Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: UFC bantamweight champion Dillashaw’s obsession still unquenched

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

On paper, it was hardly a legacy fight, the type of matchup UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw had anticipated for days, weeks, months. He wanted a rematch with No.1 challenger Renan Barao so badly, right here in his back yard, that during his recent honeymoon in Mexico, he slipped out of bed in the wee hours and resumed training on a treadmill.

Who does that? Besides someone with a very understanding wife?

All that planning and scheming, the hours spent training the body – and preparing the mind – were rendered irrelevant Friday when Barao fainted and hit his head while taking a salt bath and desperately trying to drop the three pounds he needed to reach the 135-pound limit.

In a last-minute bid to salvage something out of Saturday’s highly anticipated main event at Sleep Train Arena, Joe Soto, an occasional sparring partner at Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male gym in downtown Sacramento, quickly agreed to sub for Barao and make his UFC debut.

Now, nothing against the unranked Soto, another onetime wrestler who tried to surprise his acquaintance with a brawling, attacking style, and who in fact competed capably until Dillashaw buckled him with a kick to his left temple and flurry of punches almost halfway into the fifth round. But this was like pairing Steph Curry and DeMarcus Cousins in the finals of the NBA’s annual Long Distance Shootout.

Both players are studs. But studs with very different skills, experiences, expectations.

While the 5-foot-6, 135-pound Dillashaw entered the octagon as a 10-1 favorite, the pressure on him was enormous. Losing his title to the No.1-ranked contender would be one thing. Losing his belt to a UFC rookie would be embarrassing, mortifying, a career crippler.

“I was angry at first,” admitted Dillashaw, who consulted a hypnotherapist. “I was just angry at the situation. It was tough to get my game (mind), to adjust to something like that. I had been thinking about one person for the last 10 weeks.”

Obsessed, fixated, consumed? Yes, yes and yes. Because of the limited time between the first Dillashaw-Barao fight on May 24, T.J. and Rebecca’s wedding in June, and the scheduled rematch for last Saturday, in a manner of speaking, Barao accompanied the couple on their honeymoon. T.J. awakened at 6 a.m., and worked out for hours, constantly monitored what he ate and drank, and was greeted with a barrage of publicity and marketing demands upon the couple’s return to their East Sacramento home. To alleviate some distractions – the financial benefits of sudden fame nothwithstanding – Rebecca, also a native of Angels Camp, quit her job as a Sacramento marketing executive to oversee her husband’s business ventures.

Other Dillashaws helped out, including one cousin back home who sold 600 tickets. While there is no truth to the rumor that Angels Camp shut down completely during Saturday’s bout – all three stoplights were said to have continued operating – T.J. estimated that half of his hometown’s 5,000 residents made the 80-mile drive and were represented among the announced crowd of 11,100.

When he arrived at the arena around midafternoon, he said, he saw the three busses, three motor homes, and dozens of trucks and lawn chairs encircling barbecue pits in section M of the parking lot, and just cracked up.

“I brought 120 pounds of tri-tip,” his father, Hal, said afterward, “and there were plenty of kegs of beer, too. We all wanted to have a good time.”

When Janice Dillashaw was asked how her son reacted to Barao’s abrupt withdrawal, she nodded. “That messed with T.J.’s head,” she said.

Barao’s exit also invigorated the discussion about the often controversial means of cutting weight and led a furious UFC President Dana White to deny Barao any chance of challenging for a title in the near future. White further suggested that the Brazilian re-evaluate his nutrition staff and consider moving up in weight class.

As for the UFC’s plans for Dillashaw? White cited Raphael Assuncao as the most logical next opponent but didn’t hedge when asked about a potential Dillashaw-Faber fight in the near future, the uncomfortable elements – they are friends, teammates, training partners and one-time housemates – notwithstanding.

The charismatic Faber, a former wrestling star and coach at UC Davis, and the brain trust behind Team Alpha Male, even recruited Dillashaw to MMA when his younger colleague was preparing to attend graduate school and become a physician’s assistant.

“Faber’s got to be in a position to fight for the title,” said White. “He has to beat somebody and be in that position first. And if he is, I promise you he will do it. I know he will. And I know T.J. will fight him, too.”

While that possibility is too tantalizing to disappear, for now, Dillashaw only wants to talk about some long-awaited down time, and perhaps, even a second honeymoon.

“It’s been crazy,” he said with a grin late Saturday. “Beyond crazy.”