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UFC 227 main event breakdown: T.J. Dillashaw vs. Cody Garbrandt 2

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T.J. Dillashaw rematches Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

From the moment T.J. Dillashaw knocked out Cody Garbrandt last November, a rematch was a certainty. The fight was simply too well matched, too competitive, too fun to only feature a single installment. The grudge between the two lit the wick, but the fight lived up to all of the expectations with some gasoline explosions in the cage. It was part-brawl, part-technical showcase, it featured knockdowns from both, it featured numerous momentum swings. There was real drama. If fight is theater, these are two legitimate leading men sparring for the spotlight in UFC 227’s main event.

Dillashaw escaped the first fight with the win and the UFC bantamweight championship on the strength of a second-round technical knockout, and while the victory was decisive, few observers walked away feeling that the matter between he and Garbrandt had been settled for good. As different as they are tactically, their arsenals add up to similar firepower, and that’s the kind of matchup championship bouts should be made of.

The UFC 217 fight between them gives us a blueprint of what to expect on Saturday, and in examining it, it’s easy to see the adjustments that turned the tide for Dillashaw and led to victory.

All the way through the fight, Dillashaw was the aggressor. Dillashaw feels comfortable in the role, and usually takes it through his non-stop movement. He moves in and out, he feints, he frequently switches stances. He does this for numerous reasons: He wants to overload his opponent with information so that he is never quite sure what will come next, he wants to create attack angles, he wants his pace to overwhelm his opponent’s stamina.

In round one, Dillashaw utilized this exact strategy. He jitterbugged around the cage trying to set traps and set up his strikes. In many instances, he moved and feinted in setting up kicks to the legs and body. In doing so, Garbrandt looked way too comfortable. He looked like a guy who had seen it all before, and maybe he had, since they had once been training camp partners in the past at Team Alpha Male. Garbrandt never overreacted to the feints, and when Dillashaw did fire, Garbrandt pivoted and slipped just out of the way of the strike. His reactionary work was sublime.

Meanwhile, Garbrandt’s offense was as fast and dangerous as always. He trusts his hands with all his heart, and has full confidence that he will land first on the draw. When he’s flowing, he announces it to the world with his hand movements and expressions. It’s as if he’s keeping score as he goes along.

He reached this state against Dillashaw around midway through the first, as his tight punches intercepted Dillashaw’s multi-part entries. The last of those stands came with just seconds left in the round when Garbrandt avoided a front kick, then attacked a Dillashaw feint with a pinpoint right that put the challenger on his back. With a few more seconds, Garbrandt may have been able to finish, but the horn gave Dillashaw a chance to recover and regroup, and he did just that.

Dillashaw has made no secret of his deep respect for his trainer Duane Ludwig’s coaching; it was, after all, the genesis of his rift with his former camp, Team Alpha Male. But the 60 seconds between rounds proved that Dillashaw had chosen wisely when he defected. Ludwig’s advice changed the outcome of the fight. While Dillashaw had been so busy feinting before firing his kicks, Ludwig told him all of the pomp and circumstance wasn’t necessary.

“Not everything has to be set up,” he said. “Just blast the f*cking kick.”

The message was well received by his star pupil, as Dillashaw ditched the feinting in favor of more traditional distance attacks with high kicks. This adjustment changed the range of the fight. While it seems like a straightforward shift, Garbrandt in the moment was faced with deciding whether it was a change of pace or if Dillashaw was truly changing tacks. In fight sports, if you’re thinking during action, you’re probably losing, and that was what was happening in the moment. Garbrandt was suddenly confused, and Dillashaw began landing kicks, and Garbrandt decided he could no longer sit back and wait.

With the fight dynamic shifted, Dillashaw suddenly had new possibilities with which to play. The finishing sequence showed how well he adjusted, as he fed Garbrandt a feint, threw a fake jab, circled to an advantageous outside position, and was able to sit down on a three-piece combination while Garbrandt tried to adjust his feet. It was too late; the final Dillashaw shot — a stinging right hook — landed clean, and that was that.

The rematch will be about adjustments to the adjustments. Garbrandt has plenty to think about; will he sit back again or will he take a more proactive offensive strategy? Will Dillashaw follow his second-round blueprint or add yet more wrinkles?

But there’s also the psychological element at play. Will Garbrandt have the same faith in his hands after suffering his first professional loss? And Dillashaw was hurt in the fight, too; could overconfidence in his recovery and adaptability be in play?

This fight is so difficult to predict because of all of these factors, and plenty more; for example, Garbrandt says he was negatively impacted by a lingering back issue first time around.

We know that Garbrandt has crushing power, but Dillashaw does, too, and he’s proven to be the more versatile of the two. He has more weapons — Garbrandt tends to get too focused on his hands — he is mentally strong, and has unquestionably strong stamina.

No result should be surprising, but at this point, Dillashaw is the more proven commodity, so I’m taking him to win the rematch in another thriller.