Ready or not, here he comes. UFC bantamweight T.J. Dillashaw will face UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao in the main event of UFC 173 on May 24. While there've been some concerns about the commercial viability and competitiveness of the bout, Dillashaw is over the moon about the opportunity and is ready to tell anyone who wants to listen about it.
"Man, I was stoked," Dillashaw told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I was at practice [when I got the call], I got home, saw I had a bunch of missed calls. I almost couldn't believe it. I just screamed with happiness. I was stoked."
His path to the title and main event is an unconventional one. The initial headlining fight was a middleweight title scrap between challenger Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida (and before that, Vitor Belfort). Weidman, however, was injured, so their bout was moved to UFC 175. The UFC initially targeted Barao to face top contender Raphael Assuncao, but Assuncao wasn't healthy enough to take the bout. For his part, Dillashaw was already set to face WEC veteran and division stalwart Takeya Mizugaki on the same card.
Partially by merit and partially by a process of elimination, Dillashaw ended up with the opportunity.
The call wasn't just a surprise and unexpected outcome for fans. Dillashaw himself didn't see it coming either.
"No, man, I knew there'd be a new a main event, but I didn't think I'd be the one," Dillashaw said. "I figured someone else was going to get the shot. I had a close loss against Raphael [Assuncao]. Fortunately, he wasn't ready to take the fight, but in my mind I won that fight, but I felt like he was the one who was going to get the [title shot]. I was ready to take the fight and he wasn't."
Fortune, then, doesn't just favor the bold, but the available as well.
Still, Dillashaw acknowledges he's heard some of the criticism of the match-up as a headliner for a pay-per-view. There's not much he can do to change anyone's mind now, he believes, but claims this fight will be his chance to win over the fan base, change opinions and present himself in a new light.
"I understand," Dillashaw says of the criticism. "I haven't even been on the main card of a pay-per-view, now I'm the main event. I understand where people are coming from, but I'm going to show them all wrong. It's going to be a barn burner and I'm going to upset Barao and shock the world. Then everything's going to change from there."
For all of his enthusiasm, however, he is quick to admit he simply doesn't know how to promote a fight in any particular way other than to simply be himself. That's largely because he's never had to do it.
"I don't really know how to build the fight. I've never been in one of these situations before," the Team Alpha Male member admits. "I'm going to learn from this. I'm just going to be myself and I feel like that's the best way to do it."
Whether or not that's a good recipe to sell pay-per-view buys is one issue. The other, and far more pressing on his mind, is getting ready for a fighter in Barao that Dillashaw acknowledges is the best in the world in his weight class today.
That challenge becomes all the more pressing knowing the coach that helped bring Dillashaw to recent prominence, Duane Ludwig, is leaving the team the day after the bout to start his own venture in his home state of Colorado. Dillashaw isn't thrilled 'Bang' is leaving the team, but says that won't be an issue for this fight camp and likely for those in the future as well.
"That's the reason why he wasn't leaving until after the 24th, anyways. It's because he was going to finish out our fight camp," Dillashaw said. "He was going to stick around and finish off our training so he wouldn't leave in the middle of a fight camp and we'd have to deal with a new coach. He was doing the right thing in leaving after that. He's got his own career to think about and his family going back home. He'll be my coach in my corner for this fight.
"Obviously I'm disappointed he's not going to be there every single day, watching me practice every day. Me and him are going to continue to work after he leaves. I'll have him come out for my fight camps. I'm going to cross train with him, go out to Colorado here and there. We will be having a new head coach there on my down time when I'm training to help out the other guys."
As far as Dillashaw is concerned, this camp is important, but the magic of Ludwig's tutelage is that Dillashaw has been preparing to fight Barao since the moment he and his coach linked up.
Dillashaw doesn't believe he's in over his head. While he knows he hasn't been featured prominently in front of pay-per-view audiences, he believes he knows the depth of the task in front of him. He's familiar with Barao's game and respects his accomplishments. Nevertheless, Dillashaw sees his edge as an athlete and properly-sized fighter for the weight class as his chance to take the champion out.
"I've always been impressed with [Barao] even before he was even the champ. He's very well-rounded, he's explosive, he's huge. He's big for the weight class, but I also think that's his downfall. I don't think he's going to have the cardio."
"It's more just excitement," Dillashaw says when asked if he has nerves ahead of the biggest fight of his life. "I kind of get the chills thinking about how perfect it's being laid out. I just feel like it's my destiny, it's my time. There's really not that much pressure on me. I'm fighting the best in the world. This is going to be the first time I'm going into a fight as an underdog, so it kind of takes all the pressure off. I got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
"It's almost like a cinderella story for [Ludwig] and me," Dillashaw said almost with a smile. "I'm kind of like his little prodigy for his system and we're going to get a belt."