T.J. Dillashaw reflects on 'surreal' performance over Renan Barao at UFC 173

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Three days into T.J. Dillashaw's grand new world, he still couldn't believe it.

Here was the new UFC bantamweight champion, a shiner under his right eye, his right hand a bit swollen, and a gleaming oversized strap at just arms' length away. Yet the memory a life-changing performance at UFC 173 over bantamweight's undefeatable beast still lingered fresh in his mind, along with the knowledge that Dillashaw -- the guy who finished second on TUF 14, the guy who never won a NCAA tournament match -- had accomplished something that no one else among Team Alpha Male's vaunted ranks had ever done -- not the originator Urijah Faber, not the perennial favorites Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez, not even the head coach who already had his bags packed for Colorado, Duane Ludwig.

No, among all those brutes and monsters, it was the quiet one, Dillashaw, who finally broke through, ending one of the greatest winning streaks of MMA's modern era with perhaps its most stunning and overwhelming thorough upset.

"Absolutely surreal," Dillashaw marveled on Monday, still beaming over a Skype call on The MMA Hour. "It's unbelievable. I got into the gym looking up to those guys. I still look up to them, just who they are. I got in there just kind of in awe of who they were as people, getting into the title fights, and following their camps... just kind of like, man, this is an amazing road for me just being here with these guys. And for me to be the one who brings home the UFC belt, it's just crazy. What I've been through with them, it's crazy to see it all unfold."

From the outset on Saturday night, Dillashaw appeared to be a changed fighter compared to his past performances. He roared out of the gates, using spectacular footwork reminiscent of former champ Dominick Cruz to lunge in and out of range with hard punches, puzzling Renan Barao with his speed and movement before dropping the champion with a massive overhand right late in the opening frame.

Barao nearly succumbed to Dillashaw's pressure right there and then, though amazingly the Brazilian survived until the end of the round. Nonetheless, from that point on, the fight was simply a showcase for Dillashaw to dominate an opponent many believed to be one of the world's top pound-for-pound fighters.

"I don't think I knew I had him until after the second," Dillashaw said. "At the end of the second, I just felt it. I knew it, everything was going smoothly, I saw it in his eyes. I just knew that I was going to be too much for him. I was too fast and I was going to be able to pick him apart.

"It's (because of) how relaxed I was. The first fight where I really relaxed was Mike Easton. I kind of let things just flow, I didn't go in there with strict combos I wanted to do and holes I saw in his game. I trained a gameplan with Duane but never really thought about it too much. I went in there with nothing in my mind except for being fast and moving my feet, and that's when I guess I just started to flow. I don't know, I guess just having fun out there, relaxing and soaking up the moment. I knew that this was a crazy adventure and that I wanted to enjoy every second of it. The walkout, the lead-up to the fight, taking over the UFC Instagram. Just everything in general, I wanted to enjoy it, and it just made everything so much easier. No hesitation, I just reacted."

Dillashaw bobbed and weaved, skipped and shuffled, and altogether put on one of the finest, most surprising UFC performances seen since Matt Serra toppled Georges St-Pierre in 2007, before finally ending Barao's night with a dazzling volley of strikes midway through the fifth round to claim the Brazilian's belt.

The finishing sequence set off a raucous celebration at Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena, which was capped off by tears from Ludwig, as well joyous embracing amongst all the Team Alpha Male faithful either watching cageside or back home in California on social media.

"It made me want to cry," Dillashaw admitted. "Joseph was unbelievably happy for me before the fight even started. He just told me the whole week he knew I was going to win, was just in awe of the whole situation. And then afterwards he was just awesome. Urijah, he's just got a great aura. That guy is amazing. He feels it from the heart, man. We all care about each other that much, like we're brothers. I actually could hear them better almost than my own corner while I was fighting some of the time.

"I could hear them cheer me on and feel the energy. It fed throughout the whole fight."

It goes without saying, but outside of a select group of vertically challenged trained killers in Sacramento, few observers expected Dillashaw to emerge from Saturday night with a 12-pound hunk of gold wrapped around his waist.

Though now that Dillashaw has done exactly that, an unanticipated subplot has arisen from the madness, as Faber -- a mentor, training partner, and owner of the gym that Dillashaw trains at -- is still firmly entrenched as one of the division's most viable contenders, leading to a situation which could rival Jones-Evans levels of awkwardness and discomfort in the coming months as the two friends discuss and potentially reconcile the fact that they may eventually have to meet in the cage.

"I don't want to fight Urijah," said Dillashaw. "He's the one that got me into the sport. Like I said, he's one of my best friends. He's an amazing person.

"But, not saying that's not going to happen. Not saying that the bossman won't come to us with a ridiculous amount of money, saying let's do this. That's something that we probably wouldn't be able to turn down, and we'd have to go do what we do in the gym everyday, slap each other around and have a smile on our face. Ultimately that's a great situation to be in because that means we're both doing awesome and we're going to get paid really well, but I don't want to have to fight Urijah, obviously."

Luckily for Dillashaw, the Faber conundrum will remain a simple ‘what if' until "The California Kid" can generate some newfound momentum, considering that Faber suffered a first-round TKO setback against Barao as recent as early February.

In the meantime, the bantamweight division has been blown wide open by Dillashaw's coming out party, and the new champ finds himself with no shortage of potential challengers. Barao's team is already calling for a rematch to take place in Brazil, while Takeya Mizugaki picked up his fifth straight win at UFC 173 and the specter of Cruz continues to linger out in the distance.

Though in Dillashaw's eyes, one particular match-up makes the most sense: Raphael Assuncao.

"He's on the longest win streak, he should be the next one in line, probably. And I'd like to get that fight back," Dillashaw said of Assuncao, who defeated the American via split decision last October.

"People are saying, what about a rematch with Barao? The one problem I do have with that is that I dominated him, you know what I mean? It wasn't like I knocked him out in the first round with that right hand and it was a fluke. I went out there and I proved that what I know how to do against him is going to work, and I'm just too fast for him, man. He's just too slow."

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