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Outside the Octagon: TJ Dillashaw & The Blueprint For an Upset

Welcome to the new UFC.com fight week feature - Outside the Octagon with editorial director Thomas Gerbasi. Tom has been covering the UFC since 2000, has been cage side for all of the biggest fights, and authored the official UFC Encyclopedia. Check in every Wednesday on fight week for his latest column!


“I’m a fan of not so much the guy that’s the world beater, but the guy that rose to the occasion. I was always the Rocky type of guy and I like Cinderella Man and all those movies.”
– Matt Serra

If you take away his split decision defeat to Raphael Assuncao in 2013, or at least put an asterisk next to a fight many believe he won, TJ Dillashaw’s last loss came to John Dodson in the Ultimate Fighter 14 final in December of 2011.

There was no asterisk next to that one, as he suffered the fate many have after tasting a dose of Dodson’s power. But what happened after that disappointing night in Las Vegas has brought him back to the Fight Capital of the World for a world title fight against UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao this Saturday.

|| UFC FIGHT PASS: Watch all of TJ Dillashaw's fights and more.  ||

It’s not the five wins since the Dodson bout or the three finishes. It’s the attitude that as soon as he went through the worst night of his professional career, all he wanted to do was to forget about it and fight again.

“Being a competitor, you gotta have a short-term memory,” Dillashaw told me before his next fight against Walel Watson, who he scored a lopsided decision win over. “If you dwell on it (a loss) for too long, it’s gonna affect the way you train, affect your confidence, and you gotta draw it up for what it is and forget about it as soon as possible.”

He forgot it, getting back to the business of being the best mixed martial artist he could be. When you focus on a task that specific, everything else usually falls into place. And it has for the Californian, who will now get the opportunity to possibly change his life forever in the space of 25 minutes or less.

It’s why they call it prizefighting, and there is no bigger prize in MMA than a UFC championship. Of course, nothing like that comes easy, and we’re not talking about what it took for the 28-year-old to get here. It’s about what he has to get through to receive his prize.

And no one has gotten through Renan Barao. Not for a long, long time. Thirty five fights and over nine years ago, Brazil’s Barao lost his first professional fight to Joao Paulo Rodrigues de Souza. He hasn’t lost since, with his current record containing seven UFC victories, four of them in title fights. Heading into Saturday’s bout, Barao is a sizable -800 favorite, familiar territory for anyone facing him these days.

|| UFC 173 Preview: Dillashaw vs. Barao and Cormier vs. Henderson. ||

•••

“If they think he's that unbeatable and unstoppable, then more power to him. I felt that making me a 3-1 underdog just showed a big-time disrespect to me. But I get to prove more people wrong. I ain't losing this fight. He can train all he wants, it doesn't matter.” - Jens Pulver

TJ Dillashaw isn’t the only fighter facing long odds in the biggest fight of his life. Every fight has a favorite and an underdog, some bigger underdogs than others. It’s a part of sports, and whether you’re on the positive side of that equation or the negative one, the bottom line is that there are no oddsmakers in the Octagon when the door closes. You and your four-ounce gloves are what decide things then. 

That doesn’t mean things don’t get into your head as the days draw nearer to fight night. When UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver got the call to face unbeaten phenom BJ Penn at UFC 35 in January of 2002, he was, simply put, expected to get obliterated by the Hawaiian rightfully dubbed “The Prodigy.” Watching Octagonside as Penn ripped through top Japanese contender Caol Uno two months prior to the fight didn’t help Pulver’s mood, but he found a way to not only put on a brave face, but convince himself that he was going to win.

“I said, ‘he might be good, but he ain’t evil.’ That’s what I had to tell myself, that I had something inside of me that can’t be taught,” Pulver told me. 

And after a horrible start, Pulver found that something, winning a five round majority decision to retain his title and silence the critics who doubted him.

•••

“I understand 100% that they’re bringing me in to lose and they’re hoping that it’s a highlight reel type of fight that Jens is just gonna knock me out and it’s gonna hype everything else. So I know that, but at the same time it’s a win-win situation.  As long as I go in there and don’t get killed, it’s gonna be a good fight and I’ll be back. So I’m not insulted – it’s gonna be fun. I’m training as much as I can and whatever happens, happens.” – Joe Lauzon

TJ Dillashaw is facing similar odds to those Jens Pulver did against BJ Penn back in 2002. Maybe he’s not being completely counted out like Pulver was, but he is seen as the next victim on Barao’s hit list. 

Fighting is a fickle business though. What happens one day doesn’t necessarily determine what happens the next. After Pulver defeated Penn, he left the UFC over a contract dispute. After fighting outside the company for several years, he was brought back in 2006, with the plan being to match him up with Penn as coaches on season five of The Ultimate Fighter. Pulver would be reintroduced to the fans first though, with what was expected to be a blowout win over New England prospect Joe Lauzon.

|| Special Collection: Pulver, Penn, Lauzon and Edgar in special collection only on  ||
 


Lauzon upset Pulver’s apple cart, knocking him out in just 47 seconds. Pulver would still go on to coach on TUF 5, but Lauzon – after returning to his IT job the Monday after the fight – had altered his career trajectory substantially, eventually becoming the current UFC bonus leader (along with Anderson Silva) and a full-time lightweight contender.

So it doesn’t really matter that Barao and his Nova Uniao teammates have had a nice run of victories over Dillashaw’s Team Alpha Male squad, or that Barao can seemingly finish opponents anywhere he chooses these days. On Saturday night, it could be the best night of Dillashaw’s career and Barao’s worst. Add in four-ounce gloves, and a changing of the bantamweight guard could very well happen.

•••

“I understand that it (being the underdog) comes with it, and it’s not like it’s breaking me by any means, but people say I’ve got nothing to lose, and I’ve got the title to lose. Who knows if I’ll get this opportunity again if it doesn’t work out, so I’ve got plenty to lose.” – Frankie Edgar

If anyone has lived his life as an underdog, it’s former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. That’s never seemed to bother him, as he’s won and defended a UFC title, come back from the brink of defeat to win, and repeatedly left oddsmakers with egg on their face. At this point, he’s got nothing left to prove. But don’t ever tell the New Jersey native that he has nothing to lose. That just pushes him harder. 

TJ Dillashaw is in a similar situation. After losing to Assuncao, he bounced back with a solid win over fellow contender Mike Easton, but many wondered if that warranted a title shot. Apparently it did, but when some look at Dillashaw versus the juggernaut named Barao in the main event of UFC 173, they silently whisper that if he puts on a good show and is competitive, he can fight his way back to a title fight some day. 

That’s just not good enough for someone like Dillashaw. Not now, not ever. It also wasn’t good for Edgar, Serra, Pulver, Lauzon, or any other fighter who was told by strangers that he wasn’t supposed to win. Those folks never saw the years of struggle, the blood and sweat shed in the gym, or the lonely nights spent away from those enjoying the fruits of their labor. 

For TJ Dillashaw, this is the one chance he gets to make it all worth it. How could you count out anyone with that much to lose?

Follow Thomas Gerbasi on Twitter @Tgerbasi

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