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T.J. ‘Killashaw’ doesn’t need to be liked to be great

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For a little while there, you couldn’t attend a T.J. Dillashaw fight without feeling like Indiana Jones descending into a pit of snakes, not with all the hissing going on all around him. That was of course a response to Conor McGregor calling him a “snake in the grass” to his then teammate Urijah Faber on The Ultimate Fighter 22, just before he ultimately sided with his coach, Duane Ludwig, and bolted Team Alpha Male. One off-hand comment was all it took to turn an ordinary arena into pit of vipers, and to brand Dillashaw forever a traitor.

There was still a little bit of that in Los Angeles this weekend at UFC 227 when Dillashaw — an improbable foil to so many well-meaning plans — took out Cody Garbrandt for a second time. As Dillashaw hurt Garbrandt and sent him careening towards the cage walls, the feeling for some was a sinking one. Here was Dillashaw, the man a few of the more daring denizens have re-dubbed “Killashaw,” once again blasting through the new fresh prodigy in the UFC. People keep on hissing, and he just keeps on bleating back at them like some kind of GOAT.

The truth is, it’s always been a horrible set-up, this rivalry. It cast Garbrandt as a loyalist from TAM, a picture of integrity who fights not only for his affiliate gym but for young Maddux Maple back in Ohio, who overcame cancer and for whom Cody “No Love” made a promise, while slotting Dillashaw as a microwavable jock with a smugness that goes on for days. Garbrandt the defender, Dillashaw the turncoat, even if it was Dillashaw defending the title…a title that some people felt he may have lucked into at UFC 217 when Garbrandt nearly finished him at the end of the first round.

It was that moment of doubt, that allowing of the imagination to run wild with the concept of a few extra seconds, that created the rematch. There was a feeling in the promotional material that Garbrandt was going to get back what was his.

Didn’t work out that way. Just like he did with Renan Barao, the bantamweight champion that Dana White called the best pound-for-pound in the world, Dillashaw used his second encounter for emphasis. Garbrandt wanted to engage a gunfight and dictate the terms; Dillashaw accepted those terms and simply outgunned him. He planted and swung and tagged Garbrandt beautifully, creating competitive distance so that he’ll never have to fight him again. This time he didn’t howl in Garbrandt’s face right afterwards.

This time he just said goodbye.

It’s not been easy to see things from Dillashaw’s point of view, but hearing him dedicate the belt he defended to his coach kind of changes the perspective. Would Garbrandt have given Faber his title to hang up in the gym if he were the one defending it? Would Chad Mendes or Joseph Benavidez? Maybe.

But Dillashaw did.

If ever there was an action that justifies being called a dick a million times, it was when he wished Ludwig a happy birthday and said that the belt, that he defended against the tyranny of the past, was for him. Maybe that was all part of a big picture master-troll job against TAM, but it looked like vindication, The two most publicized pariahs of the MMA world — the snake and the peanut butter salesman — are continued champions. He was already very good when he brought TAM its first UFC title back in 2014, yet at 32 years old he is even better now. Those actions speak for themselves.

Now Dillashaw has proven that he belongs in the discussion of the current pound-for-pound best — something a lot of people weren’t prepared for when he lost that razor thin decision to Dominick Cruz to relinquish his belt the first time. It was Cruz’s division, and then it was Garbrandt’s, even if for a little while Dillashaw held the belt by taking out Barao (and Joe Soto). It was Garbrandt who schooled Cruz in a way that nobody ever had before to signal a sea change. That victory was directional. Yet Dillashaw re-imagined the division as his own. He got his chance, and he took it.

Denials be damned, he is the real deal. And whether or not he avenges his loss to Cruz or takes on Marlon Moraes, the argument could be made that Dillashaw is the best bantamweight of all time. Whoever could have forecasted such things when John Dodson knocked him out in his first official UFC fight back in 2011? Who could have predicted that he would go on to become a two-time champion, with a drawn out catchphrase that peeves people from Sacramento to the Irish coast?

The one that goes, and sssssstill