Rarely does a fighter’s journey to the top come in the form of a straight line. No one goes from arrival to excellence without first encountering a few twists and turns, detours and roadblocks that test their mettle and strengthen their resolve.
When he was announced as a contestant on Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, TJ Dillashaw was immediately tabbed as one of the favorites to win the bantamweight competition. Despite having just four professional fights to his name and less than a year’s worth of experience under his belt, the ultra-confident prospect appeared poised to turn his Team Alpha Male pedigree into a six-figure contract with the UFC.
Then came the first speed bump.
After working his way to the finals, Dillashaw was dropped by the left of John Dodson; relegated to the runner-up position, his unbeaten record a thing of the past. > Watch: Dillashaw works the pads
Dillashaw grew from the experience, tightening up his defensive posture and showing a greater sense of urgency in executing his game plan once he returned to the Octagon. Following a lopsided decision win over Walel Watson in his post-TUF debut, the former Division I wrestler from Cal State Fullerton rattled off three straight finishes, the final two coming five weeks apart.
A four-fight winning streak where each performance was greater than the one before it placed him on the brink of contention in the bantamweight division, and set the table for the first real litmus test of his career – a matchup with Brazilian veteran Raphael Assuncao, a former featherweight title contender in the midst of a similar run of success inside the cage since transitioning to the 135-pound ranks, on his opponent’s home turf.
Another speed bump.
The back-and-forth affair earned Fight of the Night honors, but Dillashaw came out on the short end of a split decision; his winning streak reset to zero, the road to the top taking another unexpected twist.
“With my loss against Dodson, I realized that I wasn’t invincible and that I couldn’t just go 100 mph with my hands down – I had to learn a little bit more structure, so it’s the same thing with my last fight,” says Dillashaw of the takeaways from frustrating setback against Assuncao in October. “I saw some mistakes that I can easily fix – touching my way in, using my combinations better instead of just going for the one kick, one punch knockouts and whatnot. I need to be more dominant in my wrestling (too) and not forget what got me here.”
As the loss fades from the rearview mirror, the 27-year-old continues on his journey towards the top of the bantamweight division, with Duluth, Georgia and a matchup with Mike Easton on the main card of Wednesday’s UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Philippou card his next stop.
It’s a pairing that has been on Dillashaw’s itinerary before, as the two were scheduled to square off in December 2012 before the 9-2 Team Alpha Male representative was forced to withdraw due to an injury. Easton remained on the Seattle, Washington UFC on FOX fight card, becoming the third vanquished opponent on the winning streak Assuncao extended to five when he earned the nod over Dillashaw last fall.
Now the two Top 10-ranked competitors will finally meet, both men coming off setbacks in fights where they were given a marked step up in competition. It’s a chance for the winner to get back on the road to championship contention, and that’s a course Dillashaw is intent on taking.
“Easton is a tough dude,” he offers, “and it’s going to be like I don’t even miss a step if I go and dominate this fight. If I go out there and beat up on a really good opponent, it’s going to put me right back where I was at – if not even further ahead.
“I’m going to grow off this loss based on what I did wrong, and it’s going to make me better in the long run. Everyone saw how well I could do against Assuncao, who is ranked No. 4 in the world right now, and I feel that’s where I should be. I’m going to continue to push forward.”
Though he’s wary of the talents that have helped Easton amass a 13-3 record heading into their meeting Wednesday night on FOX Sports 1, Dillashaw has now prepared for Easton on two different occasions, and sees the same fighter he was preparing to face in December 2012 as he readies to battle “The Hulk” 15 days into 2014.
And he knows that’s not something his opponent can say about him in return.
“He always brings the same style. He’s a very technical opponent – he’s tough on the ground, he’s tough on the feet, but I feel like he’s very predictable and he keeps everything way too close. Unfortunately for him, he’s getting me when I’m even better. Every day, every week, every month I’m getting better and better – it’s hard not to with the coaches and teammates I have.
“Obviously you’re always getting better and always growing – but mentally, knowing I belong where I’m at, and having the confidence in every aspect of MMA now (is huge). Unfortunately for him, he’s getting the best version of TJ Dillashaw.” > Watch: Alpha Male's Secret Weapon
After swallowing a bitter pill in having victory escape his grasp against Assuncao, don’t expect the fiercely competitive Dillashaw to make the same mistake again with Easton.
“I’ve got to stay focused; I can’t just go into killer instinct mode,” he admits. “When things get tough, I’ve got to make sure I’m staying levelheaded and doing the things that I’ve worked on with Duane (Ludwig) and my team since I heard about the fight. I’ve gotten a nine-week training camp in just for Easton, but I was training before that as well – just fixing my own game, staying levelheaded, and staying calm.
“I’ve got be smart with my aggressiveness, so it’s just more of the urge to finish the fight. I wouldn’t say I’m any more motivated for this fight, but I do have the urge to make sure that I’m super-decisive in getting the victory, that’s for sure.”
And that comes by going back to basics and returning to the approach that put him on the road to UFC success in the first place.
“My pressure and my mentality of going as hard as possible are going to wear him out. I’ve seen him come out really tough in the first round and then tire after that. I feel I’m mentally tougher, and I’m going to be able to grind him out and finish him.”
TJ Dillashaw: The Road
"My pressure and my mentality of going as hard as possible are going to wear him out." - TJ Dillashaw