At a distance, it’s easy to see the fame and glory around being an elite athlete or world champion without recognizing how difficult the journey was to get to that point.
Former two-time bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw knows that journey all too well. Reaching the highest highs and lowest lows of mixed martial arts, the 135-pound title challenger knows a thing or two about what it takes to be one of the best talents in the sport.
Stripped of his title and facing a two-year long suspension from 2019 to 2021, Dillashaw had to sit on the sidelines and watch the bantamweight championship change hands when deep down he believed that he was still the best 135-pounder on the planet. He had a chance to prove that in his comeback fight against Cory Sandhagen in July 2019.
In a 25-minute battle, Dillashaw came out on top with a razor-thin split decision victory. The win earned Dillashaw an immediate shot at the title, but it didn’t come without consequence. In the first round against Sandhagen, Dillashaw injured his knee, virtually everything but his ACL, forcing him to need two surgeries and take another year off from competition.
During this time, Sandhagen took Dillashaw’s place in line for the title. Though Sandhagen eventually lost that interim title bout to former champion Petr Yan, it didn’t make the moment any better. TJ was at home, watching the fight unfold, knowing full well that he was supposed to be in the Octagon that night.
“It was a big bummer to come back after two and a half years and get a fight and know that I won the fight and that I should be fighting for a belt, but I had to sit out another year because I had two knee surgeries,” Dillashaw said.
“I blew my knee out in the first round of that fight and I just gutted through to get [the win], and then watching him fight for the belt right after that was tough. He’s a great guy and a great opponent, so it’s not like I was bitter about it, it just sucked.”
The recovery wasn’t easy. Having dealt with shoulder issues in the past, knee surgery was an entirely new problem, one that required numerous doctor’s visits and a detailed plan for optimizing recovery.
But doing everything he thought was the right option didn’t always help. Trying to ease his way back into training, Dillashaw’s knee kept getting more and more aggravated, even worsening at times.
“I’ve had three shoulder surgeries; I didn’t know what to expect with a knee,” Dillashaw said. “I found out I didn’t tear my ACL and I thought it’d be [a fast recovery]…definitely not the case. I really messed my knee up.”
“It took two surgeries. I went through the first surgery seven or eight months later; the knee wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. It was staying swollen every time I worked out; it was actually regressing.”
After the second surgery, things were looking up, and Dillashaw stayed consistent during the recovery process, knowing that the health of his knee was the key to returning to the Octagon at 100 percent.
Physical therapy and frequent sessions in the hyperbaric chamber helped speed up the 36-year-old’s healing, but in the gym, it was a process of slowly getting back into fight shape through mock training camps that allowed him to regain his timing and skills to be prepared for an opponent as good as bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling at UFC 280.
“My last fight, I decided to put three training camps together for one fight,” Dillashaw said of his preparation for Sandhagen. “You’re going to lose your timing and that kind of stuff if you don’t train it. I shake the cobwebs off by doing a camp, then take a little break, then do another camp.”
“I kind of did the same thing [this time]. I stayed active, stayed in the gym and did a mock camp before I did my final camp here for Aljamain.”
It seems unfair when looking at all Dillashaw has needed to do to get back to this point in his career, but if it wasn’t for his love for this sport, he wouldn’t be in Abu Dhabi just a few days out from the biggest fight of his career.
UFC Breakdown | UFC 280: Sterling vs Dillashaw
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UFC Breakdown | UFC 280: Sterling vs Dillashaw
The moment Dillashaw goes through the tunnel into the arena, he’ll be there, in the present, soaking it up in its entirety. Having not fought inside a full arena since January 2019, having thousands of fans watching him compete again has been a long-awaited dream.
“I used to have tunnel vision in fights where I would walk out and only think about the fight…until I fought Mike Easton,” Dillashaw said. “I had a cornerman, Justin Buchholz, just say, ‘Hey man, this career is going to pass you by, and people would pay millions of dollars to be in your shoes right now to fight in front of millions of people; make sure you absorb it and have fun with it.’
“I really do love to do this,” Dillashaw said. “Yeah, it’s a tough life, its hard - the training you got to do to get it done, but when you’re actually out there, when you walk out there, the fear you have when competing, you come alive. And doing it in front of a crowd is quite amazing, so I’m excited to get that feeling again.”