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T.J. Dillashaw has doubts that Aljamain Sterling will ever return to fight again after neck surgery

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T.J. Dillashaw is ultra-confident that his next fight will be for the UFC bantamweight title regardless of the current situation where an interim champion will soon be crowned.

Coming off a split decision win over Cory Sandhagen in his first return to action in over two years after he was suspended for a UFC anti-doping policy violation, Dillashaw was forced into knee surgery to repair damage done from that fight, which precluded him from competing again until 2022.

At the same time, reigning bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling was forced out of his scheduled bout at UFC 267 while still healing from neck surgery, which then led to the interim title being introduced with Sandhagen now battling Yan on Oct. 30.

While all signs point towards the winner of Yan vs. Sandhagen then moving on to unify the title with Sterling next year, Dillashaw isn’t so sure that will actually happen.

In fact, Dillashaw isn’t confident that Sterling will ever return to fight again after he underwent such a serious neck surgery earlier this year to deal with a lingering problem that’s haunted him since college.

“I don’t even know if Aljo’s ever going to come back to be honest,” Dillashaw said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “From what he had done, it’s kind of crazy. If I was him, I would have waited to get that done. My coaches, my strength and conditioning coach as well as my wrestling coach, sells the medical equipment that did his neck, don’t believe he’s ever going to come back.

“I think he’s just holding onto this belt as long as he can. I’ve had that feeling already so when he pulled out of the fight, I wasn’t surprised. I bet he’s dealing with nerve damage. I bet he’s dealing with a lot of stuff. You go get your neck cranked on with what he’s had done, it’s definitely not good. We’ll see. I could be completely wrong but I don’t know if he’s ever going to come back.”

Dillashaw argues that Sterling would have been better off just dealing with the neck pain for a little while longer rather than undergoing this surgery that could keep him sidelined indefinitely.

“You’re on top of the world,” Dillashaw said about Sterling. “You’re champion. Yeah, you won it the way you did but now you’re going to start getting paid like a champion. You’re going to have these big fights. Take advantage of them while you can. Don’t go out and get this neck surgery.

“I understand he’s got the problem, he has the injuries. I was dealing with two blown out shoulders when I was the champion but I wasn’t willing to sit out for a year cause I had big paydays.”

Whether there’s an interim champion or not, Dillashaw scoffed at the idea that anybody at bantamweight — including Sterling — can claim to be the legitimate champion until facing him.

After Dillashaw tested positive for a banned substance following his flyweight title fight against Henry Cejudo in early 2019, he was forced to surrender his bantamweight championship while sitting on the sidelines under a two-year suspension.

Since he never technically lost the belt in a fight, Dillashaw believes the road to bantamweight still eventually has to go through him.

“I didn’t lose my belt due to a loss,” Dillashaw said. “I lost my belt due to the decision I made and they had to vacate it. So when these guys are talking about they’re feeling like they’re going to be the true champion even though [Cory Sandhagen] goes out and beats [Petr] Yan. No, because Yan was never the true champion. He never beat the champion in the bantamweight division to actually become a champion.

“So there was never a real linear champion anyways and now they’re fighting for an interim belt. I already proved myself. I came back, I came off a two year layoff, fought the No. 1 contender. That title fight’s mine when I come back.”

Of course the UFC might have something else to say about that if Sterling does return to face the winner of Yan vs. Sandhagen, but for now Dillashaw is committed to a title shot or bust.

That’s why he’s not willing to entertain any other fights right now including a potential showdown with former featherweight champion Jose Aldo, who had previously called out Dillashaw before being booked against Rob Font in December.

“From what I’ve been told, I’m fighting for the belt next,” Dillashaw said. “No matter when that belt is. So that’s kind of where my mindset’s at right now, but sh*t it’s Jose Aldo.

“Jose Aldo to me is an all-time legend. It’s hard to not think about taking a fight if it’s offered to you, but I’m fighting for the belt next, is what I’ve been told.”