One of the best aspects of MMA is that it has a level of purity. Relative to the pool of fighters that make up the major professional organizations all across the globe, very few fighters live glamorous lives, but all of them get put in the ring with only one opponent and one referee. The clothing is minimal, and the fighting is about as real as it can get.
When a fighter enters the cage, he is trusting that his coaches have given him the best possible training to not only win, but to win big. If a fighter is not properly prepared for battle, then bad things can happen. While there are a lot of coaches out there who focus all of their attention on their fighters, there are unfortunately many gyms in the world that are more concerned with promoting their own name and making money than they are about their fighters being truly prepared.
UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw has had one hell of a ride in his young career. In 2011, after going 4-0 as a pro, he captured second place on season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter. At only 25 years of age, the NCAA Division I wrestler was set to embark on what would be a tremendous professional fighting career. Fitting the profile perfectly, he was quickly brought into Team Alpha Male by Urijah Faber.
In December 2012, Team Alpha Male brought in former K-1 kickboxing champion and longtime UFC and Strikeforce veteran Duane “Bang” Ludwig as their head coach. At UFC 158 in March 2013, for Dillashaw’s fourth fight under the UFC banner, Ludwig served as his coach. Dillashaw knocked out Issei Tamura in the second round. With his new coach in his corner, the fast-rising star has gone 6-1. His only loss came by split decision, and all but one of his wins have been dominant knockouts. He has been crowned and twice defended the UFC bantamweight strap.
Throughout the last three years, Ludwig and his star pupil have formed a very tight bond. So, why is it that so many people started calling him a “snake” at the prompting of “The Notorious” Conor McGregor on the most recent season of TUF?
“It’s definitely annoying,” Dillashaw told Combat Press. “It’s a lot of blown out of proportion bull crap, you know? I think it’s all going to come to an end real soon. But, I think with all the crap that Urijah’s been talking, he’s pushing for a big-money fight. He might be looking to retire, and I think he’s looking to get paid.”
The dramatic backstory is that Ludwig and Faber had a falling out in 2014. Ludwig, a native Coloradan, moved back home to open his own gym. Last fall, it was announced that Dillashaw would be leaving Team Alpha Male to train with the guy who has had his back for most of his UFC camps, including his title fight. Cue the sleazy drama. McGregor positioned Dillashaw as a snake and Faber started in on the trash talk as well. The stage was now set for a Dillashaw-Faber showdown, but is that a logical next progression?
“He doesn’t deserve a title shot at all after hardly beating a No. 13 guy and looking really bad while doing it,” said Dillashaw, “He doesn’t deserve a title shot, but he’ll probably get one. People are trying to put down my loyalty, but really I do have loyalty to my coach — the guy who has loyalty to me. [Ludwig]’s put more work into me than anybody ever has in my entire career. He cares about me and my family, and we’ve created a great relationship.”
While MMA is one of the purest sports out there, it is not completely without drama. However, that is the furthest thing from Dillashaw’s mind right now. He’s in Colorado with a great group of coaches and training partners, and it’s time to expand on a four-fight winning streak that has placed him as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. In his last outing, Dillashaw was able to prove to the naysayers that he truly is the best bantamweight in the sport.
At UFC on Fox 16 in July, Dillashaw fought former champ Renan Barão in a rematch of the fight that shifted power in the UFC bantamweight division. A lot of people didn’t believe in Dillashaw after he stole the strap, so he was itching to put an end to that saga. Only 35 seconds into the first round, he finished Barão with a barrage of punches to prove he truly is the champ.
“When I beat him the first time, a lot of people didn’t believe, so I just put a stamp on me beating Barão,” explained the champ. “It wasn’t a fluke. I was the better fighter. I also learned that Denver is where I need to be. I was out here for my last Barão camp. Duane stayed out in Sacramento with me for the [Joe] Soto camp, because I fought so quick after the first Barão fight. When Duane moved back to Colorado, I came out here and checked it out and had an awesome camp. I realized this is where I need to be to continue to grow as a martial artist.”
In late 2015, Dillashaw and his wife packed up their belongings and moved to the northwest suburbs of Denver. The rest is history.
“Training’s been freaking amazing out here,” exclaimed the Californian. “Obviously, I came out here for Duane, and he’s my head coach. He’s got his Ludwig Martial Arts gym out here. All of my other training is at MusclePharm with the Elevation Fight Team. MusclePharm has done an awesome job with providing the best camp possible. They gave us a great facility and brought in training partners for me, as well as already having great training partners out here.
“A kid named Cory Sandhagen is an awesome kickboxer and a really good MMA fighter. He’s going to be a big name here in a few years. I’ve got a lot of confidence in that kid, and he’s been my main sparring partner. We’ve got Tony Sims, who’s in the UFC now. He’s a 155-pounder, but he fights like a lighter guy. Daniel Hooker, who’s also in the UFC, has been pushing me pretty well. The names are endless as well for the younger guys you haven’t heard of before. I have more coaches than I’ve ever had in my life. Duane Ludwig and Christian Allen are my striking coaches. Leister Bowling is my wrestling coach, Eliot Marshall is my jiu-jitsu coach, and Loren Landow is my strength and conditioning coach.”
This crew of coaches has become a driving force, feeding the UFC a lot of up-and-coming killers. The Elevation Fight Team was formed because a lot of their veterans were training at gyms in the Colorado area that were more focused on promoting their own brands while the fighters were becoming afterthoughts. These veterans wanted a team that was solely focused on the fighters and not the brand. Outside of the Ludwig connection, this is a match made in heaven for Dillashaw.
“You know, Urijah brought me in and let me train at the gym, but, really, I was just another body for him to train with and someone for him to start making money off,” Dillashaw said. “His company was my management company. I was paying the fight team, as well as promoting his gym. It’s unfortunate the turn that it has taken, and everybody has blown it out of the water thinking that Urijah’s the good guy.
“It’s almost too good of a storyline to be true. I really feel that the UFC is the one that’s behind all of this. It’s like the UFC and Conor McGregor are the ones pumping this up. Urijah wanted to fight Conor. He wanted to coach against him, then he wanted to fight him. But, Chad [Mendes] lost to Conor, so Conor’s fighting for the title. So [Faber] wasn’t going to get that fight. I think the UFC and Conor said, ‘Look man, you have a big-money fight right in front of your face. You just got to promote it.’ I think the UFC got behind and have been pumping it up, you know? There’s tons of guys at the top of the weight class Urijah couldn’t even beat. There’s Thomas Almeida, Aljamain Sterling and guys like that.”
At the end of the day, a promoter will promote. McGregor, arguably the top promoter within the company, just happened to be in the right place at the right time, coaching opposite Faber on season 22 of TUF. Meanwhile, Dillashaw has much bigger fish to fry.
In 2010, Dominick Cruz won the WEC bantamweight title, rode it into the UFC title through the merger and hasn’t lost since. However, in 2012, Cruz suffered what would turn out to be one of a set of nagging injuries that kept him sidelined for three years. In September 2014, he finally made his return to the Octagon to beat Takeya Mizugaki in dominating fashion. However, he had long since had his belt stripped. After the bout, UFC President Dana White announced Cruz’s next bout would be for the title. On Sunday night, in a long-anticipated match-up at UFC Fight Night 81, Cruz will finally get a chance to get his belt back when he faces Dillashaw in the night’s main event.
“I’m super excited, man,” Dillashaw said. “This is a dream come true for me. When I first got into this sport six years ago, Dominick Cruz was the bantamweight champion in the WEC and then he was the champion in the UFC. My goal was to beat that guy. I’ve been preparing myself to beat Cruz for a long time. I’m so glad I have the opportunity to do it.
“I feel very confident. You obviously have to go into every fight confident, but I’ve game-planned for Cruz for a long time. A lot of things I saw back then, I still see today. He obviously hasn’t had a lot of recent fights to look at, but I feel that he’s gotten away with some things that he won’t be able to get away with in the future. I’m going to open up some holes in his game.”
Cruz was a dominant champion during his time, and he has been close to the sport the entire time he was on the bench. Training, coaching and preparing to regain what he feels is rightfully his. Over four years ago, Dillashaw was still fairly green. Now he’s one of the top fighters in the world. Cruz is not fighting the kid who was behind the scenes while Cruz shared a heated rivalry with Faber. Dillashaw is the undisputed UFC champion, and he’s ready for the fight of his life.
Faber may bring the drama, but Cruz is the dream. Dillashaw has waited a long time for this fight. On Sunday night, it will finally come to fruition at the TD Garden in Boston.
“I want to be the most entertaining fighter in the world,” said Dillashaw. “I do not know why I care about that, but I do. I’m an aggressive fighter, I push the pace, and this has all been so much fun for me. My career has been amazing, and it’s just crazy how it’s all come together. And it’s meant to be this way. I’m here for the true martial-arts fan, not the guys who are all about the drama and trying to turn this into the WWE.”