After 11 months, two postponed rematches and one last-minute change of an opponent, T.J. Dillashaw finally will defend his Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight title against the man he took it from – Renan Barao of Brazil – on Saturday night at the United Center in Chicago.
Dillashaw (12-2), an Angels Camp native who trains out of Urijah Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym in Sacramento along with Team Alpha Male, beat Barao (35-2, one no-contest) in May 2014 in what has been called one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
A rematch was scheduled Aug. 30, 2014, in the main event of UFC 177. But the bout was scratched when Barao was hospitalized a day before the fight. He passed out in his bathroom and hit his head after dehydrating to cut weight.
Joe Soto was named as a last-minute replacement, and Dillashaw stopped him with a knockout from a head kick followed by punches in the fifth round.
The Dillashaw-Barao rematch was rescheduled for April 25 at UFC 186 in Montreal. This time, Dillashaw withdrew after suffering a rib injury while training.
Despite the injury setback, Dillashaw said he’s excited about the rematch and intends to prove his victory over Barao was no fluke. And after the delays, Dillashaw said he isnt taking anything for granted before entering the octagon Saturday.
“You always got to be ready for everything,” Dillashaw said. “(Mixed martial arts is) a tough sport to be in to stay healthy, because the only way to train is to train hard, and it’s a combat sport. You got to get beat up every now and then.
“I’ve taken the right steps to stay healthy, and hopefully, Barao is doing the right things, too, and he can make his weight this time.”
The 5-foot-6, 135-pound champion split his fight camp between Ultimate Fitness and Denver, where his striking coach, Duane Ludwig, now owns and runs an MMA gym. Ludwig, Dillashaw said, has played a big part in his success.
“Continuing to work with Duane out there and deal with altitude has actually been beneficial for me,” Dillashaw said. “Not only am I in better shape, but I’m getting new looks with new guys and also learning from new coaches as well.”
In their first meeting, MMA observers did not expect Dillashaw, a wrestler, to out-strike Barao, an exceptional kickboxer riding a 22-match winning streak. Many considered Barao one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in UFC.
But Dillashaw dominated while on his feet, scoring with strikes to the head and body for four rounds before knocking out Barao in the fifth and final round.
Dillashaw enters the rematch as a favorite, but he won’t be overconfident.
“I got to respect (Barao) as much as I did the first time and treat it as any other fight,” he said. “Underdog or favorite, you got to go out there ready to fight no matter who the opponent is.”
For Barao, the feeling does not seem as mutual. During an interview with MMAFighting.com promoting the rematch, the Brazilian threw verbal strikes at Dillashaw, questioning his merits as a fighter.
“He talks too much, (he’s) a joker, and that’s why I don’t consider him a champion,” said Barao, who had three title defenses before losing to Dillashaw.
Dillashaw said Barao’s comment is based on resentment and his way of trying to stay relevant. If Dillashaw wins Saturday, he plans to wait for a major bout that will improve his standing in UFC and bring a big financial payoff.
“I’m looking for those guys that are going to build my name,” Dillashaw said. “(Raphael Assuncao) hasn’t fought in forever. He’s been injured; he’s been out of the game. I don’t even know what’s been going on with the guy. Obviously, down the road I wouldn’t mind fighting him, but I’m looking for those big-name fights, someone like Dominick Cruz, who was a champion and holds a big name, but he’s also injured as well, so I don’t know.
“But my weight class has got to figure some things out and work its way up on who’s going to be the No. 1 contender. I just want a perfect fight.”
Dillashaw would even consider moving up in weight to find that big-name opponent.
“It’s kind of crazy, but I would like to fight someone like (newly crowned interim featherweight champion) Conor McGregor,” Dillashaw said. “Obviously, a lot of guys would, but watching him beat my (Alpha Male) teammate (Chad Mendes), he’s someone who I want to get after and avenge him for that. Just a big name. I’m looking for those names that are going to build me as big as possible.”