Officially, the first significant step in TJ Dillashaw’s journey towards the top of the UFC bantamweight division was in the wrong direction.
After earning victories in each of his first four professional bouts, and cruising through to the finals of the 135-pound competition on Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, the budding Team Alpha Male standout was all set to make an immediate impact on the biggest stage in the sport by joining the fraternity of former winners of the reality TV competition.
And then he lost.
In less than two minutes, the bouncing, tumbling, crackling ball of kinetic energy known as John Dodson had put Dillashaw on roller skates, earned the stoppage, and handed the ultra-competitive up-and-comer the first loss of his career. Instead of an express ticket to the middle of the bantamweight pack, the former collegiate wrestler had to first pick himself up, dust himself off, and regroup from a setback he didn’t see coming.
In the 21 months since his loss to Dodson, the now 27-year-old Dillashaw has worked his way into the Top 10 in the bantamweight division. He’s won all four of his fights since that fateful December night in Las Vegas nearly two years ago, and while it’s still not something the forward-looking fighter is excited to discuss, he recognizes in hindsight that staggering out of the gate taught him a valuable lesson, and helped make his current run of success possible.
“It was pretty big,” admits Dillashaw, who carries a 9-1 record into the Octagon with fellow surging contender Raphael Assuncao in the opening bout of next Wednesday’s UFC Fight Night main card in Barueri, Brazil.
“Obviously every fight is your biggest fight to date when you’ve got one lined up, but it was a big learning experience. I thought I was a little untouchable when I was fighting John Dodson. I still think I’m a more well-rounded fighter, but obviously anything can happen, and that’s what was proven to me. MMA is a crazy sport, and even though you feel like you’re the better fighter and more prepared, things happen quickly, and anything can happen.
“It feels like it all kind of happens for a reason – opens your eyes a little bit, makes you be a little more cautious on things instead of just letting loose and thinking that you’re untouchable.”
On a Tear
Four fights later, the former Cal State Fullerton wrestler is closing in on a title shot, having looked every bit as untouchable as Eliot Ness and his band of federal agents.
After a dominant decision win in his first post-TUF foray into the Octagon and a first round submission win over Vaughan Lee last summer, Dillashaw collected two more impressive stoppage wins in the span of five weeks earlier this year, dropping Issei Tamura in the second round of their encounter at UFC 158 before adding a first round technical knockout win over Hugo “Wolverine” Viana to his resume the following month in San Jose.
Next up is Assuncao, a former featherweight contender who, like Dillashaw, has rattled off four consecutive victories heading into their encounter Wednesday night on FOX Sports 1. It is the type of fight many expect for the latest impressive talent to emerge from the Team Alpha Male camp, and the kind of test every promising prospect must pass in order to be considered a legitimate contender.
And that’s exactly what Dillashaw intends to do.
“I feel like I’m the most confident I’ve ever been right now,” he says before joining the chorus of fighters from the elite squad to sing the praises of head coach Duane “Bang” Ludwig.
“Duane has done a good job to adding confidence to our standup. We were great athletes before he got here, but he came and proved that we were doing a lot of the right things, but he altered a little bit and added to what I was doing. After every fight, I feel more and more comfortable inside the cage, and I think my fights have shown that. I’m a little more relaxed, and that allows me to be a little more dangerous too – not only relying on taking someone down.
“The plan is to continue my dominance, and not only show that I belong where I’m at, but that I’m on the rise and I want to get to that title fight.”
Road Through Brazil
In order to get there, Dillashaw first has to get through Assuncao, who has looked sharp since moving to the bantamweight ranks, and will have the benefit of the “home field advantage” fighting in Brazil.
Much like his teammate Joseph Benavidez, who made the journey to Brazil in early September and returned with a victory, Dillashaw isn’t worried about traveling to Assuncao’s home country and the uninspiring track record of non-Brazilian fighters competing in the country. If anything, he’s looking forward to fighting before the notoriously raucous crowd, and plans on finishing his fourth straight fight, rendering concerns about “hometown scoring” moot.
“It’s just another challenge in my road. I’m not too worried about it,” he says of fighting in Brazil. “I’m excited to fight in front of the Brazilian fans. It’s something that I think will be really cool. The fans are very knowledgeable and real enthusiastic. They’re there for all the fights, and it’s really cool to see, and now I get to see it first-hand. I’m real excited about it.
“I plan on finishing, so there are no concerns about it going to the scorecards anyway,” he adds. “But if it does, it needs to be a dominant performance. I know Raphael is a great athlete, but I need to push the issue and have this be a dominant win. My last three fights have been finishes, and they’re just so much easier. Most of the fights that I have had have been finishes or dominant wins – I haven’t been to a nervous scorecard yet, and I plan to keep it that way.”
Home Sweet Home
Should he defeat Assuncao and collect a fifth consecutive win, the talented emerging star already has designs on what comes next, and a strong case built on precedent working in his favor.
“I would love to fight in Sacramento,” he says, beginning his campaign to be included on the December 14 fight card scheduled for the Sleep Train Arena. “Nine weeks? My last two fights were three weeks apart – I had four weeks to get ready for Tamura, and then three weeks to get ready for Viana, so this is a long turnaround.”
Though he laughs at the statement, he’s serious about stepping back into the cage at home if possible.
“I’m not saying it has happened already, but once I beat Raphael, this is a big win for me. I’ll wait and see what the UFC wants to do with me, but obviously I want to fight as much as possible, (and that fight card is) nine weeks away.
“After I get a quick finish and I’m feeling fine, I would love to fight in Sacramento.”