TJ Dillashaw is the UFC's reigning bantamweight king. Dating back to his 2011 debut, only three men have found a way to beat him.
The first, John Dodson, once fought for the flyweight title and is now a mid-level contender at 135 pounds. He is currently ranked No. 7 on the official UFC bantamweight rankings. Dodson is 3-2 over the past two years.
Injuries forced the second, Dominick Cruz, into semi-retirement after multiple title reigns. Cruz is No. 2 in the rankings despite not competing for the past 18 months.
The third is Raphael Assuncao. Currently the No. 3-ranked bantamweight, Assuncao's name doesn't ring out like the three above it.
That's why, despite his fourth straight win last week over Rob Font at UFC 226, he appears to be running in place toward the title shot that should have had his name on it a year ago. That's why Assuncao is not only the best of these three, not only the UFC's most underrated bantamweight, but the most underrated fighter in the entire UFC. No one else has such an expansive resume and so little to show for it.
Over the past two years, Assuncao is 4-1, his only loss coming to Dillashaw (and we'll come back to that). The four wins came over some impressive names—Aljamain Sterling, Marlon Moraes, Matthew Lopez and then Font. Panning back the lens a bit, Assuncao is 11-1 since 2011.
Most every Assuncao fight pivots on counterstriking, control grappling and takedown defense. His legs are steel girders that don't move easily, unless it's to batter the comparatively birdlike legs of his opponents. His hands are heavy enough to finish the fight in one blow. In short, there isn't much an opponent can do to beat him.
He doesn't do much to beat them, either, and therein lies your problem. The standard Assuncao fight is not a firestorm or any other kind of storm. That countering style means extended inactivity and low output. His grappling is conservative, based more on position than submission.
Assuncao fights usually run their course and move politely to the judges' table. Wins over Sterling and Moraes, both true elites in the division, ended in split decision, with Assuncao's inactivity down the stretch threatening to swing the bout toward the opponent.
After the win over Moraes in June 2017, a funny thing happened. It wasn't an unprecedented thing, but it symbolizes some stuff. The UFC is allergic to anything it deems "boring," and everyone knows it. That includes Moraes, who promptly sniffed out a secret passage leading under and past his superior.
"Who do the people want to watch, me against [top contender] Cody [Garbrandt], me against Dillashaw, or Raphael?" Moraes said on The MMA Hour broadcast after the fight. "Raphael fought Dillashaw. The fight wasn't exciting. I think the fans want to see me, even some fans want to see 'let's see if this guy's really good, let's test him' and the fans want to see if he can win. So I think I am next."
Moraes was right. Two wins later and he had a de facto title eliminator against Jimmie Rivera in the main event of UFC Fight Night 131. Assuncao next faced the unranked Lopez at the bottom of the UFC Fight Night 120 main card and then faced Font on the UFC 226 prelims. That's a pretty dramatic crossing of the trend lines.
Moraes is a great fighter with a camera-ready muay thai style and a proven track record. Props to him for understanding the game and playing it accordingly. He back-stopped the strategy with a knockout of Rivera and is now widely assumed to be the next title challenger after Dillashaw and Garbrandt tangle in August.
But Assuncao is better than he is.
The problem is egregious enough that UFC President Dana White had to take questions on it after UFC 226. White told reporters that "the guy disappeared for a while. He had some injuries. He was gone for a while. Then he recently just came back and he's starting to fight again."
Define "recently." True, Assuncao broke his ankle and missed two years of action. But that was 2014, and the aforementioned 4-1 streak occurred after his return. He fought three times in 2017.
It's sad because Assuncao sees the writing on the wall. It can't feel good to watch a guy you beat Pass Go and proceed directly toward a title shot while you're stuck mopping up the undercard. After defeating Font, Assuncao took to the mic to plead his case.
"I feel I'm the most consistent guy in the division, one of the most consistent guys in the world, in the UFC," Assuncao told broadcaster Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight. "I've been quiet, I've been professional, I've been doing my job [like I said I would] when I signed on the dotted line. And boss, please, if you're here, what else do I have to do for my title chance?"
Good and bad news for Assuncao: The answer is "nothing." He can't do anything else. He is the only top fighter whose victims have moved directly ahead of him—far ahead—while he helplessly watches. There's no gray area. It's all up to the UFC, just like it always was, and that's a group that doesn't exactly seek out objective facts or constructive debate when it comes to assessing fighters and making fights.
There are a few factors on Assuncao's side, though. The first is that he really isn't all that boring. Let's not forget he put Moraes on skates early with big right hands and knocked out Lopez in the next contest. He has 10 submissions and four knockouts to his name. Yeah, his fights can be slow, but let's not turn him into Jared Rosholt.
There's also the small matter of fact that Assuncao and Dillashaw have wins against each other. Assuncao is the only person in that situation. Neither of the other two men to defeat Dillashaw is in the picture right now. If Dillashaw gets past Garbrandt, you don't think a rubber match is marketable?
The MMA cognoscenti live to patronize anyone who suggests that MMA might be a "real sport," a thing that benefits from the notion that the fighters on a UFC broadcast are the best fighters. Certainly, the show matters. You have to put backsides on the barstools. It's the real reason the UFC brass doesn't want Assuncao anywhere near a main event, accomplishments be damned.
But integrity matters, too, because it speaks to quality. Quality is important. With this little Assuncao problem, someone's backside is showing, and no barstool is going to cover it up.
If fight fans aren't watching the best guys, what are they watching? Allowing the best fighters to earn what they've earned isn't mutually exclusive with show business. There's a balance to be struck: style and substance. If Assuncao, for all his talent and achievements, keeps watching guys he beat zoom past him in the fast lane, the balance is out of whack.