In late November, T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz kicked off UFC Fight Night 81's promotional tour with a joint appearance on Boston sports radio. It proved to be a memorable sight. With Dillashaw seated just a few feet away, Cruz launched salvo after verbal salvo in the direction of the reigning bantamweight champion, making for the type of pre-fight sizzle the UFC marketing machine often only dreams about.
Cruz's message was clear: if Dillashaw was hoping for another quiet lead-up to a bantamweight title defense, he picked the wrong dance partner. And whether Dillashaw liked it or not, it was going to be a long ride to Jan. 17.
"That's just not who I am, I'm not going to be the talker," Dillashaw told MMA Fighting. "I'm not going to go out there and turn this into the WWE like a lot of guys are wanting to do, like building drama behind the fights. It's the Conor McGregor era now, it seems like. Everyone is wanting to make a name for themselves, and Dominick Cruz has been doing that by talking. He's been behind a desk, being a reporter, talking about fights. I've been relevant fighting, so that's what I want to do. That's what I'm comfortable doing."
Dillashaw may not have much of a choice this time around.
Injuries kept Cruz glued to the shelf for a majority of the past four years, but the layoff gave Cruz plenty of time to hone his skills as an analyst for FOX Sports. Now the once soft-spoken ex-champ is a veritable microphone fiend, widely considered to be one of the most articulate minds in the game today, and Dillashaw can't help but wonder if his opponent is simply following the blueprint to promotion laid out by McGregor.
"I think so," Dillashaw said. "I don't really ever remember him in the past being the way he is now. I feel that this is uncharacteristic, how he's acting. It's funny because in the past I remember him complimenting my style and the way I fight, giving me praise. He didn't really like most of the Alpha Male guys, but really wasn't talking crap about me. But now we're fighting each other and now it's a big deal. So it's kind of funny to see how hypocritical he's being, and how back-and-forth and how wishy-washy he's being."
If nothing else, the tension in the rivalry flies in direct contrast to the environment Dillashaw is accustomed to leading into his title fights. Of Dillashaw's past few challengers, Renan Barao could not speak English and Joe Soto fought for the belt on one day's notice, so neither brought even a fraction of the mental warfare Cruz is looking to employ.
It won't get any easier from here either, because even if Dillashaw can get past Cruz, his former mentor Urijah Faber is the first contender waiting in the wings.
The split between Dillashaw and Faber's Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male took place largely in front of the public eye, and McGregor himself did not help matters when he labeled Dillashaw a "snake in the grass" on The Ultimate Fighter 22. That moniker has since stuck to Dillashaw on MMA forums everywhere, and Dillashaw can't help but wonder how the situation got overblown enough to point where Faber is calling him out publicly, like Faber did in the aftermath of UFC 194.
"It's definitely awkward, man," Dillashaw said. "It's kind of crazy. It's real uncharacteristic of [Faber] to hold onto this fight. Will it be a big draw? Sure. Is it something I want to do? Not really. But am I going to have to? Most likely. If he keeps winning, and everything happens the way it's supposed to, it's going to go down. I still like the guy and we're still going to be buddies, before and after. We'll shake hands and be cordial.
"But it's kind of crazy, because guys change camps all the time. Guys have three, four, five different camps. It's just a little ridiculous that it's kind of getting blown out of (proportion). It's almost storybook how it happened, because The Ultimate Fighter happened, I came and helped out after my title fight against Barao, and Conor kind of wanted to get under Urijah's skin. Then the Conor hype train got behind it, and now it's a big deal, I guess."