Can’t Stop TJ Dillashaw
The UFC bantamweight champion is driving his red–hot win streak to a pound-for-pound best legacy
Written by Erik Rasmussen
Photography by Randall Mesdon
Styled by Taylor Brechtel
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TJ Dillashaw is always smiling. Even when his eyes are blackened, his nose flattened, his face glistening with fresh blood and sweat. It’s a Californian smile, sunny and symbolic, at once idealistic and at ease. It’s a grimace full of good old fashioned American optimism, beaming back at a world-class cage fighter’s face, even as that rival publicly threatens to damage, with millimetric precision, parts of Dillashaw’s body you wouldn’t recognize on a hospital chart. It’s a smile built by hard work, over thousands of hours sparring and training. It gleams with health, and also with the slightly sinister knowledge that he can hurt you, badly, if he chose. It’s a confident smile, dentist pamphlet-worthy. It’s a winner’s smile, but more than that, it’s a champion’s smile, openly enjoying building his legacy. It’s a smile as true and aspirational as the words passing through it: “This is what I want.” And it carries a message that challengers may plot, they may prepare and they may taunt; that contenders will land punches, throws and kicks; that adversaries may break his bones but not his spirit, because TJ Dillashaw is on a mission to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. And he’s going to enjoy every minute.
Erik Rasmussen How did you become involved with mixed martial arts?
T.J Dillashaw My dad got me into wrestling when I was eight-years-old. He was a D1 college wrestler. I got a full-ride scholarship to Cal State Fullerton. Then in my senior year an assistant wrestling coach, Mark Muñoz, who was in the UFC, said, “Man, I think you’d do awesome in [mixed martial arts].” I figured if I was good at it, I’d give myself a year. If within that year if I didn’t see any promise, I’d go back to grad school.
ER Did you wrestle your dad growing up?
TJD Oh man, he’s an animal. My older brother’s friends would come over and he would pin all of them. My dad’s a savage, dude. He’s the one that taught me how to work hard. He was my coach all the way through high school.
ER What did he think when you dropped out of grad school for a career that involves getting punched in the face?
TJD I grew up with a very supportive family. They followed my entire wrestling career. When I was done, they almost felt like they had a void in their life. Especially my mom; she was excited that I was going to continue competing. They were obviously a little weary, like, “Are you gonna be able to make money? How are you going to live?” I raised pigs and steers my whole life doing 4H, and I was all about the fair. I raised enough money to build this sick, tricked out, classic ‘57 Chevy pickup. I sold it so I could live off the money for a year and train.
ER You went undefeated as an amateur and as a professional before competing on the reality show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) Season 14. What does that kind of exposure do for a fighter?
TJD Going on the show and realizing how good I was gave me a lot of confidence. The guy I fought just to get into the house had like 30-something fights, and I knocked him out in the first round. Having [former UFC middleweight champion Michael] Bisping as my coach, as well as a star-studded roster of teammates at home preparing me for this big stage; nothing compares to it.
ER Something that’s always fascinated me about prize fighting is the mental preparation. You’re going to be locked in a cage with a world class fighter who’s been training for months to destroy you, at a specific date and time, in front of 30,000 frenzied fans, and wager your reputation and physical well-being.
TJD I’ve learned to love that situation. There are no higher highs and lower lows than in prize fighting. I feed off that. When I first started, yeah, I definitely got nervous. Like, “Damn, why the hell am I doing this?” But working as hard as I do makes me realize how prepared I am to be in there, and then I just kind of soak everything up. I have a lot of fun, and when I’m having fun I’m the best in the world.
ER In the TUF finale, you took your first “L” from John Dodson. How do you recover from a loss?
TJD I was a three-to-one favorite going into that fight, and I really just knew that I was going to win the show. And when I got caught and it didn’t happen, I guess anger drove me to my next fight. I was like, “I wanna fight right away. I wanna get this loss behind me.”
ER After the TUF finale loss you put together an impressive string of victories. You’re knocking people out, you’re getting Fight of the Night awards. You’re career properly started.
TJD My fight against Mike Easton began my career, I feel. [Coach] Duane Ludwig really pumped up my striking, and it was my first fight where everything clicked. I out struck him, just beat him up for three rounds. Everything went perfectly. That’s when I learned to have fun. I was talking to Shaquille O’Neal during that fight. I went to hit a double leg, and I see Shaquille O’Neal, front row. I said, “This is for you Shaq!” And I lifted [Easton] in the air and slammed him, and Shaq’s over there telling me how to elbow him, and I’m talking back and forth with him. I realized, that’s how I needed to fight. Just go out there and enjoy everything. That’s what lead me to my first title fight. I enjoyed the media, I enjoyed the interviews, I enjoyed the attention. I enjoyed my dream coming true. Instead of being so nervous that you forget about it all, I made sure to soak it all up. This is what I want. I won’t let it pass me by.
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ER You found your game, you’re building your name. All you needed was a break. And then you got bumped up on the UFC 173 card to fight one of the most dangerous men ever to lurk in the division, Renan Barão, for the bantamweight title. Tell me true, were you scared?
TJD I wasn’t, man. Getting hurt and stuff like that never crosses my mind. The thing you get scared about is losing. There’s so much on the line. But for that fight, I was such an underdog that I got to enjoy everything. It was my first time on Pay-Per-View, it was my first time being on the main card, it was my first time getting all this exposure. It was cool. Obviously when you get into this sport, that’s your goal, to be a big name in the UFC. So it was all coming true right in front of my eyes.
ER Joe Rogan’s commentary during that fight was poetry. It was seriously inspiring. I became aware of you through TUF, but I watched that Renan Barão fight and it was like seeing a warrior born. In the Octagon interview afterwards, Rogan said it was the greatest performance he’d ever seen. How does it compare to regaining the title in your last fight, beating your former training partner, Cody Garbrandt?
TJD I don’t think there will ever be a time that tops that first fight with Barão.
ER Did you enjoy the fight with Garbrandt?
TJD Oh yeah, trust me I enjoyed it. You can see it at the end of the fight, me yelling in his face. That was pent up aggression from how much of a dickhead he was, you know? Not just him, his whole team. A lot of stuff [they said about me leading up to the fight] was not true, as well as just uncalled for. Yeah, it felt great, especially to knock him out. I remember after the fight he stumbles up to his feet, has to be held up by the ref, and I just yell in his face as loud as I can. That was a good feeling.
ER The feud between you and Garbrandt originated when you were training partners at Team Alpha Male. Flash forward to TUF 25, Dana White was mining gold by having you and Garbrandt coach opposing teams. How much of that drama was real, and how much was put on for the cameras?
TJD It was 100% real. Which is crazy, because it took a lot of energy out of me to do that show, just from dealing with all that. I can only imagine the energy that he had to put into that much bullshit, you know? A lot of emotion went through those six weeks.
ER It’s exciting for the fans. I mean the bad blood between you guys. It was a huge draw to your UFC 217 title fight with him. Does drama motivate you, or is it a distraction?
TJD I’m not one to look for drama. I probably should, I’d get paid more. But that’s just not me, that’s not my color. The drama used to distract me. You have to learn something from every one of your losses, and that’s what I learned from that bullshit [title defense] loss against Dominick Cruz: I got too invested in drama.
ER The obvious question now is Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. You called him out immediately after your win over Garbrandt. He’s not in your weight class, so why is he in your sights?
TJD Because he’s the pound-for-pound best right now. My first goal was to be a UFC champ. Then it became to be the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, to leave a legacy. Demetrious Johnson has that spot. I’m fifth or sixth right now. I go out there and beat him, I’m number one.
ER Dana White says Johnson is the greatest UFC fighter ever. But every fighter has a weak spot. Or there’s a system that you can use to impose your skill set against an opponent. Every problem, in other words, has an answer. And then there’s Demetrious Johnson. How do you solve that problem?
TJD A guy like that, he doesn’t have a weakness. The way you beat him is by being better than him. I don’t have any weaknesses, either. I have the chance to beat Demetrious Johnson in every aspect of MMA. So really what it comes down to is me and [my coach] Duane preparing, watching tapes, seeing what his habits are, what he’s great at, and beating him at those things. He might not have a weakness, but there are things you can take advantage of, and be better than.
ER You’re 32-years-old. You are the UFC bantamweight champion. You’re at your peak as a fighter. What does the next year look like for T.J. Dillashaw?
TJD I beat Demetrious Johnson, take his belt, and become the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. From there, I continue to build my legacy. Who knows, maybe I [go up in weight] and become a three-way champion and create history. I’m shooting for the stars. I believe I’m the best fighter in the world. If I didn’t believe that, I shouldn’t be here. In 2018, I’m going to prove it.
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ER Okay, lightning round. Fight night, what’s your entrance song?
TJD “Can’t Stop,” Red Hot Chili Peppers.
ER If you weren’t a fighter, you’d be?
TJD A physician’s assistant.
ER What is your earliest memory?
TJD We had a big pool party at our house. Hanging out with family and friends in Angels Camp, California.
ER You’re earliest memories are happy ones. Who was your idol growing up?
TJD My dad.
ER What are you afraid you won’t do before you die?
TJD Nothing. You can’t have fear in life. You gotta have belief.
ER What was the last drink you had?
TJD It was a bad night. After I won the belt [against Garbrandt], I went back down to Cal State Fullerton area where all my college buddies I grew up with wrestling are, and we decided to celebrate, and I drank a little too much Don Julio 1942, and don’t remember most of the night. I destroyed my house. I woke up on my living room floor butt naked. It was bad news.
ER If you had a superpower, what would it be?
TJD To be invisible.
ER Interesting answer from a guy who likes the spotlight.
TJD When I’m not in the spotlight I like to be out in the middle of nowhere on a backpacking trip, hunting elk or mule deer, in tune with nature, and your phone doesn’t work, no one can get a hold of you. No one can ask you who you want to fight next. I love being in the spotlight. I love fighting and entertaining people. But I’d like to be able to disappear when I want to.
ER Dude’s so down to earth even his superpower is achievable. What advice do you give a young fighter?
TJD Travel and learn from everyone. Everyone’s got something to teach. Find the best coaches in the world, travel there, see who you click with.
ER If everyone was just like you, how would the world be different? What would be better, what would be worse?
TJD Oh man, the world would be way too competitive, that would be the bad part. I’m way too competitive and aggressive a person. The better part is that everyone would treat each other with respect.
ER That’s the show. Thanks, champ.
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