Friday, May 23, 2014 | 2 a.m.
From the moment T.J. Dillashaw walked into the Team Alpha Male gym full of fighters personifying their squad’s name, he thought he could win everything.
Despite having no background in fighting and training with guys who were seasoned professionals with years of experience, Dillashaw immediately needed to beat everyone. When Urijah Faber caught him with a punch or Chad Mendes converted a takedown in sparring sessions, Dillashaw would get aggravated and start fighting back on the verge of recklessness.
It reached a point that even Faber and Mendes hadn’t seen in the notoriously macho sport of mixed martial arts.
“They told me I needed to calm down because I was a little too competitive,” Dillashaw reflected.
Dillashaw eventually improved the balance but it was difficult toning himself down because he placed an importance on every minor victory that could get him closer to one day winning a UFC title. That day comes Saturday in the main event of UFC 173, where Dillashaw (9-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC) challenges Renan Barao (32-1 MMA, 7-0 UFC) for the UFC bantamweight championship.
With an MMA record of 32 straight wins, Barao is an 8-to-1 favorite and seen as nearly invincible. It’s the champion who doesn’t lose against the challenger who despises defeat.
“I never really thought about it before until I got around the guys in our gym,” Dillashaw said. “They’re all competitive guys as well, but I guess I brought it to another level.”
That’s part of what endeared Faber, the Team Alpha Male patriarch, to Dillashaw. Faber said he knew within a couple days of training that Dillashaw’s combination of drive and talent would make him a champion.
Faber always saw something in Dillashaw, as the veteran tried to recruit the youngster to the University of California Davis as a wreslter back when he was an assistant coach. Dillashaw instead wound up at Cal State Fullerton, where he twice made nationals as a wrestler and planned to attend graduate school to become a physician’s assistant.
Faber convinced Dillashaw to move to Sacramento and try professional fighting instead.
“I told myself I would give it a year,” Dillashaw said, “to see what happened.”
Dillashaw won his first four fights, and shortly after a year had elapsed, nabbed a spot on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show. He breezed through the first three rounds of the tournament before fans started see what Faber and others already knew.
For better or worse, Dillashaw was a sore loser. John Dodson knocked out Dillashaw in less than two minutes on the show’s finale. It was the first of two losses for Dillashaw in the UFC, both of which he disputes.
He thinks the referee stopped the Dodson fight too quickly, and believes a split-decision loss to Raphael Assuncao last October was the wrong call. Dillashaw knows there’s another detriment to his nature beyond how people perceive his attitude after losing.
His competitiveness could potentially hurt him in a fight too.
“If things aren’t going perfect for me, I get frustrated and turn it on a little harder,” Dillashaw said. “I’ll just be super-aggressive for a little bit, but you’ve got to be controlled. You can’t just get a temper and let loose. That’s when you get sloppy.”
Dillashaw has seen some of that from Barao. He says the champion tends to get “un-technical” at times during a fight, one of many tendencies Dillashaw plans to exploit at UFC 173.
“T.J. has said a lot of things,” Barao said through a translator. “We’ll just have to see in the cage.”
Dillashaw can’t envision a scenario where he doesn’t push Barao well beyond where he’s been in his last two fights, where he defended his belt with relative ease in early stoppages over Faber and Eddie Wineland. Then again, Dillashaw can’t fathom losing at all.
He’s too confident and competitive to ever have the slightest doubt in himself.
“I’m going to take him down; I’m going to beat him on the feet,” Dillashaw said. “He’s a great champion, so I’ve got to be well-rounded and beat him everywhere.”