T.J. Dillashaw has certainly made improvements to his striking skill set over the past two years, but apparently Renan Barao isn't all too impressed.
The Ultimate Fighter 14 alum came into the UFC with strong wrestling skills and a well of athleticism that propelled him to victories in his first two showings inside the Octagon. While his talents were obvious, the 28-year-old's attack was borderline one-dimensional, and he knew his arsenal of weapons would have to expand if he were ever going to make a run at the bantamweight title.
Enter Duane "Bang" Ludwig and the evolution of Team Alpha Male.
The retired UFC veteran set up shop as the head coach of the Sacramento-based collective, and the results were immediate. In addition to several standout performances by his teammates, Dillashaw earned impressive stoppage wins in his next two outings, as his much-improved striking dismantled Issei Tamura and Hugo Viana, respectively. While his next bout resulted in a controversial split-decision loss to Raphael Assuncao last October, Dillashaw's performance was solid as he gave the Brazilian veteran all he could handle throughout the 15-minute affair and proved he belonged in the upper tier of the bantamweight fold.
He would get things back on track in his next showing against Mike Easton at Fight Night 35 back in January as he worked a well-rounded game to earn a lopsided unanimous-decision victory. While his win over "The Hulk" put him within striking distance of a title shot, a booking against Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 173 meant it was going to take at least another win for a championship opportunity to materialize.
Yet, when the UFC's annual Memorial Day event lost its headlining bout, the organization tapped the surging contender to face bantamweight champion Renan Barao in the main event on May 24.
"The Baron" has been a wrecking machine since joining the UFC in 2011. In just three years, the Nova Uniao product has racked up seven consecutive victories on an impressive run that landed him a seat on the bantamweight throne. Those victories also extended his overall unbeaten streak to 32-straight bouts—a monstrous number in the modern era of MMA—and put his well-rounded attack on display at every turn.
The matchup between Barao and Dillashaw this Saturday night in Las Vegas will pit the rising talent against one of the most dangerous stand-up fighters in MMA. While Dillashaw has certainly made improvements in the striking department, Barao believes the California native is confused about the type of fighter he is, and that will create the opportunity he needs to end the fight.
"I believe T.J. [Dillashaw] thinks he is a striker now, and he isn't," Barao told Bleacher Report through the assistance of a translator. "I think he will mess up and make mistakes in this fight, and this will present the chance for me to finish him. I'm very calm and ready for this fight, and I believe I will win this fight because I'm the better fighter."
While the two fighters will meet for the first time on May 24 in Las Vegas, their respective camps are certainly familiar with one another. The team at Nova Uniao holds three victories in title bouts over the Sacramento-based collective, with two of those wins coming from Barao defeating Dillashaw's team leader and mentor, Urijah Faber. "The California Kid" was also dealt a lopsided loss by Barao teammate and close friend, Jose Aldo, when the two top featherweights scrapped it out for the 145-pound crown under the WEC banner back in 2010.
Although Barao doesn't pay much mind to the past holding any sway on what is yet to come, he does credit his coach Andre "Dede" Pederneiras, Aldo and the rest of their close-knit team for driving him to be the best fighter he can be.
“We have an amazing team at Nova Uniao," Barao said. "We have great fighters that all push one another to be better. 'Dede' is an amazing guy. He has fought in the past and is very strategic, and that helps us very much. Aldo is like a brother to me, and I feel like I learn something new from him every day. It is a great team and an amazing thing to be a part of."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.