UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw has owned the belt for three months and a few days now, and frankly, he likes the look. He thinks he wears it well. During the bang-bang events of the summer – a wedding, an abbreviated honeymoon and the approaching rematch Saturday with No.1 challenger Renan Barao – the pride of Angels Camp is just starting to appreciate the perks that come with the grand prize.
Endorsements. Sponsorships. Media requests. And, yes, a consistent paycheck. Dillashaw’s wife, Rebecca, recently quit her job as a Sacramento marketing expert and assumed control of her husband’s hastily expanding mini-empire.
What was it she said during Thursday’s media gathering at Sleep Train Arena? About paying bills without having to work two jobs?
The Dillashaws are spinning on top of the world and intent on maintaining the status quo. They want the story to evolve organically, to maintain the momentum that began when Dillashaw’s powerful overhand doomed Barao in their May 24 bout and threw the bantamweight division into a tizzy.
Barao was the overwhelming favorite, undefeated for almost a decade. At 5-foot-6 and 136 pounds, with long arms and a relentless, attacking style, the Brazilian accumulated victims by the dozens, with Team Alpha Male founder Urijah Faber joining the list last February.
Yet Dillashaw dominated their fight from the opening moments, surprising Barao with an early blow to the jaw, then keeping the reigning champion off balance with his elusive movement, strikes from different angles, and quick, daring footwork.
Barao still can’t recall details after the initial punch. When he was being examined at a local hospital after losing on a technical knockout in the fifth round, he asked the doctors, “Did I win? Did I win?”
Barao’s trainer, Alex Chadud, who served as a translator during the media session, said his fighter was on autopilot during the fight, his actions dictated by instinct and muscle memory.
But members of both camps expect Barao to come up with a few tricks for Saturday’s rematch. Dillashaw, a former wrestling standout at Bret Harte High and Cal State Fullerton, suspects his opponent will try to take the fight to the mat. Regardless of tactics or the familiarity of fighters thrust into the octagon barely three months after their last bout, Dillashaw says he and his coach, Duane Ludwig, are prepared for anything.
A victory, of course, means validation. Defeat Barao once, and the cagefighting industry is impressed but skeptical. Defeat Barao twice, and the conversation shifts dramatically, dispelling any notion that Dillashaw’s victory was a fluke or a once-in-a-career accomplishment. Defeat Barao again in front of a loud, raucous hometown crowd, and the sweet sports story adds another chapter.
“I want to be a legend,” Dillashaw said, “and that means I have to continue to win, to impress (the media), to impress my fans, stay motivated in the gym. You have to set goals. And I love all this attention.”
The Dillashaws – all of the Dillashaws, it seems – love the action. It must be something in their DNA. At the family’s rural nine acres a few sharp turns from downtown Angels Camp, grandparents, nieces, nephews, cousins and in-laws converge at the swimming pool or stroll next door for a cup of coffee. Through the years, the property has served as a year-round summer camp featuring skiing, wakeboarding, hiking, hunting and cliff-jumping.
One of Dillashaw’s tamest activities? Competing in the annual frog-jumping competition made famous by Mark Twain.
And Rebecca knew all about the family she married into. She grew up “a few horse fields away,” she said with a laugh, and noted that both her parents are longtime teachers at Bret Harte High School.
Not that Dillashaw needs additional pressure, but Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher are yesterday’s news. In his hometown about 80 miles southeast of Sacramento, the one with one McDonald’s and three stoplights, several hundred of his closest friends, relatives, in-laws, former teachers, etc., plan to board buses at Bret Harte early Saturday and caravan to Sleep Train Arena.
Dillashaw’s parents, Hal and Janice, purchased 120 pounds of tri-tips for the pre-fight tailgate party. (Look for the motor homes, buses and trailers parked in Lot M, Janice said, along with a banner that reads, “I Smell Fear. TJ Is Here.”)
To keep this going? To ensure another Frogtown celebration?
“I just have to continue winning,” Dillashaw said with a smile.