It took a bit longer than most expected, but T.J. Dillashaw's shotgun title defense ultimately ended as most expected at UFC 177 on Saturday. The unlikely challenger, Joe Soto, put in a solid effort, but the Team Alpha Male product had the fight in his hands from start to finish.
Dillashaw landed combinations on top of combinations, inside other combinations. While Soto blocked much of the champ's offensive output, he had little response to the deluge of punches. Battered, Soto fell prey to a massive head kick in the fifth frame. Dillashaw followed it up with a devastating punch, and that, as they say, was that.
It was an impressive effort by Dillashaw, which reasserted some of the things he has already proved in the last year. His cardio truly is top-notch. He can finish a fight at any time. He has an entertaining, fan-friendly style.
Not only that but owning a belt has given him a definite swagger that wasn't there six months ago. But what new things did we learn from this fight?
Well, we learned that Soto is a tough dude. The former Bellator featherweight champion and Tachi Palace Fights bantamweight champion was a dark horse to potentially win this fight, given his heavy hands and solid wrestling. Many expected him to be a legitimate tomato can for Dillashaw, and he most certainly was not that.
Hand-in-hand with that, Soto is just the tip of the "bantamweight talent outside the UFC" iceberg. Bellator titleholders Joe Warren and Eduardo Dantas, WSOF's Marlon Moraes, One FC's Bibiano Fernandes and many more would all be potential contenders if they joined the UFC. The fact Soto could basically be plucked out of the parking lot, plugged in on 24 hours' notice and post a reasonably strong fight speaks to that fact.
We also learned that Dillashaw should be regarded as the best bantamweight in MMA. Frankly, it's still perplexing that people don't believe this after he broke Barao like a wild horse before knocking him out, but it's basically impossible to deny at this point.
The biggest lesson, however, came before the fight. That lesson is that the UFC truly, honestly, unrepentantly doesn't care about the bantamweight division.
It's something many have suspected, of course. How could one think different when the UFC habitually plucked fighters off preliminary cards, unceremoniously fed them to then-champion Barao and then tossed their remains back onto Fox Sports 1? But the way the UFC handled UFC 177 was truly, utterly disrespectful to Dillashaw and all the fighters he reigns over.
Slapping together a pointless rematch in Dillashaw vs. Barao 2 was a crummy start on its own but giving the event a comparably awful co-main event in Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso? Then stripping that away and trying to pass off a fight between anonymous, unranked lightweights as something worth paying $55 for?
That wouldn't happen with any other division. Just look at how the UFC buffed up UFC 161. Despite the fact that it sported a weak headliner in Dan Henderson vs. Rashad Evans, it was backed up by fan favorites like Roy Nelson and Pat Barry and featured rising stars in Alexis Davis and Tyron Woodley. Look at the cavalry the UFC assigns behind Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey on any given card and compare it with the Hogan's Heroes they send to back up Dillashaw.
While Soto's effort was commendable, it doesn't change the fact that the UFC took a "yeah, whatever" approach to what should have been an epic coming-out party for one of its most exciting young talents.
Unless the UFC radically changes its approach to its lower weight classes, Dillashaw's greatest opponent is, and will continue to be, the UFC boardroom. No matter how many silly sound bites Dana White puts out and no matter how much the UFC complains, there is no substitute for actually grooming and promoting contenders.
If the UFC doesn't start making an effort to build Dillashaw in the same way it builds other champions, he will never be a draw. That would truly be a shame.