Famous pro wrestling manager and personality Jim Cornette is fond of saying that the UFC is the best professional wrestling promotion in the world and that Dana White is the pro wrestling promoter in the world. Before the so-called purists call for my blood, the man does have a point (and so do I). What the UFC has managed to do better than the WWE over the past fifteen years is continually put two fighters in the cage that people care about with something on the line. More than anything, Cornette understands that its best that MMA (and pro wrestling) is about personal issues.
And in recent UFC history, there may be no more personal issue than that between two-time UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and former champion Cody Garbrandt. The two best bantamweights in the world will get on for the second time this Saturday night and you can’t help but feel that this is what it is all about.
At least from my point of view, this rivalry began in earnest on May 24, 2014, when on Duane “Bang” Ludwig’s last night as the head coach of Sacramento, California’s Team Alpha Male, Dillashaw knocked out Renan Barao in the fifth round to win the UFC bantamweight title, scoring one of the biggest upsets in UFC history at the time. That same night, Cody was three thousand miles in Pittsburgh, winning his fourth professional fight. Garbrandt had been training at Alpha Male for about a year at this point, and already having regular sparring sessions with the new champ. Six months later, Garbrandt entered the UFC and began blazing his own trail.
Things went to a new level during the filming of Season 22 of the Ultimate Fighter, thanks to the loveable shit-disturber Conor McGregor. Mystic Mac predicted all of this at that time, referring to Dillashaw as a “snake in the grass” (does the man watch his Dusty Rhodes?). Yet, rushing to TJ’s defense was the still-at-this-time unknown bantamweight, who shoved McGregor, instigating a pull apart. In the buildup to this fight, Cody has said repeatedly that this almost got him fired from the UFC — as in wrestling, you don’t fuck with the golden goose.
In January 2016, Dillashaw lost the title in a close (but very clear) decision to Dominick Cruz and sometime after that, it became apparent to all that he had left Team Alpha Male for good and was now being paid to be at the Muscle Pharm team in Colorado (the team is now in LA). The shit was on.
It can’t be coincidence that weeks after TJ lost the title, the man known as “No Love” began his own trail to the title. The next six months saw Cody knockout BJJ ace Augusto Mendes, surging young prospect Thomas Almeida, and Japanese veteran Takuya Mizugaki, all in the first round to earn his shot at Cruz. Then on December 28, 2016, Cody put on a masterful performance, dominating Cruz over five rounds to become Team Alpha Male’s second world champion.
That night, the new champ’s words to the former champ were loud and clear — “Come and try me, motherfucker.”
The next turn was the Ultimate Fighter, where the two men were now head coaches. The season was punctuated by the famous Cody grabbing the throat incident that is a pro wrestling as it gets (I loved it). Eventually, the fight was scheduled for UFC 214 at International Fight Week in July, but the curse was in as Cody pulled out weeks in advance with a back injury. It was a sign of bad things to come for him.
The First Fight
The fight was rescheduled as the co-main event for UFC 217 in New York City. In the months leading up to that, Garbrandt traveled across the world, looking for solutions and getting injections from places around the world. But in the lead-up to this fight, Garbrandt has hinted strongly that the injury was still bad leading up to the first fight and compromised his training. Nonetheless, the two stepped into the cage November 5, 2017.
Now there have been plenty of times in the history of combat sports when the promos, press conferences, and video packages have been so much better than the big fight. For a rivalry to really reach its apex, it has to be great when the bell rings.
That night, Garbrandt and Dillashaw were fantastic. The first several minutes was a war of nerves, with both men trying to judge the distance. Towards the end of the round, Cody started to find his range and land his combinations with his hands, and then a combination dropped TJ at the end of the round, but the bell saved him from a pounding on the ground.
Both men really started to get loose in the second round. Cody was moving and boxing and breakdancing, and TJ was starting to find his range, and then dropped Cody with a headkick. Cody got quickly back to his feet and started going after TJ with even more ferocity, but when Cody got a little wide on a left hook, TJ, fighting southpaw, found Cody’s chin with a right hook. TJ jumped on Cody and Dan Miragliotta stopped the bout at 2:41 of the second round.
After Dillashaw regained the title, talk was abound that he would be moving down in weight to face UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, but for whatever reason, they couldn’t get that fight done. Instead, this rematch was announced. It was the right call. As the UFC’s biggest wrestling fan, Daniel Cormier, pointed out on commentary that night of the first fight, these two men aren’t done with each other. Given that Cody did so well at the end of the first round, only to have TJ bounce back the way he did — they had to do it again.
Dillashaw will come into the cage supremely confident, and why not, given what he did on November 5. He also has a full-service camp around him again at the Treigning Lab in Orange County, California and is in the best shape of his career with strength and conditioning coach Sam Calavitta, whose name slowly seems to be everywhere in the MMA world. It will be the best TJ Dillashaw we see this Saturday.
This time around, Cody Garbrandt is planning to bring the best of himself. Back at one hundred percent, Cody has been looking excellent in his camp, and has had the full compliment of Team Alpha Male fighters to train with this time around. He has looked great in his YouTube videos and had said wide and long that he was “coming off the couch” in November. We shall see.
But at the end of the day what strikes me is how this is what MMA is all about. We have two fighter who are the best in their division, who legitimately hate each other, about to get into the cage tonight. And whether you’re Team Cody or Team TJ, these two dudes illicit legit emotion from MMA fans. It would be hard for anyone to write a better script…Even Jim Cornette.
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