settles on Rocky. He’ll try to write the script for his own Rocky story in a little more than 24 hours. But for now, he’s simply enjoying life and the treatment he is receiving as a main card fighter in a UFC pay-per-view event.
“I guess I’ve gotta get used to it,” he says.
Dillashaw wasn't just confident. Every fighter is confident in his own skills, and rightly so. But Dillashaw was absolutely sure he would beat Barao on Saturday night. There was no doubt in his mind. It was a foregone conclusion he would be leaving Las Vegas and heading back to Sacramento with the world championship belt around his waist.
And then, of course, Saturday came, and Dillashaw went in the Octagon and beat Barao from pillar to post. Joe Rogan is no stranger to hyperbole, but he wasn't kidding when he said it was one of the best performances in UFC history.
Dillashaw's camp heard the rumors of Barao's terrible weight cut in the days leading to the fight. Those rumors became excuses after Barao's loss, because nobody ever mentions bad weight cuts when you're winning. The UFC, intent on getting back some of the money it had spent telling the world Barao was the best on the planet, booked an immediate rematch.
Barao's bad weight cut, a result of his own lack of professionalism, is the thing that earned him a rematch.
What a world.
The truth is that it doesn't matter how healthy Barao is. He could show up in the best shape of his life and be the best version of himself Saturday night. Dillashaw will win anyway. Dillashaw is a terrible stylistic matchup for Barao. He is, to put it simply, the better fighter. He proved it the first time around, and he'll prove it again Saturday.
And after Dillashaw dispatches Barao one more time, he'll move on to the next challenger. Dominick Cruz? Dillashaw of today taking on Cruz of three years ago would've been an interesting fight. Now? Not so much. Dillashaw has incorporated the best parts of Cruz's footwork game and has improved upon the rest. Dillashaw will beat Cruz.
Who wins this fight?
And what happens if Dillashaw ultimately sticks with Ludwig and ends up fighting Faber? Neither man will admit it right now, but I think it's a fight that is going to happen. And while Faber remains one of the best bantamweights in the world, I'm not sure Dillashaw has not passed him by.
Tomorrow's UFC 177 card isn't a big draw. It doesn't even feel like a pay-per-view, if we are being honest with each other. But for me, it's a chance to see a fighter who has quickly morphed from decent prospect to one of the best in the world put on another clinic. This is not to say Barao cannot beat Dillashaw. He can.
But I don't think he will, and I don't think it will be close.