In just two fights, TJ Dillashaw has gone from the unlikeliest of contenders to possibly one of the most feared champions in the UFC after he drubbed former bantamweight king Renan Barao over the course of 40-plus minutes to first win and then retain the title at 135 pounds.
When Dillashaw was given the opportunity to face Barao last year, it was almost like he was being served up as a lamb to the slaughter when the UFC needed a main event for its Memorial Day weekend card and all other options were exhausted.
Not only did Dillashaw shock the world, but he also thrashed Barao over the course of four rounds before finally finishing the fight in the fifth. Despite that performance, many wondered if Dillashaw hadn’t somehow pulled off a massive upset simply because Barao underestimated him going into the first fight.
Confidence doesn’t even begin to explain how Dillashaw was able to toy with Barao from the start of the fight, peppering the Brazilian with lighting-fast punches and scary accuracy. Even in those fleeting moments when Barao looked alive, Dillashaw just smiled, bit down on his mouthpiece and delivered even more punishment before putting an end to the fight in the fourth round.
If the first win over Barao put Dillashaw on the map, this latest win should land him on the list of best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
The transformation of Dillashaw under head coach Duane "Bang" Ludwig has been nothing short of spectacular, and with the help he receives from the best sparring partners possible at Team Alpha Male, this former “Ultimate Fighter” runner-up has been molded into one of the most complete fighters on the UFC roster.
In beating Barao so soundly on two occasions, Dillashaw effectively has eliminated the former champion from getting another shot at the title so long as he holds the belt. Considering Barao was being called one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world right up to his first bout with Dillashaw, it’s a rather amazing accomplishment that a year later he’s no longer even a contender.
Dillashaw’s mix of footwork, speed and power makes him a lethal fighter against anybody in the division, but he also has a long list of potential matchups that will keep him busy as champion.
Despite two dominant wins over Barao, Dillashaw is a long way from cleaning out the division and that makes his championship reign much more interesting in the next year or two. Whereas Barao seemingly stomped through every contender at 135 pounds, Dillashaw’s championship reign has existed only against the Brazilian, so there are plenty of challenges still ahead.
At the top of the list is former champion Dominick Cruz, who never actually lost the belt but instead succumbed to a seriously injured knee that has derailed his career for the past three years. In the one fight Cruz had before suffering another setback, he blew through former title challenger Takeya Mizugaki like he never missed a step from his days as the best bantamweight in the sport.
Cruz also represents the biggest money fight for Dillashaw, who’s well aware of the paycheck that would come with facing the bantamweight champion, who is still undefeated in the UFC.
"(Dominick Cruz), that’s the biggest fight," Dillashaw said at the post-fight press conference. "That’s what’s going to make my name the biggest, fighting Cruz, at this weight class. As soon as he’s able to come back."
While Cruz certainly represents the biggest fight, Raphael Assuncao might be the most intriguing because he holds a win over Dillashaw from a fight they had in Brazil in 2013. It was a razor close split decision, but Assuncao still holds a victory over Dillashaw and that’s easy matchmaking no matter how you cut it.
The giant elephant in the room that Dillashaw probably won’t address for now is the other fight at 135 pounds who might garner even more attention than Cruz.
Urijah Faber has been one of the best fighters between the featherweight and bantamweight divisions for the past decade, and his only losses in the UFC at 135 pounds have come to Barao on two occasions and to Cruz in 2011. Faber is Dillashaw’s mentor and one of his best friends, so the two have long avoided the topic of facing each other in the Octagon.
But if Faber wants to fight for the gold again before he calls it a career, fighting Dillashaw might be the only chance he gets. While he usually shoots down the idea of the fight, Faber seems at least slightly open to the possibility now.
The biggest takeaway is Dillashaw standing tall as champion while a long list of contenders line up behind him. The bantamweight division didn’t suffer under Barao by any means, but the entire weight class feels alive again now that Dillashaw is standing tall as champion.
Given his recent performances, Dillashaw might wipe out every contender at 135 pounds just like Barao did, but the fact that he hasn’t done it yet makes everything very interesting for the time being.