UFC 217: The rise of T.J. Dillashaw

T.J. Dillashaw is set to square off against rival and former teammate Cody 'No Love' Garbrandt at UFC 217 and hopes to reclaim the title he so narrowly lost.

For former bantamweight king T.J. Dillashaw, UFC 217 represents both redemption and rivalry. At the event, he seeks to regain the UFC Bantamweight Championship of the world, a title he held for over a year and a half before his narrow and somewhat demurred decision loss to Dominick Cruz in January of 2017, a man who his opponent Cody Garbrandt knows all too well.

Dillashaw also hopes to put to bed the rivalry between himself and Garbrandt, who coached opposite to the former champion on season 25 of The Ultimate Fighter earlier this year. The animosity between the pair is as genuine as we have seen in MMA, with a riveting back story behind it that goes back to a time before Dillashaw or Garbrandt ever laid hands on a UFC belt,  and a huge amount of confrontation and tension since Dillashaw opted to leave Team Alpha Male to remain in coordinance with his coach Duane Ludwig.

However, I have already written a piece on the storyline of events between UFC 217’s two co-main event competitors, and wish to speak today on the career of T.J. Dillashaw in far more detail, from his rise in the sport to his resurgence to the top of the bantamweight division. I also hope to paint a picture of what you can expect from the American when he steps foot inside of the octagon in Madison Square Garden this Saturday. 

Entry into mixed martial arts

It was at the Bret Harte High School in California that T.J. Dillashaw would first enter the realm of the combat sports world when he enrolled in the school wrestling team and amounted noteworthy achievements in state competitions, including fifth and second place finishes in the CIF state championships in his junior and senior years, respectively. This success earned him a scholarship to wrestle for California State University, where he would rise to new heights and qualify for three NCAA tournaments, climbing to the #10 ranked position in the 133-pound weight class during his senior year.

This wrestling skill would carry over when Dillashaw, not entirely satisfied with his accomplishments on the amateur wrestling circuit and hungry for further competition, decided to take his talents to MMA. After a year and a half of honing his skills at the Reign Training Center, T.J. joined the gym that would change his career forever, and catapult him from a promising talent who relied largely on his grappling background to an all-round technician and UFC mainstay.

Soon after joining Team Alpha Male in Sacramento and developing under the tutelage of former WEC champion and UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber, Dillashaw made his professional MMA debut in 2010, and soon amassed a record of 4-0, which gained him passage to a tryout for season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, where it became apparently clear that the youngster held the potential for future greatness.

The Ultimate Fighter

Coming into TUF 14 on Team Bisping, Dillashaw sought to assert himself as a fighter to watch in the 135-pound division, and he did just this with a string of highly impressive performances. Winning his three fights in the house in dominant fashion, which included two wins inside the scheduled time limit, he would make it to the finals of the show in December of 2011, where he faced John Dodson. Unfortunately for the then 25-year-old Dillashaw, his first taste of the UFC spotlight ended in bitter disappointment when he suffered a knockout defeat at the hands of Dodson in the first round of their main card bout. However, this was not to deter the UFC from securing the services of the rising American prospect who clearly possessed the ability to be a top fighter in the newly formed bantamweight division, and Dillashaw soon competed under the UFC banner again.

Climbing the ranks at 135 pounds

Coming off his devastating loss in the TUF Finale, Dillashaw was eager to get his career back on track and solidify his place in the UFC. Over a brief 14-month time frame, T.J. blasted through the first four opponents the company threw his way, earning two wins by knockout, one via a neck-crank submission and another by way of unanimous decision. His performances grew more impressive with each outing, and many called for the American to face sterner opposition amongst the elite in the bantamweight division. 

Therefore, Dillashaw was scheduled to face one of the weight class’ top contenders in Raphael Assuncao, a man with title aspirations of his own and a vast amount of experience to back it up. The fight would be bittersweet for T.J. – he proved that he belonged in the octagon with the very best and earned the first Fight of the Night bonus of his budding career, but he came up short and suffered a split decision loss against the Brazilian in a back-and-forth contest that rose both fighters’ stock massively.

 Yet, the defeat did little to thwart his momentum, and an impressive victory over Mike Easton at UFC Fight Night 35 would prove to be more far more valuable to the Team Alpha Male combatant than he or his coaches could have hoped for.

Remarkable title win and reign

When T.J. Dillashaw, who was scheduled to face Takeya Mizugaki on the undercard of UFC 173 in May of 2014, got the call to step up the card to rescue the main event of the evening, few expected what was to come. His task had grown far more daunting, but Dillashaw did not fear the nine-year unbeaten streak and 34-1 record of his new opponent, Renan Barao, who was widely considered to be one of the very best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet going into the fight. Judging by the lopsided odds for the contest and the large expectancy for a one-sided victory the champion, one could not have guessed that Dillashaw would step up in the spectacular manner he did.

In what I still believe to be one of the finest performances in UFC history, T.J. approached the fight with Barao in a way that no-one had and bamboozled the flat-footed Brazilian with his incredible movement, footwork and striking throughout. After securing an early knockdown (much to the surprise of the arena and, in particular, Joe Rogan), Dillashaw put on a masterful display of his martial arts skill and thoroughly outclassed the seemingly unbeatable champion for over 20 minutes in their championship fight. He topped off his performance with a brutal TKO finish midway through the fifth round and secured one of the greatest upset victories in the history of the sport. The win sent an enormous shock wave through the MMA world, and Dillashaw was suddenly considered to be one of the sport's most talented commodities. 

After the immediate rematch between Dillashaw and Barao had to be scrapped the day before their scheduled showdown at UFC 177, déjà vu would occur when Joe Soto, a bantamweight set to fight on the undercard of the event, was promoted to the main event slot just as T.J. Dillashaw had been only three months before. The champion welcomed the new opponent, and reasserted his position atop the 135-pound weight class with yet another stellar showing, securing his second consecutive fifth-round knockout victory and Performance of the Night bonus. 

His next title defense was to be even more impressive, when Dillashaw finally rematched Barao at UFC on Fox 16 in July 2016. During the bout, Dillashaw affirmed the dawn of a new era in the bantamweight division when he finished the Brazilian ace in even more dominant fashion than in their first meeting at UFC 173. The win sent Barao to the featherweight division and made T.J. a relevant name in the discussion of who was the best champion in the company, but his true challenge would come in the form of a returning bantamweight legend in search of the title that he had never lost - Dominick Cruz.

Returning to the cage after competing in just one fight in over four years, the injury-laden Cruz sought to reclaim the title he felt still belonged to him. The former champion was brash in the build-up to the fight and promised another victory over a Team Alpha Male fighter (although T.J. had just left the gym). Cruz's sole loss came at the hands of Dillashaw's former mentor, Urijah Faber, a loss that he has since avenged twice, and his almost-perfect record would grow in strength when he defeated the reigning champion in a highly debated split decision. The bout earned Fight of the Night honors, and rightfully so - it was exhilarating throughout, with both fighters demonstrating their similar, elusive styles in an up-and-down fight where the judges were left scratching their heads as to who was claiming each round. Dillashaw's performance was hindered early on by his overly emotional aggression when he abandoned much of his technical skill to hunt for a knockout win over his bitter rival. However, T.J. went back to his gameplan in the later rounds and found major success, but it proved to be too little, too late on the night, and he was forced to re-enter the pool of bantamweight contenders while the newly crowned Cruz took on two of Dillashaw's former teammates in Urijah Faber and Cody Garbrandt.

Reclaiming the number one contender position

After being denied an immediate rematch for his bantamweight title, Dillashaw refused to stay idle and proved himself as the deserving number one contender in the division he had ruled for over 18 months. At UFC 200, the American joined the historic event when he was granted an opportunity to avenge his earlier defeat to Raphael Assuncao. Dillashaw displayed the progression in his skill-level here and shut out the Brazilian in a dominant decision victory. 

Despite many fans clamoring for the former champion to get his highly anticipated rematch with Cruz, the UFC would instead give the title shot to Cody Garbrandt, the undefeated rising star who had blazed his way to the top of the weight class with a slew of devastating knockouts that caught the eye of the fan base and Dominick Cruz himself. He would claim the world championship in a stunning performance reminiscent of Dillashaw's infamous victory over Renan Barao over three years prior to the UFC 207 event. Dillashaw would dominate fellow contender John Lineker on the undercard of the event, and the war of the words immediately began between him and the new bantamweight king.

UFC 217 - Dillashaw's day of reckoning

At UFC 217 this Saturday in Madison Square Garden, we can expect fireworks when T.J. Dillashaw seeks to win back his bantamweight title in the co-main event when he faces off against rival Cody Garbrandt in one of the most anticipated fights in the history of the weight class. After coaching opposite one another on the set of The Ultimate Fighter 25, tensions could not be higher between the two who have held bad blood against each other for over two years since Dillashaw's sudden departure from the Team Alpha Male camp where the pair had once fought side-by-side on a daily basis and helped each other prepare for their wars to come. Talk from inside the camp suggests that T.J. and Cody had plenty of those amongst themselves in their time in the training room, however.

Just today, Cody Garbrandt released footage of him allegedly knocking out T.J. Dillashaw in a training session. While many are debating whether it was a knockout, knockdown or whether it was even T.J. Dillashaw, the fascination I have in this fight does not stem from this tape, but rather from the deep-seeded animosity between these two rivals and the fascinating skills they both bring to the octagon.

However, there is still a loom of doubt over just how vast the skills in Garbrandt's arsenal really are. In his title run, we mainly saw the champion annihilate his opponents using high-level boxing skills he has been growing upon since an early age, and many felt that his style was far too reckless to contend with the top players in the division. That is why his breathtaking victory over MMA legend Dominick Cruz, who had never lost at bantamweight, was so shocking. Going against the predictions of many, Cody was, in fact, the more composed fighter, and cruised his way to a dominant decision victory, although the then-titleholder Cruz was knocked down on multiple occasions.

Garbrandt went above and beyond expectations in the contest - on the biggest stage possible, the 26-year-old taunted his opponent throughout and displayed not only his wicked speed and knockout power but also the incredible wrestling he has learned in the infamous Team Alpha Male gym he holds dear. This flawless performance leaves me wondering if Cody can rise to even greater heights against his first title challenger in T.J. Dillashaw, or if his former teammate can use his experience to draw from the pair's former encounters in training in order to formulate an unbeatable gameplan for the grudge match.

While the question remains whether Garbrandt can replicate his previous showings at this weekend's event, we largely know what he will bring to the table - tenacity, aggression, speed, power and elite martial arts skills coincide with these crucial assets, which make him a man to fear, whether you are a flyweight, bantamweight or even a featherweight. He will be eager to finish Dillashaw and has confidently predicted a first-round knockout.

However, the assets mentioned above are not lost on T.J. Dillashaw, who has proven on many occasions why he belongs in the title picture. His offensive grappling is set to create a very interesting dynamic in the fight, and his elusive footwork may play a key role if proceedings remain on the feet (although Cruz's movement did not save him from Garbrandt's onslaught). I am also extremely intrigued to see how much of a difference the size factor will make, and if Dillashaw can get inside the range of his rival on the night. The former champion's style is similar to Cruz's, who suffered a defeat to Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207, but Dillashaw is younger, fresher and is free of any major injuries (from what we know). His incredible wins over Lineker and Assuncao since he relinquished the world title nearly two years ago make it very difficult to pick against the California-native, but he may meet his match again in the form of a hungry unbeaten champion with a burning desire to prove himself to be the best fighter on the planet today.

I am personally at a loss as to who will leave victorious when Cody Garbrandt and T.J. finally face off at UFC 217 this Saturday, November 4, but there is one thing I am sure of - I will be watching!

Share your opinions on this weekend's co-main event in the comment section below, and be sure to share this article to bring your fellow MMA fanatics into the discussion.

Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?

David Murphy

David is an aspiring writer and combat sports enthusiast. He posts both informative and opinionated pieces on the subjects all MMA fans should read about, and seeks to spread the word and celebrate the skills of the many talented athletes who compete in mixed martial arts. You will find more of his views on his Twitter account, which is linked on his RealSport profile.