Had his bantamweight title fight taken place in the summer as originally scheduled, TJ Dillashaw probably wouldn’t have stepped into the cage as calm and emotionless as he will on Saturday night.
Set to square off with reigning champ and former teammate Cody Garbrandt, the two were initially booked to lock horns as the headlining act at UFC 213 in July following their heated stint as opposing coaches on Season 25 of The Ultimate Fighter. But a back injury forced Garbrandt to the sidelines and the bout to be rescheduled as part of this weekend’s blockbuster event at Madison Square Garden.
“If you would have asked me four months ago, I would have been pissed off about it, but a blessing came out of it,” said Dillashaw, who carries a two-fight winning streak and a 15-3 record overall into the Octagon against his former teammate.
That blessing was the chance to spend more time working with a new team back home in Southern California.
A Division I wrestler at Cal State Fullerton, Dillashaw departed “The Golden State” following his exit from Team Alpha Male, relocating to Colorado alongside his head coach Duane Ludwig and joining the Elevation Fight Team. While he still resides in Colorado, the 31-year-old saw an opportunity to take his training to the next level closer to where he went to college and has since gone all-in with his strength and conditioning coach and nutritionist, Sam Calavitta.
“I still live in Colorado – that’s home; I just got done building a beautiful home out there – but I’m in the process of starting my own team in Orange County where I went to school at Cal State Fullerton,” said Dillashaw of the invite-only squad that is coming together under the Treigning Lab name. “It’s the same as when I went out to Colorado – the reason why I went out there was because it sparks that interest of learning new things, working with new people, continuing to keep that fire going.
“There is so much talent down here and there’s not a legit full team; everyone is jumping from gym to gym and there are so many guys to train with, so many looks – boxers and so much more than I can broaden my knowledge. I felt like as long as Duane was able to come down and continue to work with me in Southern California, it was going to be something that pushes me to the next level.”
The additional time between the conclusion of his season coaching opposite Garbrandt and their clash this weekend has also allowed Dillashaw to further distance himself from the tension and animosity that has continued to permeate this pairing and followed him since he left the Sacramento-based fight team more than two years ago.
While Garbrandt still seems fixated on labeling Dillashaw a traitor and bringing up the past, Dillashaw is far more focused on the future.
“It’s quite embarrassing on their end that they’re still obsessed with it,” he said of his former teammates’ refusal to move on from the “friends turned enemies” element of this fight. “I think what has made it easy for me to get by is how desperate they are; how desperate they are to try to hold on to what I’ve got going on and really focusing on me and my life.
“It has signified that I made the right choice,” he added. “It shows that I’m out of that childish lifestyle and making grown up decisions – building my house, starting a family – and have moved past all that drama.”
Sinking shots in Madison Square Garden. #rainman #kobe #ufc217
A post shared by tjdillashaw (@tjdillashaw) on Nov 1, 2017 at 11:01am PDT
Saturday marks the culmination of a long road back to fighting for the title for Dillashaw, who won the title with a masterful performance against Renan Barao at UFC 173 and successfully defended it twice before dropping the strap to Dominick Cruz in an ultra-close instant classic in January 2016.
Rather than lament the scoring and dwell on the defeat, Dillashaw approached the rest of the year as if he were still defending the title and used matchups with top contenders Raphael Assuncao and John Lineker to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was deserving of a title shot.
“I think it proves how hungry I am because not only did I think I won that fight, but then me continuing to fight No. 1 contenders, I treated it like I was defending my belt still,” he said of his 2016 campaign. “Raphael Assuncao – No. 1 contender on a seven-fight winning streak; beat him all three rounds. John Lineker – No. 1 contender, up and coming, and Cody was ranked No. 8 at the time.
I still feel like I was the champion and in doing so, I kept my character and it continued to fuel my fire
“I feel like I was the one taking the No. 1 contender fights, showing I’m still hungry. I still feel like I was the champion and in doing so, I kept my character and it continued to fuel my fire.”
And while that fire carries him into this weekend’s highly anticipated championship clash with Garbrandt, his thoughts on what reclaiming the title from his former teammate would mean underscore just how much Dillashaw is focused on the task at hand and not the interpersonal drama attached to this fight.
“I don’t know that you can top that moment,” Dillashaw said of winning the title at UFC 173. “That’s probably the best moment of my competitive career, winning that fight. It was something special and I’ll never forget it.
“There’s no extra on it, really,” he added in regards to Saturday’s title tilt. “The most important thing is that I’m the best in the world.”