LAS VEGAS -- They took all the taunts in stride.
Call Team Alpha Male "Team Beta Male?" They laughed it off.
Call them the camp which could always get to the big stage, but never take home the top prize? Just more motivation to get back to work.
Still, T.J. Dillashaw went into Saturday night's bantamweight title fight with Renan Barao knowing his camp was 0-6 in UFC title fights, both regular and interim. This reporter didn't give him much of a chance going in, and neither did many other people in the MMA world, including, apparently, Barao himself.
Which makes what Dillashaw accomplished in the MGM Grand Garden Arena Octagon at UFC 173 all the more remarkable. Dillashaw just may have surpassed Matt Serra's upset of Georges St-Pierre for the biggest in UFC history simply because of the circumstances involved.
Serra tagged GSP with a lucky punch, which can happen to anyone, anywhere, in any fight. Dillashaw, who most assumed was simply happy to be there, went out and schooled one of the sport's best pound-for-pound fighters for four-and-a-half rounds, then finished the finisher. You have to go back a ways to even find the last time Barao had lost a round before last night, never mind a fight.
He did it in the face of Barao's win streak. He did it while carrying his gym's record. He did it in Duane "Bang" Ludwig's final night as coach (though they have to come up with some sort of arrangement to continue working together in some capacity after this, right?).
"I've dreamed it for so long, it's unbelievable," said Dillashaw, who never lost his smile this week, even when non-main event fighters were drawing much larger crowds on media day. "All you have to do is believe you're the best in the world and you'll get here."
(An aside: While last night was the first UFC belt for Team Alpha Male, it wasn't their first world title. The WEC featherweight title was the premier championship at 145 pounds back in the days Urijah Faber held it. There was no UFC or PRIDE featherweight belt at the time).
Both sides have downplayed it, but there's little dispute that TAM and Nova Uniao are the world's top two gyms for lower-weight fights. And up until last night, the Brazilian camp were the old-school Yankees to TAM's old-school Red Sox. But the Red Sox finally beat the Yankees, then went on to win three World Series. And for Team Alpha Male? They had their breakthrough last night, and we're just over two months from Jose Aldo Jr. vs. Chad Mendes.
UFC 173 quotes
"How could you deny him the fight? The fight with Hendricks was awesome. With his performance before the Hendricks fight, no doubt he's the No. 1 (contender) in the world." -- White, all but saying Robbie Lawler gets a rematch with Johny Hendricks
"I had the choke locked up and I didn't finish him and I was kind of pissed off about it at first," Dillashaw said. "But now, I'm kind of glad I didn't. I got to prove myself even more. If I'd finished the choke, it just would have been that easy of a win. But I got to show more skills the longer it went, so I'm glad I got to dominate that much over that long of a fight." -- Dillashaw, on going into the fifth round as opposed to a flash finish.
"Barao hasn't lost in 35 fights. Yeah that's on the table, too. It wouldn't be insane to give him a rematch." -- White, who has yet to decide whether a Barao rematch or a Rafael Assuncao fight is next for Dillashaw.
Up: Daniel Cormier. Sure, Cormier's detractors can point to the fact that Cormier had a noticeable size advantage over Dan Henderson. Cormier's haters always come up with something. Perhaps they should go rewatch the tape of Cormier vs. Josh Barnett, where Cormier spent 25 minutes tossing around someone a whole lot bigger than Hendo. Anyway, Cormier's credentials continue to pile up. He's 15-0. He's beaten former champions Bigfoot Silva (Elite XC), Barnett (UFC), Frank Mir (UFC), and now Henderson (PRIDE and Strikeforce). He was doubted when he said he could make light heavyweight and he's proven everyone wrong. He hasn't lost a single round in his career aside from one judge giving Barnett a round in their fight. Notwithstanding the inevitable trolls piping up "Derp derp Patrick Cummins derp derp," Cormier has earned his title shot. And if he wants to wait on it, so be it. Barring something wacky happening to cause too long of a delay related to Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 2, which would make taking a fight to stay sharp a smart move, Cormier has done everything he's needed to do.
Down: Dan Henderson. The flip side of this performance, of course, is it's clear time is finally catching up with one of the sport's truest legends. Last night's fight was like watching your dad, or at least your cool uncle, get beaten up badly, and that's not fun for anyone, least of all Henderson. If Hendo wants to give 185 a shot, that's his call. Depending on the matchups, it might even buy him another win or two. But Henderson's results over his past five fights aren't simply a matter of size and deep down, we all know it.
Up: Robbie Lawler. At first glance, the fact that Lawler vs. Ellenberger wasn't a nonstop fireworks show might have been disappointing. But in the grand scheme of things, Lawler's third-round finish of Ellenberger proved to be the finest example yet of Lawler's maturation. Lawler didn't headhunt. He didn't get goaded into a firefight. The old Robbie Lawler might have done that, and the old Robbie Lawler might have ended up knocked out by a heavy hitter. Instead, the Ruthless one relentlessly pushed forward, picked his spots, answered on the rare occasions Ellenberger came at him, and slowly wore him down and finished him. His performance turned out far more epic than a mindless slugfest would have been. It's worth waiting to see what happens between Rory MacDonald and Tyron Woodley before straight up giving Lawler the title shot, and Lawler has earned a break anyway. But he's certainly in the front runner's spot.
Down: Jake Ellenberger. I'm not trying to kick a guy while he's down, but, I mean, his UFC record is right there in black and white: Some nice wins, for sure, over Jake Shields, Diego Sanchez, and Nate Marquardt. But Ellenberger's UFC losses have been to Carlos Condit, Martin Kampmann, Rory MacDonald, and Lawler. The last three were opportunities to really step up into the elite echelon at welterweight. Strike one, strike two, strike three.
Hold: Jamie Varner. There's never been any real question about Varner's courage. He's always been a fighter willing to go out on his shield. But last night's performance, gutting his way through the first round on a broken leg, cemented valor as Varner's legacy, win, lose or draw. It also means it is highly unlikely Varner will be cut from the UFC roster, even with four losses in his last five fights, two of which were fights of the night. Still, one has to wonder of this fight might be the tipping point in Varner's career. He's been in a lot of wars, and he hasn't been on the right end of all of them. Either way, best wishes to the former WEC lightweight champion on his recovery.
There's not much to criticize here. After watching that three-ring circus of a Bellator card last weekend, UFC 173 was one of those nights where the sport manages to put the "art" back in mixed martial arts. From Cormier's otherworldy slam of Henderson in the third round of their fight; to the simple appreciation of watching Lawler mature from the punk kid of a decade years ago to a downright elegant fighter today; to Dillashaw's straight up inspirational performance, Saturday night was an evening in which the entire sport shined.
It wasn't quite perfect. Chris Lee inexplicably thought Barao won round two; and none of the judges saw round 1 as a 10-8. And, if Jason Herzog is the official for your fight, you're clearly on your own. Just ask Varner or Josh Rettinghouse. But hey.
Oh, and kudos to FOX Sports 1 for picking up the pace on the undercard broadcast. Or to UFC, or whoever made the call. In the past, it was clear that each fight was given a 30-minute window, and if it went short, they would filibuster the remainder of the half hour. Last night, they ditched it and proceeded in an orderly manner, which made for a much better live atmosphere and presumably was better for the fans watching at home, as well.
Fight I want to see next: Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones
No, I'm not advocating Jones cut the line ahead of Gustafsson. I'm just saying this is the fight I really want to see after last night. Cormier's MMA wrestling is just ridiculous. It was ridiculous when he was ragdolling the likes of Barnett and it's even more so now that he's a huge light heavyweight. He's starting to show signs he's developing that Cain Velasquez-style vicious streak when he hits the ground, as well. That's bad news for anyone, including Jones, who has never faced a wrestler like Cormier. Standing? Maybe Jones owns the fight. But if Cormier can take Jones down, all bets are off.