On the night of the fight, many people were calling this possibly the greatest performance in the octagon. These things are always subjective but this was one of those special moments. T.J. Dillashaw dominated Renan Barao with his movement, timing, game plan and self-confidence. It was like watching someone combine the speed and grace of Syrio Forel with the power of the Hound.
It was a beautiful display of mixed martial arts striking. You hear fighters say MMA wrestling is different. The threat of being punched, knee’d or kicked changes how you wrestle in the octagon. It is why a striker like Lyoto Machida can take down an Olympic wrestler like Dan Henderson.
Just like wrestling inside of the octagon is different, so is striking. The threat of the takedown forces a fighter to change their stance and approach. Dillashaw used that threat very effectively throughout this fight. He has really flourished under the tutelage of Duane “Bang” Ludwig to where his striking is now at the level of his grappling making him a complete mixed martial artist.
This was not a flukey lucky punch type of win like Matt Serra’s over Georges St-Pierre. Instead what Dillashaw did was dominate one of the best fighters in the world today and finished him. He did this by executing a brilliant game plan.
A big part Barao’s success can be attributed to his commitment to the basics. While Barao is very athletic, he is not flashy in the cage like an Anthony Pettis. He does not use a huge arsenal of strikes but relies on some very effective weapons. His leg kicks, jab, overhand right and his spinning back kick. He has power in his left hook as well. Which he uses most often to catch his opponents as they come in or during the scramble situations.
Dillashaw came into this fight with a game plan developed that Ludwig built around his own skills and specifically to negate Barao’s. Coming up with the perfect game plan is not easy and even more difficult is actually implementing it in the heat of the battle. This was a masterful display of both.
Dillashaw started the fight out bouncing on his feet and switching stances. He threw the first leg kick of the fight in the opening 10 seconds. He then circled around the cage setting the tempo for the fight. One of almost constant motion. When he was out of range his hands were down but as soon as the distance closed the hands came up.
While Dillashaw was in a state of perpetual motion it was not a predictable one. He moved in and out, circled to the side and cut angles all fight long. He also varied up his attacks throughout the fight utilizing fakes and feints to keep Barao off-balance.
It is funny to read the comments on Twitter and even in some of the articles that still do not want to give Dillashaw credit for what he did in the octagon. One consistent comment on Twitter was that something must have been wrong with Barao because he did not look like himself, and that he also seemed confused during the fight.
It is quite simple he was confused for most of the fight. A big part of that was the big right hand from Dillashaw in the first round that sent Barao careening to the canvas. It also had a lot to do with the way Dillashaw fought Barao creating a lot of the confusion. It is what allowed him to land that big shot.
You saw his game plan early in the fight when 30 seconds into it Dillashaw came forward in orthodox stance. As he started to come into range he fake a jab then a right hand and landed another solid right leg kick; then quickly bounced back out and circled again.
When he circled away he did so with his leg generally more parallel to each other instead on in one the traditional striking stances. This stance combined with the constant movement took away the leg kicks from Barao’s arsenal. He rarely had a leg to target and when Dillashaw would go into a traditional stance he rarely stayed there. Instead, as he came in he would often switch stances before throwing the strike.
Also, throughout the fight Dillashaw threatened the takedown. He attempted three takedowns during the fight and was not successful on any of them. They were still effective as Joe Rogan mentioned during the broadcast. They gave Barao one more thing to think about.
Dillashaw’s wrestling played a bigger part than just forcing Barao to divide his attention. It also shutdown Barao’s wrestling, a very underrated part of his game. So much attention has been put on his striking and jiu-jitsu that most people focus on his ability to stop the takedown.
We have seen Barao use it offensively in the octagon in the Michael McDonald fight. In that fight, McDonald had some success against Barao. He used a lot of movement to help negate the leg kicks. McDonald also chose to counter them with a right hand and rocked him with one in the second round.
It was a close striking battle in the standup in that fight and Barao really utilized his grappling to get the win. Barao could not do that against Dillashaw. He had to come up with a different plan and never really dealt effectively with Dillashaw’s movement, which Dillashaw used more effectively than McDonald did against Barao.
McDonald did have success using his footwork to negate the leg kicks he was more predictable on his attacks. Barao used a short lead left hook to catch McDonald cleanly as he was coming in. Dillashaw varied his approaches and attacks and was much more unpredictable.
He also did something interesting with his movement in this fight by circling to his left into Barao’s power right side. If you watch booing this is a violation one of the basic rules of that sport. It often leads to you getting knocked out if you choose to circle into a fighter’s power.
It is different in MMA, Muay Thai and Kickboxing where the power is more likely to come from both sides due to the kicks, elbows and knees. They also have spinning attacks which are not allowed in boxing. When you circle away from a fighters power side you are circling into one of their spinning attacks.
McDonald was caught with a couple spinning kicks and a few others just missed. While Dillashaw easily avoided Barao’s spinning attacks. He was also usually able to land effective counterstrikes in the scrambles that ensued. Dillasahw did this by stepping into the kicks giving him a better striking angle and forcing Barao to retreat defensively.
Another big difference for Dillashaw was his ability to stayed balanced as he moved forwards and backwards. This allowed him to strike when attacking or retreating. This did not allow Barao to blitz him like he did McDonald. Barao likes to rush in, overwhelm his opponent, create a chaotic situation and land strikes in the scramble. That is when he is his most creative. He never could do that against Dillashaw. That is one of the strongest elements of Team Alpha Male is their ability to thrive inside the chaos of the octagon. They as a team love to do the same thing and Dillashaw was comfortable in those moments.
That was another big thing about this fight. He was comfortable all night in the octagon with Barao. Right from the opening moments until he finished the fight in the fifth round Dillashaw was in control of the fight. It is easier to be confident if you are the quicker fighter as Dillashaw was all night long.
It almost ended in the first round when Dillashaw caught him a perfectly timed overhand right that rolled Barao’s eyes back into his head for a moment. He was able to survive the round. In his corner between rounds they told him to not stand and trade with Dillashaw. Barao did not have many other options as Dillashaw kept the pressure on him.
He did this with his pace as well as his footwork. His constant motion, attacks and threat of attacks were relentless. Dillashaw showed that his cardio is among the best in the UFC.
After almost getting the finish in the first round Dillashaw found it in the fifth. It showed a lot that Dillashaw got the finish in this fight. He was still aggressive, but not reckless. There are many fighters who would have cruised through the fifth round comfortable that they were ahead after four rounds. Team Alpha Male has always been a group of finishers and that has increased slightly under Ludwig.
In the fifth round Dillashaw was still bouncing lightly on his feet and having fun in the octagon. Ludwig did a great job cornering Dillashaw and helped keep him loose in this fight.
The finish came from Dillashaw walking Barao down towards the cage. He then stood in front of Barao and proceeded to duck and slip strikes while landing his own.
It started with a jab from southpaw stance. Barao slid to his right. Dillashaw threw a straight left hand that connected. Then Dillashaw slipped a Barao right hand and landed a little jab. Another jab followed by a left head kick that rocked Barao. A quick straight solid lefthand. Then another right hand. Dillashaw missed with couple more before landing a right hand that rattled him. The left hand that followed sent him back down to the ground. Dillashaw followed the dazed Barao down to the ground and a few strikes later there was a new UFC bantamweight champion.
There are now some intriguing possibilities within the weight class for Dillashaw and Barao. It will be interesting to see how it works out for them.
Barao did have a long winning streak entering this fight most of it happened outside of the UFC and he is now 7-1 inside of the octagon. That is impressive but it does not necessarily guarantee him an immediate rematch. Dillashaw expressed a desire to get his loss back against Raphael Assuncao in the post fight press conference.
There is also the former champ Dominick Cruz when he comes back. He also has excellent movement and game planning with the ability to implement it. It is easy to see him presenting many of the same problems for Barao.
The division is much like the welterweights right now as it is wide open. Besides a rematch with either Barao or Assuncao there are the several possible future fights for Dillashaw. One against a healthy Cruz would be like a beautiful, violent, high-speed chess match. The division just got a lot more fun and interesting after this masterful performance from Dillashaw.