T.J. Dillashaw rewrites the universe

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

It really depends on how you look at it. Is the nature of how MMA competitions take place a hindrance or boon to the way we understand it?

This isn't baseball where 162 games in a regular season glacially inch forward. This isn't the NBA or NHL playoffs in which teams play a series of best-of-seven rounds. Nor is this professional football, where teams literally and figuratively hobble to the sixteen-week finish line, substituting components of their roster or nursing more steady contributors along. This isn't even tennis, a one-on-one sport, where elite players are expected to amass extensive playing time opposite one another as their careers progress.

Whatever the merits of how those sports and organizations create the architecture of play, what differentiates them from fight sports is the extent of crossover. Those are contests where there is more thorough examination of how teams and players match-up, in all the various injury and talent permutations, over extended periods of time.


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If UFC 173 reenforced anything, however, it's the idea that with each successive UFC event (and to a lesser extent the events of lesser organizations), what makes modern MMA unique isn't merely that we are treated to frequent surprises. Instead, it's a reminder just what an upheaval the editing process of our collective understanding is when it's redlined in the way few sports like MMA do it.

When T.J. Dillashaw won on Saturday night, he rewrote the mixed martial arts universe as we (thought we) understood it. He also defined, however temporarily, it's future.

Each UFC event is a laboratory and the fights are experiments. Both sides amass what they tout as certainty, but are more realistically hypotheses about what will happen and why. The question about what we're all trying to discover is uniform ("Who will win?"), but this is where the ordinary ends.

Mixed martial arts is always its sweetest in the discovery phase. Anticipation is fun, but only heightens the moments of competition. That's when the results of the experiments - themselves something to marvel without any greater consideration - come in, running the gamut from a roaring flood to a slow trickle.

Here is very place where more accurate divisional hierarchy is revealed. It is not Renan Barao who is the best bantamweight competing, but the largely-unheralded Dillashaw. Here is where we learn about technical potential among combatants, which often ends up as ordinary best practices: Anderson Silva's fight-end front kick, Anthony Pettis' Showtime kick, Cole Miller's no gi Roleta sweep, Georges St-Pierre's chain takedown attempts or Dominick Cruz's Crip Walking foot work. Here is where we learn about the upper-bound limits of athletic courage from Junior dos Santos in his bouts with Cain Velasquez or Anderson Silva in his first fight with Chael Sonnen and even Cheick Kongo in his semi-conscious dance with Pat Barry.

On Saturday, what we thought we knew about our sport's best bantamweights turned out to be wholly untrue. This not only defines how we look forward, but also review our past and present.

For example, what does this mean for Mike Easton, who lost handily to Dillashaw? Is that defeat now more forgivable given how a presumed pound-for-pound fighter was (mis)treated at Dillashaw's hands on Saturday night? And hey, how about that John Dodson? Sure, that was a different Dilashaw he faced, but that's not too shabby for a true flyweight to steamroll Dillashaw in less than two minutes.

That's the past. As for the present, the Team Alpha Male product's win forces further examination about the state of the sport. Was the moment in time when Brazilians held multiple UFC titles merely that, a moment in time? What does that mean for the health of the sport there?

And going forward, what happens next? Does Barao's long unbeaten streak rate him a rematch despite being soundly dispatched? How does this affect Dominick Cruz's eventual return? What's going to happen with teammate and divisional compatriot Urijah Faber?

Every sport banks on some measure of the unpredictable and our inability to know the future (and as my colleague Chuck Mindenhall points out, we often know very little). But in MMA, every event can be a mini-Big Bang. They can be quantum leaps in the evolution of skill. Everything we thought we knew sometimes turns out to be wrong or in some way limited, which means we inherit a new 'everything we thought'. If past is prologue, we'll probably be wrong about that, too.

That's what keeps us hanging on. It's the steady presentation of a bold new present. It's an unexplored frontier and fresh excitement that comes with unpacking a reality we didn't truly understand (because couldn't) until it arrived.

It's also this dynamic that underscores what makes MMA success so hard to come by. With limited exception, fighters constantly thrust themselves into the darkness of the unknown. The only thing they can be sure of is what they know of themselves. Or, at least, what they think know. But that is only what can measured against their peers. It's one thing to face a team or pitcher or wide receiver you've competed against in close quarters upwards of a dozen times. It's quite another to square off against a competitor you've only read stories about online or seen in highlight reels.

It's all a function of surprise, really. In the quiet spaces between bouts, when the din of fans and media requests go away, fighters change. Yet, that very space is what creates confusion. Attitudes about what we presume to be true harden. 'Reality' sets in. Just as the moment things are in motion, beliefs and certainty become inert.

That's when T.J. Dillashaw appears and everything changes. All those facts we thought we knew - Barao is too good at making adjustments, Dillashaw just isn't sharp enough with his striking combinations - turn out to be tightly-held fantasies.

What emerges, however, isn't a lamentable pile of detritus, regrettable for what has been lost, but a new sport with new rules. We never learn to take them as anything but rules because everything seems so concrete when played out in the cage. They're more like snapshots in time, but no less weighty. MMA like this is delightful because our accepted ignorance makes the revelation of truth so impactful and creates punctuated moments of redesign.

We also derive joy of MMA from wins like Dillashaw's on Saturday evening because of the regularity with which we have to grapple with reinvention. He not only captured a world title, but now forces us to view MMA through the complex lens of his creation.

When you consider it, Dillashaw had some pretty remarkable achievements on Saturday night. All it took was a bit more than 20 minutes of work to get it all done: the night of his life, the signature achievement of his athletic career and the capture of a world title. He also forced us to review his entire career, the bantamweight division and portions of the sport in the process.

For someone who rewrote a few of the known laws of the MMA universe, that's a pretty efficient effort on his part when you think about it. But that's MMA and it's cycle of Big Bangs, redefining our sport, event by event.

MMA is dead. Long live MMA.

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