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T.J. Dillashaw arrives just in time to remind us how little we actually know

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The truth of the matter is, it was all very confusing. Renan Barao was either the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the mixed techniques, or he wasn’t even the best fighter at Nova Uniao. He was either hissing like Nosferatu whenever a beam of sunlight crossed his darkness, or he was just a simple man of extraordinary gifts. He was either riding a 35-fight unbeaten streak, or something like 28…or possibly 33, none of us could rightly say.

Even the reports of him washing his clothes in the sink back in Brazil were later disputed in a conspiracy of fleeting context.

More Coverage: UFC 173 Results | UFC news
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The one certainty going into UFC 173 was that Barao was going to lay waste to poor T.J. Dillashaw, an industrial ant from Team Alpha Male who was plucked from the relative obscurity of prelim life to stand in against him. This was a showcase for Barao, and a potboiler for pay-per-view. Nothing more. In fact, Dillashaw was so dwarfed on the promo posters heading in that the urge, if any such thing existed, was to rank him in the ounce-for-ounce lil’ist little dude discussion.

Then he went out there and smashed Barao in one of the greatest big-spot performances on record. The memory of that performance will live on for a long, long time. How fitting for Memorial Day weekend.

Dillashaw rocked, socked and out-jocked Barao for nearly five rounds in Las Vegas, beating him to the punch, dropping him in the first, dominating him in close, outquicking him from range, outfoxing him in angle-play, outpacing, bobbing, weaving, sticking, moving, changing levels, dashing, stinging and besieging, all while making his own chin a mirage. It was happening so fast in real time -- the footwork and level changes he displayed in this no-frills death march -- that Joe Rogan, the voice of our astonishment, was gushing superlatives like a loose slot machine.

When the end came midway through the fifth round, when Dillashaw finally put Barao away with a head kick and a follow-up volley, the eye-rubbing had long become a shared experience. Did that just happen? It had. The only sticking point en-route to this conclusion was whether or not the first round was a 10-8. The thing was just that one-sided.

Looking back now, it turns out that Dillashaw was the enigma the whole time. Of all the Team Alpha Male fighters who’ve fought for a title and faltered, it was him who was on the verge of breaking through. It was him who broke through. He showed up in Cinderella’s glass slippers and danced all over Barao and our stupidity (mine especially…what a mark I’ve been). He killed a million parlays, and then took off his shirt with his fellow Lilliputians to celebrate in the Vegas night. In these ways, it’s all still very confusing.

But it’s also the beauty of the mixed martial arts.

We never truly know what’s going to happen. In the Dan Henderson-Daniel Cormier bout in the co-main event, the consensus was that Henderson would be pummeled, but there was a live possibility that he could land the H-bomb and rewrite the narrative. That alone was enough to fuel some imagination. (Turns out he wasn’t able to land anything with a 230-pound man lying on top of him, but still).

Dillashaw, though, didn’t have the puncher’s chance. It was not easy to find a path of victory for him to upset the 7-to-1 favorite, Barao. His task was to survive whatever Barao did early, and then outdog him in the late rounds. To use his wrestling and try and dictate tempo. To hope his legs didn’t get brutalized through kicks, or that he ended up becoming highlight reel material from a flying knee.

Dillashaw, in his quiet unyielding confidence, completely outclassed Barao, on every level. Dana White said afterwards that he thought the overhand right that Dillashaw dropped Barao with in first round was the catalyst. Might have been, but Dillashaw looked like he wouldn’t be denied one way or another. It was him who had the deeper toolbox. He was the better martial artist. He was the one who looked like he hadn’t lost since 2005.

He was exceptional.

And in all of this, the UFC -- once again -- comes up smelling like roses. Not only was the promotion vindicated in matching Dillashaw against Barao, a move many thought would be too much too soon for him, but it simultaneously breathed viability into the long-running Ultimate Fighter franchise. Dillashaw competed on the 14th season of the show, and lost in the finals to John Dodson, who has since dropped to flyweight (and fought for a title).

Who said that the show was no longer producing contenders? Dana White didn’t skip the opportunity to tell the idiots "I told you so," either.

But Saturday night was all about Dillashaw in the here and now. If Barao was the game’s best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, as White also boasted heading in, then Dillashaw just hit him with a shrink-gun from another galaxy (Sacramento).  The thing is, we have no idea who the best fighter is at a given time. It’s just a bunch of speculating, just figments of imagination. For Barao, there is Dillashaw. For Jon Jones, there’s always an Alexander Gustafsson repping the kryptonite. For Anderson Silva, there’s a Chris Weidman. Somebody is always rounding the bend, all hellfire and fury, to kick the pedestal out from the idols. 

Barao was great. Dillashaw showed up greater. He turned a deaf ear to criticism and became an overnight star with one of the greatest upsets in UFC history. That he dominated Barao like he did for four-and-a-half rounds before ending it just as dramatically left only one question: How did we not see him coming?

And that, of course, just adds to the confusion.

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