Who is the most underrated fighter in UFC history? Well, it’s an opinion and there isn’t any right (or wrong) answer, but I put forth as my nomination one Tyler Jeffrey Dillashaw.
Best known as T.J. Dillashaw, he’s in his second reign as bantamweight champion and will defend his title on Saturday at Staples Center in Los Angeles against former teammate and current blood rival, Cody Garbrandt, in the main event of UFC 227.
He’s never had more than a four-fight winning streak, and he’s been overshadowed by any number of other great fighters, which is perhaps why Dillashaw doesn’t have the highest profile among UFC fighters.
He developed into an elite fighter on “The Ultimate Fighter” and while a member of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male. Faber was in the midst of a Hall of Fame career and dominated fan and media attention at bantamweight for a long time.
At the same time, Dominick Cruz was in the midst of a bitter rivalry with Faber and was proving himself to be one of the all-time great fighters, regardless of weight. Cruz’s seemingly impossible comebacks after a series of devastating and debilitating injuries added to his legend.
On the day that Garbrandt showed up at Team Alpha Male, he oozed stardom. He was a guy who seemed destined to become a champion, and it was hardly a shock when he dismantled Cruz in a brilliant performance at UFC 207 in 2016 and captured the 135-pound title.
Because Dillashaw never has had — and still doesn’t have — that extraordinarily long winning streak, and doesn’t have that one standout skill such as Conor McGregor’s punching power or Khabib Nurmagomedov’s grappling, he was overlooked.
He’s only been conclusively defeated once, however. He was knocked out by John Dodson in the finale of TUF 14 in a match in which he says he was too cocky.
“You have to learn from your losses and I learned a lot from that fight, as well,” Dillashaw told Yahoo Sports. “I was going into that fight 4-0 with three wins on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ so I was really 7-0 and thinking I was invincible. I was a 3-1 favorite going in to beat Dodson and become ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ champion. I went out there and tried fighting an aggressive fight on my feet when I wasn’t a kickboxer yet.
“I didn’t have the years of experience. I was a wrestler, let’s be honest. I’d been training for a year. I was beating everyone with my wrestling and I was feeling too confident [at] a skill I didn’t really have yet.”
Since that fight, Dillashaw has gone 11-2 and has had two reigns as UFC bantamweight champion. One could make a convincing argument that instead of being on a three-fight winning streak heading into a difficult rematch with Garbrandt that Dillashaw could be on a 13-bout winning streak.
He lost a split decision in a Fight of the Night battle with Raphael Assuncao on Oct. 9, 2013, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, that many believed he deserved to win. He came back and convincingly defeated Assuncao at UFC 200 in 2016.
The second Assuncao fight came on the heels of a heartbreaking loss to Cruz on Jan. 17, 2016, in which the story and media focus was on Cruz regaining the belt after a lengthy absence because of injury.
The truth is that Dillashaw could easily have won both of those decisions and if he had, he’d be entering Saturday’s fight on a 13-bout winning streak. That would give him the type of recognition that he hasn’t gotten in his career.
When he beat Renan Barao to win the bantamweight title at UFC 173, it came as a shock to so many. Barao was a massive favorite and this was supposedly one of those perfunctory defenses a champion must make before going on to bigger and better things.
Barao was being pushed by the UFC at the time as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, and he hadn’t lost a fight in more than nine years.
He was never in the fight with Dillashaw, who scored a wide and very dominant decision victory.
Dillashaw believed he’d win, but knew what he was up against. Barao had lost his pro debut on April 14, 2005, and then had gone 32-0 with a no-contest in the next nine-plus years before meeting Dillashaw.
“I was very confident going into that fight, but it was still like I was fighting a monster,” Dillashaw said. “I was an 8-1 underdog and the guy had been undefeated for 10 years. Obviously, I had all that [knowledge] in the back of my head, which is why I fought him so cautiously.”
He won the belt and established himself as a star, even if he hasn’t gotten the recognition that goes along with champions of his pedigree. But if he beats Garbrandt again on Saturday, he’ll no longer have to wait for recognition.
He is a congenial guy who is as easy-going as it gets, but he doesn’t care to hear, “If you beat Garbrandt on Saturday.” He sees things differently.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it [that I’ll win] and it should be, ‘I need to [win],’ it should be, ‘When I win,’ ” Dillashaw said. “It’s the only way I think: When I beat Cody, this chapter is shut. That’s it. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
And if he beats Garbrandt for a second time, along with two wins over Barao, and dominant wins over Assuncao and John Lineker, among others, there will be no ifs, ands or buts about that, either:
T.J. Dillashaw will be recognized as not only one of the great active fighters, but as one of the great fighters in UFC history. It’s that simple.
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