Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
For UFC 280, Kyte called upon independent striking coach Sean Madden and Glory MMA & Fitness head coach James Krause to provide their thoughts on four points heading into the bantamweight title tilt between defending champ Aljamain Sterling and TJ Dillashaw, the two-time former champion who looks to join Randy Couture as just the second man to win the same UFC title three times.
Best Trait of Each Fighter
At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else?
Madden: I think for Aljo, it’s his cerebral approach to fighting. I think he does such a great job mentally of calculating in the fight — making adjustments, knowing his strengths, his opponent’s weaknesses, and playing to those advantages. I think over the years we’ve seen him become a much more cerebral fighter, and I think it’s a fantastic trait for him and part of the reason why he’s champion now.
Krause: With Aljo, it’s his ability to take the back. Everything he does is a funnel to get to the back, you know? That’s the name of his game and when he gets someone’s back — I was watching video and I don’t think there is a moment in his UFC career where he gets the body triangle and somebody gets out of that.
When he gets that position, you can bank the rest of the round or he’s finishing; one of the two.
With TJ, creative striking and angle creation is his forte. His ability to create angles and find openings is just really out of this world, to be honest; he’s extremely talented in that regard. He’s got a very well-rounded game, but the biggest thing is the ability to create different looks — it’s not the same look as everybody else.
There are a lot of good guys you could get to come in and be Aljamain, as far as the grappling goes, but there are not many guys that you can get to come in and replicate the way TJ Dillashaw moves. There are only a select few guys that can move like him.
Madden: For TJ, it’s his competitive drive and his heart. Even at the stage that he’s at now — his last fight was Cory, and you blow out your knee in the first round, get a massive cut on your face in the second round, and you find a way to grind out the win; that is so impressive to me. He’s got a fighter’s heart, 100 percent, and the will to win for him is so strong.
Path to Victory for Each Fighter
Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.
So, how does either man get it done on Saturday night?
Krause: I don’t think we’re going to reinvent the wheel here — Dillashaw needs to keep the fight standing, work the striking because that’s the biggest deficiency Aljamain is going to have against him. I don’t think this is going to happen, but I think it would suit TJ well to mix in some takedowns. I doubt he’s going to, but I think it would do well for him.
And then with Aljamain, he’s going to do what he does to everybody — get the takedown, get the back.
I have grappled with both of these guys and there is a big discrepancy in the grappling from these guys. If this fight hits the floor and Aljamain gets position on TJ, there could be some big problems.
Madden: For Aljo, it’s simple: he needs to do what he does best and that’s get to the back. For him, I think he needs to close the space — whether that’s him going forward or backing up and getting TJ to over-commit — wrestle off that and find the back. His best path to victory is through the grappling. That’s obviously not a secret, but that’s how I think he can get it done.
For TJ, he has to use his striking and use his defensive wrestling here. I think if he keeps the space, I think the striking exchanges will probably favor him. He’s a good wrestler, but I think Aljamain is going to have a little size on him, so keeping the space, making sure he has room behind him to defensively wrestle will be a big key to the fight.
Both of these guys are obviously very well rounded, but I’m looking at this as a grappler versus striker matchup in terms of path to victory.
If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?
Madden: I would say for Dillashaw, it’s where he’s at in his career. The mileage that he’s at right now, what he’s carrying into the cage with him, especially considering this is a five-round fight with a guy who is very physical, I’m interested to see how TJ’s body holds up over five rounds in this fight.
Father Time is undefeated — we know this — and you can be as healthy as you want going into that fight, but once they start colliding, combat starts, the body just gives in certain positions or you can’t take that damage as well.
Something that I think is important to note is that Cory dropped TJ in the second round, and Cory is not known for dropping anyone with his hands. He’s never had a knockout by punches in his career; it’s always been kicks, knees, body shots, so that is something to pay attention to.
Krause: It’s the takedown of Aljamain Sterling. It’s TJ’s footwork versus Aljamain’s wrestling; that’s the fight.
One Coaching Curiosity
Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.
Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.
So what is that one thing in this matchup?
Krause: I think one thing people aren’t talking about here is how much bigger Aljamain is than TJ. He is significantly bigger, and he will be significantly bigger on fight night, too.
I also don’t know what size the cage is. If it’s the smaller cage, that’s going to heavily impact Aljamain’s game in a positive way, but if it’s the big cage, that’s going to help TJ a little bit.
Madden: Who was the last good wrestler that Aljo fought? Was it Cody Stamann, in terms of someone with a wrestling pedigree?
I think that’s something we should pay attention to is that Yan is not known for his wrestling, Cory is not known for his defensive wrestling, Pedro Munoz, Jimmie Rivera — so we’re going back to Cody Stamann four years ago in 2018. I do think that is something for us to pay attention to is that TJ is the most accomplished wrestler of those past opponents, and it will be interesting to see how Aljamain’s wrestling stacks up against TJ’s wrestling, because if TJ can shut down these shots and keep Aljo off his back, we’re in for a really interesting fight, for sure.
James Krause is the head coach at Glory MMA & Fitness in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, home of veteran UFC talents like Tim Elliott, Julian Marquez, Jeff Molina, and interim flyweight titleholder Brandon Moreno.
Sean Madden is an independent striking coach who spent a number of years working with the Elevation Fight Team in Denver, Colorado. Most recently, he helped sharpen Lauren Murphy’s striking ahead of her upset win over Miesha Tate.
UFC 280: Oliveira vs Makhachev took place live from Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on October 22, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!