Some fans and pundits considered TJ Dillashaw to be an unlikely bantamweight champion. Three knockout wins, two of them over Renan Barao, silenced such talk.
Now, as Dillashaw approaches his third title defense this Sunday, he’s in the midst of another seemingly unlikely scenario – a three-way rivalry with former teammate Urijah Faber and current challenger Dominick Cruz.
And yes, the California native plans on shutting that mess down soon enough too.
“I’m not one of those guys who is going to sit there and banter back and forth with you,” he said. “This isn’t high school girl drama. I’m not looking to see who’s the best at talking; I’m looking to get inside that cage and kick your ass. I do all my talking inside the Octagon.”
Things were a lot simpler last September. Two months removed from his second win over Barao, Dillashaw got another megafight set when he signed to defend his 135-pound crown against Cruz, the former champion who never lost his title in the Octagon, only having it taken away after a lengthy stay on the disabled list.
Eager to get back to the Octagon and get down to business with Cruz, Dillashaw made preparations for his training camp in Colorado, far from his usual stomping grounds with the Team Alpha Male squad in Sacramento. Dillashaw had trained in Denver before, as his longtime head coach Duane Ludwig was there, but this time, things didn’t sit well with TAM founder Urijah Faber.
“Duane Ludwig was my head coach for about two years out in Sacramento with Team Alpha Male, and he decided to come back to Colorado,” Dillashaw said. “And I trained for my last camp out here in Colorado and realized how much I liked it – not only training with Duane but with the Elevation Fight Team. But he (Faber) didn’t take it as well as I thought, and I got kicked out of Team Alpha Male. I think this was something that was bothering Urijah even longer than I had expected – me coming out here and training in Colorado. He took it pretty hard.”
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It should have been the equivalent of a line in the transactions section of the local paper, but Dillashaw’s switch to Team Elevation made headlines for days, and what initially appeared to be an amicable split turned into anything but.
“It’s just a head coach that I believe in that I think is making me better, and why not be the best you possibly can in this sport as long as you can?” Dillashaw said. “Dealing with all the bullcrap that came with moving camps, it’s just another obstacle that you have to deal with. It’s just personal life stuff. At first, it was pretty difficult and I was broken up about it. But it almost fuels my fire. It makes me want to push even harder just to prove that I’m making the right choices in my life.”
Dillashaw, a native of Angels Camp, California, hasn’t looked back, standing firm with his decision. But 29-year-old also gained a potential opponent, as there’s been plenty of chatter about Faber getting the shot at this Sunday’s winner, with plenty of intrigue surrounding a possible matchup between the former teammates.
“He (Faber) is on his way out of the sport, and I’m at my peak, and I feel that it’s a business decision on both ends,” Dillashaw said. “I’m not trying to take it personal and I doubt he is.”
And let’s not forget that Dillashaw has a fight first with Cruz, who the champion affectionately has dubbed “The Decisionator.” If the 30-year-old Cruz had an answer for that after four decision victories in a row, he delivered it in his last fight, a 61-second knockout of Takeya Mizugaki. Dillashaw, while impressed, believes it’s still just a mirage.
“Everyone says that our styles are similar, just because we move and we both create angles,” he said. “It’s kind of funny to me because I wouldn’t say we’re similar. Just because I use my footwork, it doesn’t mean I fight like Dominick Cruz. He uses footwork, but in a different way. He does it to point fight. I’m doing it to knock you out. I want to be an entertaining fighter, as well as the best in the world. I’m not looking to point fight, and I’m going to prove that the night we fight.”
Dillashaw also feels that when the smoke clears, Cruz will be vanquished, Faber will be next to fall at his fists, and all the talk won’t come from the mouth of the champion, but from those in awe of what he’s done. The rest is all just window dressing for someone who knows that all that really matters is the fight. And for this one, he’s more than fired up.
“It’s hard for someone to understand the aggression I put into a fight,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m so mean, but it worked out perfect for this fight.”