From inside the eye of the hurricane swirling around UFC 177, TJ Dillashaw put on a command performance.
Dillashaw had been UFC bantamweight champion for all of 98 days on Saturday, when he was forced into the no-win situation of defending his title against little-known replacement opponent Joe Soto. As anyone reading this story likely already knows, his scheduled rematch with former champ Renan Barao was scrapped a day earlier, when Barao failed to make weight.
In essence, what was already a bad situation for Dillashaw became much worse. Even before Barao’s ouster, UFC 177 was not considered a strong card—what with its relative lack of star power and the fact that the two main eventers had just fought at UFC 173.
Without the 27-year-old Brazilian, many wondered aloud how even diehard fans could be expected to buy it. Still, the fight company trudged forward, with no option but to doggedly insist the show must go on. Dana White railed against "disgusting, despicable" media coverage, even as the UFC itself trotted out Barao for an on-air interview that felt more like punishment than an honest quest for the truth.
Amid all the chaos and bad feelings, perhaps the biggest accomplishment of all was that Dillashaw made UFC 177 feel like it actually meant something.
Three months ago, he took Barao’s title.
This weekend, he took his rightful spot as the face of the bantamweight division.
We still didn’t know that much about Dillashaw heading into this fight. The only real interesting thing about watching him fight Barao again so soon would’ve been finding out if he could manage to look as dominating the second time around.
Instead, we learned a lot more than that.
Dillashaw took on what shaped up as a dangerous, thankless fight against Soto and turned it into a statement victory of sorts. We can’t chalk a whole lot up to the level of competition, but Soto turned out to be game and in shape, and Dillashaw largely walked circles around him.
Utilizing the same mobile and frustrating striking style he’d used to beat Barao, Dillashaw took every round from his overmatched foe. More important than that, he reintroduced himself to the UFC audience, or at least that percentage that found it in their hearts to tune in.
On a night when Barao was nowhere to be found, Dillashaw proved his UFC 173 win was no fluke. As he outmaneuvered and outfought Soto, we realized: This is Dillashaw. This is what he does. And you know what? It’s pretty fun to watch.
Then in the fifth round, he added an exclamation point with a highlight-reel TKO victory. Not too shabby, considering he’d already spent the entire weekend acting like a champion.
Of all the short straws handed out prior to UFC 177, Dillashaw arguably got the shortest of all. Due to the UFC’s ever-increasing live schedule, he’d already been forced into an immediate rematch with Barao during a time when most new champions would still be out buying jewelry and designer bed sheets.
For two straight training camps he’d focused solely on Barao, only to have the carpet pulled out from under him at the last possible moment. Kind of a tough assignment for a relatively unheralded product of The Ultimate Fighter, whose championship victory on May 23 was one of the most surprising upsets of the year so far.
Thrust in as Barao’s emergency understudy, Soto possessed the worst possible qualities for a late-notice challenger—being virtually anonymous and also a pretty good fighter.
Dillashaw would’ve been well within his rights to refuse a new opponent on such short notice. He could’ve insisted this fight be a non-title affair—after all, Soto was only meant to make his Octagon debut on this card and had done nothing to earn a shot at UFC gold.
But the champion did none of those things.
"I'm a company man," he said instead, on stage at Friday’s weigh-in. "I’ve got to fight whoever they put in front of me. I'm the champion of the world.”
It was an admirable position from the man who had the most to lose. Advocates for fighters’ rights probably weren’t crazy about Dillashaw’s choice of words. We could go back and forth all day on the merits of proclaiming yourself a “company man” when you are, in fact, paid as an independent contractor—but that seems like another story for another day.
Part of his bluster was certainly motivated by dollars and cents. Stuck on the last fight of his Ultimate Fighter contract, Dillashaw reportedly made $36,000 to defeat Barao the first time ($18,000 to show, $18,000 to win). He was scheduled to make a reported $50,000/$50,000 on Saturday night, and that kind of pay hike would be tough to walk away from, regardless of all the outside noise.
I’d like to think, though, that part of Dillashaw’s composure was forged of sheer confidence. I’d like to think it was a sign he possesses the self-control and single-mindedness necessary to be a star in mixed martial arts’ unsteady and unforgiving landscape.
With Barao in limbo and Dominick Cruz still a few weeks away from his first fight since 2011, God knows the 135-pound division needs one right now.
Turns out, the future of bantamweight may not be the Brazilian with the 30-fight win streak the UFC spent months trying to prop up as a pound-for-pound great. It might just be this blond kid from California who lost out in the finals of TUF 14 but has been quietly doing pretty great things ever since.