Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, May 25, 2014 | 12:10 a.m.
In the moment of euphoria T.J. Dillashaw spent the last several years of his life working towards, he turned slowly to embrace his cornermen.
The new UFC bantamweight champion raised his voice so those close to him could hear over the commotion at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and squeezed his eyes shut.
“I knew it,” Dillashaw bellowed as he swayed to the side and waited for UFC President Dana White to strap the belt around his waist.
Dillashaw may have been overcome with emotion after stopping Renan Barao with a TKO at 2:26 of the fifth round in the main event of UFC 173 Saturday night, but he wasn’t in shock. While almost everyone doubted his chances against a champion who had won 32 fights in a row to become one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, Dillashaw believed.
In his words, he knew.
“You hear how awesome the guy is but it’s having the mental mindset for competition,” Dillashaw said. “You can’t go into a competition scared. If you do, you don’t go in there 100 percent. I went in there believing. I went in there confident.”
And he left dominant. Barao, as high as an 11-to-1 favorite, hardly had a single bright moment as he endured more than 22 minutes of punishment.
Dillashaw, a former college wrestler at Cal-State Fullerton, beat Barao at his own game by severely outstriking him. The nature of the beating Dillashaw administered drew many to declare it the biggest upset in UFC history, passing even Matt Serra’s infamous knockout of Georges St. Pierre seven years ago.
“It’s a tie as the craziest upset ever,” White laughed about the betting odds in the two fights being virtually identical. “They are both up there.”
But this wasn’t a flash knockout like the punch Serra landed on St. Pierre three minutes into UFC 65. Dillashaw looked like he was following that script for a moment.
He took control of the fight by clipping Barao with a right hand that sent the champion tumbling to the ground late in the first round.
“That would have knocked almost anyone out,” White said. “But he stood in there and took a zillion more. That kid is tough as hell.”
Dillashaw pounced on the grounded Barao, taking his back and trying to apply a rear-naked choke. The submission attempt got deep, but Barao narrowly slipped away.
“I was kind of pissed about it at first but now I’m happy about it,” Dillashaw said. “I got to prove myself even more. I got to show more skills with the longer it went.”
Dillashaw continued to put Barao in compromising situations throughout the next three rounds. He landed kicks, punches and elbows at will.
At the start of the fifth round, he just needed to stay out of danger for five minutes to secure the decision. Dillashaw instead refused to dial down his energy.
“Even though I knew I had won all the rounds, I guess it had just been burnt into me by now to not let it go to the judges,” Dillashaw said.
Dillashaw learned that lesson two fights ago, when Raphael Assuncao edged him with a controversial split decision last October. The only reason Dillashaw ended up getting the opportunity to fight Barao at UFC 173 was because Assuncao was unavailable with an injury.
Now, Assuncao was the first opponent mentioned for Dillashaw’s initial title defense.
“It will be nice to get that win back that I thought I had,” Dillashaw said.
Leaning towards Dillashaw vs. Assuncao as the next fight speaks to the lopsidedness of Saturday night’s event. A champion of Barao’s caliber is usually expected to get an immediate rematch, but Dillashaw left so little doubt as to who was the better fighter that the possibility was merely a secondary option.
“That’s on the table too,” White said. “It wouldn’t be insane to give Barao a rematch either.”
Dillashaw glowed at the Assuncao idea, but wouldn’t shoot down any option. He couldn’t weigh in on where he ranked in the annals of UFC underdogs.
To Dillashaw, it wasn’t an upset.
“That’s what I trained to do,” Dillashaw said. “It was the plan.”