TJ Dillashaw wasn’t supposed to beat Renan Barao. He wasn’t even supposed to be in the ring with him.
There are two kinds of upsets in the UFC: the fast, unexpected kind, and the slow-motion car wreck, where it’s like watching somebody get hit by the same truck over and over and over. The first kind isn’t all that unusual. After all, UFC gloves are thin, designed to protect the wearer’s fists more than their opponent’s precious, precious jawline. Even the best fighters on Earth make mistakes. One flush shot, and they’re taking one of those fun naps where they wake up having forgotten everything that happened in the last 24 hours.
Dillashaw vs Barao 1 was not like that. Dillashaw vs Barao 1 was the second kind, a bell-to-bell thrashing on the level of a tornado running through a ramshackle barn convention. And it was Dillashaw—the solid but unspectacular wrestler, the quiet kid with a farm boy smile—who punched his ticket to the top.
This happened back in 2014, when Barao was on top of the world. With 32 wins under his belt since his previous loss (waaaay back at the start of his career), the tiny Brazilian man tank had one of the longest active winning streaks in all of MMA. He was the bantamweight champion, and he’d fought and defended against some pretty fucking credible competitors. He used a terrifying array of punches, spinning kicks, and god-tier jiu jitsu to smash opponent after opponent—batter the confidence right out of them, leave them changed in the wake of it all. He was a monster. UFC president Dana White called him the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Admittedly, Dana White does that all the time and is a documented shady motherfucker, but still. Some people agreed with his assertion. That is the key thing here. I mean, watch this guy work:
Dillashaw was a replacement, one half of a main event fight cobbled together at the last second after another fight was scrapped due to injuries. He’d done decently enough in the UFC, but his losses—one of which had come only two fights before he got shoved in the lion’s cage with a hungry Barao—painted a picture of a work-in-progress, someone who still had a looooong ways to go. He was Team Alpha Male’s dark horse. Everyone talked about his teammates, Chad Mendes and Urijah Faber, the latter of whom Barao had already beaten. Dillashaw was unassuming, a nobody, a sacrificial lamb. Barao was gonna tear him limb-from-limb and get back to knocking off real contenders. We were going to watch, wonder how Barao’s mad scientist creators fit so many rocket-powered sledgehammers into a human suit, and cheer.
That night, something was different about Dillashaw. And by something, I mean everything. For one, he chose to strike with Barao, the grim reaper knockout assassin. Not only that, he was nimble, nearly impossible to time. When you thought he was gonna be there, he wasn’t. Milliseconds after that, he was.
It was like his entire training camp consisted of listening to clips of Muhammad Ali saying, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” over and over again. He was moving so well that his counters sometimes landed him behind Barao. It was as though he’d learned a teleport move out of Mortal Kombat.
The full first fight, if you want to watch it.
Barao could barely touch him. Toward the end of the first round, Dillashaw landed a monster overhand right that nearly ended the whole thing. Barao survived the round, barely, but he started the next round a ghost of himself. For three more rounds, Dillashaw dismantled him, and he made it look easy. It was like he knew everything Barao was gonna do before he even did it. Barao—the champ, the leather-slinging machine, the best in the world—looked lost.
When the fifth round rolled around, Barao was dazed and gulping air. Dillashaw still seemed relatively fresh. One low feint into a high kick later, Barao was on the ground, nearly unconscious and scared shitless, and Dillashaw was declared the victor. It was a merciless end to a methodical dissection. The fight was supposed to be over fast, courtesy of Renan “unstoppable force-of-nature” Barao. Instead, Dillashaw fed him hundreds of knuckle sandwiches and one gigantic slice of humble pie.
At the time, it was unbelievable. Where the hell did this new Dillashaw come from? He moved nothing like the old one, and he struck with as much grace and precision as injured ex-champ Dominick Cruz. People didn’t know what to make of it all. Dillashaw stole Barao’s crown and the tongues from people’s mouths. It was an immense upset, not just because of the outcome, but because of how it went down.
Upsets have a funny side effect, though: they retroactively change the narrative. Days after Dillashaw put the entire bantamweight division on notice, forums were abuzz with talk that Barao was never actually all that good. He was overhyped. The guys he beat were declining. He went through a brutal weight cut. Dillashaw caught him with a lucky punch in the first round, and he just wasn’t the same after that.
Others pointed out that Dillashaw studied Barao obsessively, planned to exploit all of his bad habits. It wasn’t that Dillashaw was great, they said, but rather that his coaches were smart—and Barao was reckless. Dillashaw scored one of the most definitive championship wins the UFC had seen in ages, but he was answered with questions, disbelief, speculation—perhaps even more so than if he’d just scored a flash knockout. MMA is a weird sport.
Tomorrow night, Dillashaw and Barao are going to fight again. Injuries have delayed their rematch four times, and they’ve each had one other fight since they last met. Dillashaw looked good but not amazing against a no-name replacement of his own in Joe Soto, and Barao got the job done against Mitch Gagnon.
It’s funny how things change—even funnier how they don’t. This time around, Dillashaw is the favorite, but only slightly. Barao promises he’s ready this time, despite the fact that he looked more or less the same as ever against Gagnon. But it’s hard not to wonder if maybe he knows something we don’t. He’s had all this time to prepare, two years to study exactly what happened in his last fight against Dillashaw. Even if Dillashaw starts running circles around him again, you never know: all Barao needs is one good punch, one well-placed spinning back kick. And hey, maybe that first round overhand right really did change the complexion of the entire fight. Maybe Dillashaw got lucky after all.
And so, despite one fight that was a drawn-out, lopsided beating, we somehow know even less than we did going into Dillashaw and Barao’s first go-’round. Last time, we were certain. Barao was gonna put on his apron and open up a slaughterhouse. Simple, quick, easy. This time, though, who the fuck knows how it’s gonna go down? There are so many intangibles at play, so many questions it turns out we never had answers to. All I know for sure is that soon we’ll finally get some real closure.
Image credit: Getty.