Orange County’s T.J. Dillashaw using innovative science in prep for Cejudo

Although T.J. Dillashaw has a wife and a young son in a beautiful home in Orange County, he spends much of his professional life several miles away at his other home.

The UFC bantamweight champion trains in the garage of Sam Calavitta, a triathlete math professor and performance specialist who coaches Dillashaw, Bellator’s Aaron Pico and other elite athletes. Dillashaw also spends countless hours at the nearby kitchen table with Calavitta’s nine children, eating daily meals prepared by Calavitta’s wife and daughters.

Dillashaw’s entire life revolves around his two homes, and he believes his two families provide him with the strength and grounding to do something nobody in UFC history has accomplished.

The 135-pound champion is going against conventional wisdom by cutting 10 pounds of weight to fight flyweight champ Henry Cejudo on Saturday night in Brooklyn.

Elite mixed martial artists over 30 are supposed to get bigger, not smaller. All three UFC fighters who have ever won simultaneous belts in two weight classes — Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes — did it by going up in weight, not down.

Dillashaw and Calavitta were confident he could do it with a scientific, meticulously measured plan that takes the nearly 33-year-old Dillashaw down to a weight at which the former Cal State Fullerton wrestler hadn’t competed since he was a teenager.

“I always knew I could make the weight, but I’m surprised at how good I feel trying to get down there,” Dillashaw said. “It’s because of how professional I took it. My diet has been strict. My workout routine has been strict. I’m lean, and everyone thinks I’m lying, but I’m stronger now than I was last camp.”

Instead of relying on the mix of crash dieting, sauna sweats and dehydration that has been the time-tested formula for fighters determined to compete at the smallest possible weight, Calavitta and Dillashaw created a three-month regimen of precise eating, working out and constant monitoring of every factor in between. Every calorie counts in the home-cooked meals eaten by Dillashaw at Calavitta’s table, but the plan is much more than a diet.

“We’re not really presenting him something that is so much discipline or deprivation as it is lifestyle,” said Calavitta, an award-winning calculus teacher and former aerospace engineer who has competed in multiple triathlons. “It’s to make your life better now as well as after fighting, so you can spend many, many years with your wife and your kids with a healthy and truthful life without many of the negative effects (of fighting).”

Calavitta planned out every step in the process even before Dillashaw (16-3) agreed to the fight against Cejudo (13-2).

Dillashaw has talked about going down to 125 pounds for several years, particularly for a big-money fight against long-reigning champ Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. Right after Cejudo upset Johnson last August on the same Los Angeles card on which Dillashaw trounced Cody Garbrandt, the UFC approached Dillashaw with a chance at the flyweight belt.

Dillashaw asked Calavitta if he could do it. Calavitta did some calculations on the way home from Staples Center and then spoke to Dillashaw.

“Well, I’ve followed the numbers here, and I believe the numbers allow me to bring you down safely without missing a single meal, without missing a single drink,” Calavitta said.

Calavitta projected his plan over 16 weeks, and Dillashaw began working before the holidays. But by the time the bout was finalized, they only had 12 weeks to get down to 125 pounds — and then 11 weeks when the UFC asked Dillashaw to move up the fight from Jan. 26 in Anaheim to Jan. 19 in Brooklyn.

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“One of the things you learn as a teacher and as a coach is that’s going to be effective to always have two, three, four and five contingency plans,” Calavitta said. “Because nothing ever goes exactly the way you think.”

Calavitta injects elements of Ironman triathlon training into Dillashaw’s preparations, and their rigorous discipline has allowed Dillashaw to get well within range of his goal weight several days before Friday’s weigh-in. Dillashaw woke up Monday weighing 135 pounds, which is 5 pounds closer to the 125-pound weight limit than Dillashaw normally weighs at this point in the week when fighting at 135 pounds.

“He doesn’t run from anything, especially when hard work is in front of him,” Calavitta said.

Several current and former fighters have scoffed at Dillashaw’s decision, either worrying about Dillashaw’s decision or reacting negatively to Dillashaw’s physical appearance on Instagram. Cejudo has had his own problems making weight for past fights, yet he still weighed in, saying Dillashaw “looks like Pee Wee Herman” or “a cross-country runner.”

In person, Dillashaw has sharply defined cheekbones, and it’s clear to see he has little excess flesh on his body even while he’s fully clothed and sipping tea. But Dillashaw looks less hollow than many fighters in the final days of a weight cut, and he insists he feels fit and fantastic.

“Of course I’m going to be skinny,” Dillashaw said. “I’m going down a weight class. If I were to wait and crash all the weight the last night (before the weigh-in), I would look better throughout camp. I’d look more normal, (but) then I would have to crash at the end and my performance wouldn’t be as good. I’m more worried about the performance.”

Along with keeping him stronger and healthier, Dillashaw believes his current diet cleared up his psoriasis. He even credits Calavitta with suggesting a few unspecified lifestyle changes that immediately allowed Dillashaw and his wife to conceive a child in 2017 after they had been having difficulty.

Calavitta says he doesn’t help Dillashaw or Pico for money, and he isn’t interested in turning his training philosophy into a financial windfall. He did spend three years creating the TrainChamp app, which reveals elements of the 12-week plan by which Dillashaw swears.

Dillashaw has repeatedly vowed he won’t miss weight, despite the doubts of Cejudo and other. He believes the belt will be his reward — and he has a list of food rewards that will follow gradually as he ramps his body back to its normal state. High on the list is a visit to Mikuni, the Sacramento sushi restaurant that has a roll named after him.

“Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday by far,” Dillashaw said. “So that was a bummer. Christmas and New Year’s, not so bad. I still enjoyed everything, but Thanksgiving was tough. I love stuffing, all that stuff. But I’ll have an early Thanksgiving 2019.”