How T.J. Dillashaw ascended to bantamweight royalty

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LOS ANGELES – The reality series, “The Ultimate Fighter,” has been a gold mine for the UFC. Not only did it rescue the promotion from extinction, debuting at a time when the company was $44 million in debt, it has produced – and continues to produce – elite talent.

Nine of the fighters who have appeared on the series have gone on to win a UFC championship.

None of the other eight – Hall of Famers Forrest Griffin and Matt Serra and Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping, Tony Ferguson, Carla Esparza, Rose Namajunas and Nicco Montano – have done what T.J. Dillashaw has done.

Dillashaw was violently knocked out in the TUF Finale in 2011 by John Dodson. It was easy to dismiss him as a wrestler with a one-dimensional game.

It also was a huge and very obvious mistake.

Dillashaw has developed so completely that he’s like a chameleon, able to change styles almost at will. After knocking out Cody Garbrandt in the first round of their bantamweight title fight Saturday in the main event of UFC 227 at Staples Center, Dillashaw also has a strong argument as the greatest bantamweight in UFC history.

If it’s not him, it’s Dominick Cruz, and a rematch of their 2016 fight that Cruz won in Boston by a razor-thin margin would be epic.

T.J. Dillashaw sealed his status as among the greatest UFC fighters ever when he stopped Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227. (Getty Images)

But since being knocked out by Dodson, Dillashaw has gone 12-2 and with any kind of breaks could be on a 14-fight winning streak. He lost agonizingly close decisions in that run to Raphael Assuncao in Brazil in 2013 and to Cruz in 2016.

In his 12 wins, he’s knocked out Renan Barao twice and Garbrandt twice, and avenged the loss to Assuncao. On top of that, he bested John Lineker.

He has knocked out his archrival Garbrandt in their last two bouts, doing it in the second round in November in Madison Square Garden before catching him in the first on Saturday.

Given his dislike for Garbrandt, he poured it on to make the win as emphatic as possible.

“He wasn’t recovered from the first [knockdown],” Dillashaw said of a sweeping right that put Garbrandt down midway through the first. “He got back to his feet, but I wasn’t going to let off. No way. I’m too mean. I’m going to go until I win. I didn’t have a problem giving him a little extra. That knee was a pretty hard knee. I felt that one, and it helped me to finish him off.”

It left him with plenty of options, though not the one he was hoping to have. He was looking forward to going to flyweight to challenge Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight championship because Johnson entered his bout on Saturday with Henry Cejudo regarded as the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighter as well as the greatest fighter in the sport’s history.

That motivated Dillashaw to want to challenge him. But Johnson lost a tight split decision to Cejudo in a wonderful bout and though Cejudo called him out for a fight at 135, Dillashaw seemed lukewarm.

There are plenty of options, though given the type of competitor Dillashaw is, it would be a stunner if he didn’t ask for another bout with Cruz.

He lived for a long time in Cruz’s shadow, but he won’t take a backseat to anyone anymore. He’s a great MMA wrestler, has improved his striking by leaps and bounds, and has been eager to show off what he says is vastly improved jiu-jitsu.

It’s all because he is so studious and eager to learn. His ability to change flummoxed Garbrandt.

“My confidence comes from how hard I train,” Dillashaw said. “I train harder and smarter than anybody out here. I have the Treigning Lab in California where Sam Calvitta pushes me to the extreme. And it’s not only how hard we go, but it’s the science behind it. He’s a very smart guy and that’s why I moved down there. As well, I have the greatest coach in the world, Duane Ludwig. It’s not only how great of a coach he is, but he’s willing to sacrifice and fly out every week [from Colorado] to train me. Juan Archuleta pushes me. We’ve got Cub Swanson. It’s a great gym to train at.

“What I did differently tonight is I switched it up on him. I can be a different fighter every fight. I knew he thought I was going to move my feet, throw a lot of kicks and do all this flashy stuff. But instead, I kind of waited for him to rush me and met him with the right hand. I beat him at his own game.”

He’s beating everyone at their own game these days. He has a strong argument for his name to sit on top of those pound-for-pound rankings when they’re updated next.

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