Here’s the thing about T.J. Dillashaw…he’s virtually unhateable. He’s perhaps likable, but nobody can really say so with absolute certainty. When he speaks, it’s pretty ordinary athlete tapioca about drive, hard work and being ready to seize opportunities. It’s simple, sane and safe…one might even say neighborly. He's tan, likes his tank tops, got himself a great smile. In general, pleasant. And he trains with a lot of guys right around his size at Team Alpha Male, and those guys have a lot of faith in him. Urijah Faber, just a few moments after losing to Renan Barao at UFC 169, lobbied for his pal Dillashaw to get a shot. At the time that suggestion seemed, although valiant, a little far-fetched.
Hey, that’s another thing we know about Dillashaw -- he's surrounded by pretty good sports!
Otherwise, we don’t know "The Viper" enough to sufficiently care whether he wins or loses in tonight's UFC 173 headlining spot against Barao, who himself is not (yet) a beacon of marketability. We didn't even know he was called "The Viper" until this week. Since most of us do care about our disposable income, and this happens to be a pay-per-view event, you can see how these things are at odds. This set-up requires an extra layer of...I dunno, I want to gullibility?...and even with this arcane promo video, Dillashaw-Barao as a main event sort of makes you want to pop your knuckles and see what’s in the fridge.
But let’s be fair here, because we’ve seen this type of thing before. Makeshift cards, in whatever form they finally appear, are always a little uneasy when they come with price tags.
Part of the feeling of compromise is that in its original form this card was supposed to feature Chris Weidman against Vitor Belfort. That fight was inherently dramatic given Belfort’s TRT issues and Nevada and the very real possibility that Belfort could beat Weidman. Of course, that iteration of UFC 173 was many mysterious bans and pop urine tests ago. Even when the headliner became Lyoto Machida and Weidman, there were style/stakes elements that gave it the "big fight" feel.
All ancient history/still in the future now.
The options were limited with Raphael Assuncao not ready to go, and with factoring in timing, injuries, circumstance, availability, well...as Dana White likes to say, "it is what it is." At least a title will be contested. And after much trumpeting, we'll get a chance to see if Barao -- who last loss in 2005 -- has star power. The addition of Robbie Lawler against Jake Ellenberger to the card helped, too. And there is at least a (small) part of me that gives Daniel Cormier a shot against the wily veteran Dan Henderson, who's fighting on damn short notice (yeah, I said it). Winner of that fight gets a title shot.
Maybe. "We'll see what happens."
But still, and not to be dismissive of Dillashaw, but Dillashaw? Now? For a fee? His run in the UFC has been pretty good (5-2), which in the thin bantamweight division is eye-opening enough, but being Duane Ludwig's latest (and last) Alpha Male fighter to get a title shot shouldn't become the totality of the storyline. The consensus is that it might be too much too soon for Dillashaw. That's not the traditional kind of drama ahead of events.
So we are being asked to trust his credentials to determine whether or not it'll be a competitive fight. We saw Dillashaw performing on "The Ultimate Fighter," where he had that wrestler’s confidence (carried over from his days at Cal State Fullerton). We saw him beating people up unofficially. Then in the TUF 14 Finale he got knocked out by eventual flyweight contender John Dodson. That was a surprise. Since then he’s won five of six, but he did lose a split decision to Assuncao in October. His greatest feat to date was his back-to-back knockouts of Issei Tamura and Vaughan Lee about a month apart this time last year. His biggest career victory might have been against Mike Easton in January. That was in the middle of a main card broadcast on Fox Sports 1 in suburban Atlanta.
His fight with Mizugaki was scheduled for the UFC 173 prelims.
Now here he is headlining tonight's PPV against one of the game's quietest greats. Talk about the world falling into your lap. When he got that news from his manager, Dillashaw said he shouted with excitement. He was thrilled. That’s what he’s been working towards since coming into MMA four years ago. He’ll give it his all. It was a dream come true. His was a Cinderella story, even if everybody assumes that Barao takes a sledge hammer to glass slippers.
It’s hard not to sort of like a guy like that.
But selling sort of likable and closest qualified (and most available) on a traditionally big weekend, even knowing the circumstances, was a hard trick for the UFC to turn. And because of that, UFC 173 feels a little south of enormous.