The animosity between former teammates turned rivals has been the chief selling point of the UFC 217 title clash between Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw since both emerged victorious in their bouts last December and their paths were charted to cross in the cage.
As soon as he was done bestowing his new bantamweight championship belt upon his good friend Maddux Maple, Garbrandt turned his attention to Dillashaw, issuing a challenge to the former champion who had collected a unanimous decision victory over John Lineker earlier in the night at UFC 207.
The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption at the UFC TUF Gym on March1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)" align="left" />A season as opposing coaches on Season 25 of The Ultimate Fighter added fuel to the fire between the two fractured sides that had previously operated as a cohesive unit all working towards the same goal. And despite the bout being pushed back by several months, fans have remained transfixed by the notion of seeing the current and former champion settle their personal and professional differences inside the Octagon on Saturday night.
But for the men who will be the loudest voices in the corners of Garbrandt and Dillashaw (literally and figuratively), this weekend’s penultimate clash has moved beyond being a feud between warring factions and returned to being a test of skill and will between elite competitors bent on proving they’re the best bantamweight in the world.
“I appreciate this animosity and this form of a fight because it’s different than we’ve faced before and we need these challenges to rise above it all and make sure we’re testing ourselves,” said Duane “Bang” Ludwig, who has served as Dillashaw’s head coach since the two rose to the top of the 135-pound weight class while both were still with Team Alpha Male. “We’ve had very strong, formidable opponents in the past – Dominick Cruz, Renan Barao, Joe Soto, John Lineker, Raphael Assuncao – where we have to make sure we’re on top of our game to beat them.
“Now there is this backstory behind it and an emotional piece, so it’s been good to have that added into the camp to overcome it. We had a deep, meaningful relationship when we all worked together and to see the direction it has taken, (the question becomes) can you overlook that and get past that and the answer is yes.”
While Ludwig is more philosophical in explaining where his focus is at heading into Saturday night’s long-awaited title tilt, his counterpart in the red corner has the same general feelings.
“Knowing the history between the two guys and having cornered TJ before and now cornering Cody (makes things more complicated),” said Justin Buchholz, the raspy-voiced Muay Thai coach for the Sacramento fight team and one of Garbrandt’s cornermen. “But strategy-wise, it makes it pretty easy because the opponent is well known; there’s not much to study.
“All the animosity and stuff is gone for me,” he added. “I’m just focused on my job and that’s doing the best I can for Cody and keeping his head in the right spot, enjoying this fight week and then being able to go out there and compete. Honestly, if it were TJ Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz or Mighty Mouse (Demetrious Johnson), it doesn’t matter – martial arts is about self-mastery and that’s what we’re going to see come fight night.”
Stripping away the tensions and taking this strictly as a difficult puzzle to solve inside the cage, both coaches are excited about the advancements and improvements their charges have shown in the 11 months since they took their first steps towards Saturday’s co-main event.
For Garbrandt, it has meant nearly a year of being the bantamweight champion and working to take his game to the next level.
“Last year, there was no secret to what happened – he went from unranked to world champion and he really progressed,” Buchholz said of the 26-year-old titleholder Garbrandt. “Now that he is the champion, it has almost been a year of him being something and something I’ve always said is when you get the belt, that’s when you really see what kind of fighter you are because you have that belief.
“Everyone has that belief and they’re sure they’re the best fighter in the world, but then when you see that belt around your waist and you’re given that status, it can make a fighter 50 percent better. Cody’s potential really is limitless. It’s pretty amazing how gifted he is as an athlete.”
As for Dillashaw, he’s shifted his training from Colorado to his home state of California and found a comfort zone that has Ludwig excited to see how his pupil will perform this weekend at Madison Square Garden.
“I’m real happy about TJ being back in Orange County – being at home, having a good time and enjoying the journey while having fun training sessions that are still hard and productive and developmental,” said Ludwig, who still holds the record for the fastest knockout in UFC history. “When he’s in that zone, he performs and he is the best in the world.
“Our goal is to always improve and get better,” he added. “The goal is always to win, but it’s also to pull out our potential because when we’re at our full potential, we are the absolute best, pound-for-pound.”
Bad blood or not, Saturday’s bantamweight title fight should be an absolute barnburner from start to finish.