Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: New UFC champion went from small-town roots to stardom

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

It was the moment of a lifetime, one of the most improbable upsets in Ultimate Fighting Championship history.

TJ Dillashaw, the pride of Frogtown and the newest star of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male, didn’t simply strip Renan Barao of his bantamweight championship belt May 24 in Las Vegas. This was a round-by-round, piece-by-piece, overpowering undressing. It was a quick kick to the head, then a strike to the liver, one punishing blow following another as he danced to a fifth-round TKO in the main event.

“My entire career, wrestling in high school and college, I never achieved my goals, never won a championship,” Dillashaw said last week at the Ultimate Fitness gym in midtown Sacramento. “I always wondered, ‘Why can’t I ever put it together when it counts?’ My parents would say, ‘Don’t worry. It wasn’t meant to be. Just keep working.’ And it finally, finally paid off.”

When you put on the belt, of course, everything changes. The underdog becomes the hunted. Everyone wants a cut. Within hours of defeating Barao, often referred to as the most gifted fighter of all the weight classes, Dillashaw’s already active life accelerated at a pace that has left him stressed, sleep-deprived and craving some good old-fashioned homespun advice.

Sponsors light up his cellphone. Television and newspaper journalists crowd his work space at the gym. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson requested a meeting. UFC president Dana White summoned him to Las Vegas for a career-plotting sitdown.

But the kicker? The request that prompted the new bantamweight champ, in a near panic, to call his mother Thursday afternoon?

His hometown wants to throw him a parade – and soon. Down Main Street, past the only two stoplights in town, past Bret Harte High School, where photos of the Dillashaw boys hang in the Bullfrogs’ wrestling room, where his soon-to-be in-laws both teach, where the rhythm and blues at the junior-senior prom competed with the sweeter sounds of texts and tweets coming out of Las Vegas that Saturday night.

“Word got around quickly,” Bret Harte principal Michael Chimente said. “My son Joseph was watching the fight, and he texted me. There was a lot of anticipation going into that fifth round.”

And when the hometown beckons – a community of fewer than 5,000 residents, consisting mostly of friends, relatives and future in-laws, where everybody knows your name and almost everybody watched or monitored the fight – the only response is to rearrange the schedule.

“I was just telling TJ that a friend of mine at the bank was setting it up,” his mother, Janice Dillashaw, sitting on her front porch, said with a grin. “There is just so much going on. TJ and Rebecca (Reynoso) are getting married June 21, so there’s that, too. But I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

A family always on the go

This is a family that reads and reacts, that craves competition and adrenaline rushes, that sits around only long enough to catch a few hours sleep. Hal and Janice raised TJ and his two brothers, KC and Justin, in the hills located within a few sharp turns of Main Street, in a rural, 9-acre conclave that is known as the Dillashaw Compound.

With the exception of TJ and his fiancee, who own a home in east Sacramento, most of the gang’s all here. Seriously. Hal’s parents, Jack and Gladys, and the families of his sister Laurie and brother Clay reside on properties within skipping distance of the Dillashaws’ rustic, split-level home that is shaded by trees and colorful plants. Hal also runs Dillashaw Construction from the premises. Another uncle owns an adjoining 14 acres of undeveloped land with an unimpeded view of the high school in the distance.

This is a sports-crazy, fun-loving, animal-embracing family, and the signs are everywhere. A long rope hangs from a massive tree near the front yard, the better to swing from. A boat rests in a driveway. A pickup truck that can crawl over boulders is parked near a garage. In what could be described as a communal backyard, one of TJ’s cousins can be seen swimming in the pool, accompanied by a dog. Inside the Dillashaw house, a cheerful, comfortable abode shared by three dogs, the decor is dominated by hunting trophies, athletic medals, portraits and photos of family members mountain biking, skiing, wakeboarding, boating, even cliff-jumping.

“The kids from around here always hung out at our house,” said Janice, a seamstress and interior designer who also taught youth skiing at nearby Bear Valley. “Hal used to say, ‘I wish just one time I would come home and there would be one truck in the driveway instead of seven or eight.’ When they were younger, they were members of the 4H Club and raised pigs and steers and showed them at the (Calaveras County Fairgrounds).”

And the annual frog-jumping competition made famous by author Mark Twain? According to TJ, the most competitive participants catch and train their own frogs. So, of course, he caught and trained his own frogs.

“I never won the frog-jumping contest,” he said with a smile, “but I sold a lot of my pigs and steers at the fair, and that’s how I was able to buy my first truck.”

A fateful meeting with Faber

Dillashaw’s first love, though, was wrestling. At 8, he began going to a local gym with his father, who attended Fresno State on a wrestling scholarship and ran the area’s youth program. With his slight frame and mass of white blond hair neatly trimmed around his face, TJ placed fifth and second in the CIF state tournament during his junior and senior seasons.

Several major colleges offered scholarships, among them UC Davis, where Faber, the former Aggies and future mixed martial arts star, coached. Dillashaw instead attended Cal State Fullerton and earned a degree in kinesiology. He was enrolled in graduate school chemistry classes and planning to become a physician’s assistant when Faber – and fate – again intervened.

“I bumped into Urijah at a wrestling clinic and he talked me into coming to Sacramento and training, into trying out mixed martial arts,” said Dillashaw, who is thoughtful and engaging. “He thought I could be good, and to be honest, I wasn’t done competing. It turns out Sac and Team Alpha Male was a perfect home for me. I learned really fast being around those guys. I was a copycat, a sponge of Urijah, Chad (Mendes), Joseph Benavidez. Those guys were my idols. Jiujitsu was the easiest skill to pick up because of my wrestling background, but lately my striking has gotten so much better because of my coach, Duane Ludwig.”

Though he was the No. 4-ranked contender when he entered the octagon against Barao, the formidable Brazilian who had been undefeated for nine years, Dillashaw immediately established himself as the aggressor. At 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds, with thick, powerful thighs and exceptional lower body strength, he attacked from different angles, relied on his superb stamina as the fight progressed and, while still striking effectively, remained a moving, elusive target.

Faber, who could be seen on the broadcast celebrating with Reynoso, Mendes, Benavidez, Justin Buchholz, other TAM members and the Dillashaws, attributes TJ’s rapid development to an intuitive grasp of striking techniques and an indefatigable work ethic. When Dillashaw joined the gym, Faber said, he often kicked him out because he overtrained.

A wiser, more experienced Dillashaw balances his physically demanding workouts with bike rides on the American River Trail and kayaking trips on the Sacramento River with Chris Carlino, his former assistant coach at Fullerton. UC Davis and Fullerton have since dropped their wrestling programs because of budget cuts.

While Dillashaw plans to join efforts to reinstate the program at his alma mater, his more immediate goal is to recover from his bumps and bruises before the wedding. The knuckles on his right hand are still swollen. His left shin is sore. He has an abrasion under his right eye, and the upper part of his nose is puffy.

But no complaints. He owns the belt, and being the competitive beast that he is, he wouldn’t mind a rematch with Raphael Assuncao, who beat him in a controversial decision last year.

Meantime, there is that parade date to figure out to keep the hometown folks happy.

“Today and yesterday in class, I said, ‘You know, this has been a great moment,’ ” said Bret Harte English teacher Amber Pappe, Reynoso’s mother and one of Dillashaw’s former teachers. “We start every year talking about the American Dream. This really drives home the point. Small-town boy makes good, all those clichés. But it’s true. Everything is possible if you work hard and persevere.”