Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 | 7 p.m.
The smallest champion in the history of “The Ultimate Fighter” won’t be the weakest champion.
In fact, someone could easily make the case that the winner of Saturday’s bantamweight bout between John Dodson and T.J. Dillashaw will emerge as one of strongest ‘TUF’ champions ever. Dodson (11-5) and Dillashaw (4-0) have vastly different, but equally promising backgrounds.
They both had their eyes on each other as someone they would likely encounter when filming began on the 14th season of the UFC’s reality show tournament this summer.
“The first thing that came across my mind was he had the best credentials to actually beat me in a fight,” Dodson said. “His wrestling background was so exceptional that I figured I needed to be prepared to fight him and get him out as soon as possible. But as it turned out, I got him at the finale.”
Dodson vs. Dillashaw is scheduled as the first of two “TUF” 14 championship bouts at the Pearl at the Palms. The other is a featherweight matchup between Diego Brandao (13-7) and Dennis Bermudez (7-2).
It caps off a memorable year-and-a-half for the 25-year old Dillashaw, who only became a professional fighter in 2010. Dillashaw stood out as a wrestler at Cal-State Fullerton before that and planned to pursue a career as a physician’s assistant.
But he began training with Cal-State Fullerton assistant coach Mark Munoz, who’s also a UFC middleweight contender. Before long, Dillashaw met mixed martial arts icon Urijah Faber and headed to his Team Alpha Male training facility in Sacramento, Calif.
“I figured I’d give it a shot,” Dillashaw said. “I gave myself a year to see if I could make some progress in the sport to see if I had future in it. If not, I was going to go back to school.”
Dodson, 27, shooed away school long ago. He didn’t decide to start fighting until a chance encounter at, of all places, a Chuck E. Cheese in Albuquerque, N.M.
Dodson was on the clock at Chuck E. Cheese when he ran into a local MMA trainer.
“I was actually the birthday host for his kid’s party,” Dodson said. “I was dressed as Chuck E. Cheese. They knew a little bit about my wrestling background and wondered why I wasn’t taking any scholarships to pursue a wrestling career.”
It was because Dodson thought he was done with athletics and had no more desire to compete. He changed his mind as soon as he started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing at Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque.
That was 10 years ago. Dodson would count his experience in MMA as an advantage over Dillashaw. But Dillashaw disagrees.
“I learned a lot more from wrestling than he did fighting,” Dillashaw said. “He was just doing it because it was a cool thing to say you were doing and having some fun. I’ve always been someone who is very goal-oriented and had my mind on certain things.”
Dodson said he had his mind on not only winning “TUF,” but also beating Dillashaw since they started the show. Dodson’s assertion that he’s gunned for Dillashaw doesn’t faze the former college wrestler.
“He just likes to talk,” Dillashaw said. “He wanted to be a tough guy when their team had a meeting to sit down and talk about who they wanted to fight.”