T.J. Dillashaw is eager to be recognized as the best bantamweight in the world again, a title that he doesn’t feel he ever really lost.
The two-time UFC champion takes on reigning 135-pound king Aljamain Sterling in the co-main event of UFC 280, which takes place Oct. 22 in Abu Dhabi. It is Dillashaw’s second fight since returning from a two-year USADA suspension stemming from a 2019 drug test failure.
Dillashaw voluntarily relinquished his belt, publicly acknowledging that he used the banned substance EPO. He returned to competition in July 2021 with a close split decision win over Cory Sandhagen in one of the best fights of that year and currently holds the No. 3 spot in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings.
Due to the circumstances, he sees Sterling as holding a championship that would otherwise belong to Dillashaw.
“When I’m champ again it’s going to be great,” Dillashaw told ESPN. “I never left. I never lost my belt in this weight class. Yeah, I was stripped, but I never actually physically lost it. People forget how dominant I was because I hadn’t been in there. I hadn’t been performing. I hold a lot of records in the bantamweight division and just because of the time off, they forget.
“So I’m going to have to remind them all who the best is, who the best pound-for-pound is, and that 135-pound GOAT, I’m coming for it.”
Dillashaw has three successful defenses across two runs with the UFC bantamweight title, but did lose it once in the cage against Dominick Cruz in a January 2016 bout. The two never rematched and Dillashaw went on to regain the title with a knockout of Cody Garbrandt at UFC 217.
In the lead-up to his fight with Sterling, the champion has lobbed plenty of verbal grenades in Dillashaw’s direction, including recently telling MMA Fighting that he expects Dillashaw to be “souped up” at UFC 280. Dillashaw points to his rivalry with Cruz as being key to dealing with pre-fight drama.
“I try not to hold much ill when I fight,” Dillashaw said. “I know I fight better when I’m just relaxed, having fun. I learned something early in my career after I had a grudge match with Dominick Cruz, I fight better just letting things go. You’ve got to find your own mental stability on where you perform best and me, it’s getting out there and showing off and having a good time.
“I feel like if you’ve got to build something up, I think he’s already building excuses of why I’m going to beat him and trying to play that mental warfare, but it ain’t going to work with me.”
Also on the UFC 280 card is a key bantamweight bout between former champion Petr Yan and popular contender Sean O’Malley. The winner of that bout becomes a leading candidate to fight for a title next, with several other potential challengers waiting in the wings including Sandhagen, Merab Dvalishvili, and Marlon Vera.
Dillashaw has to get past Sterling before making any future plans, but he’s already looking forward to building on his legacy with a third title run.
“It’s super exciting to see what the weight class has done and how it’s evolved,” Dillashaw said. “It’s always been a super exciting weight class, we’ve always had guys getting out there and banging. High energy, lots of technique, tons of knockouts, so it’s a weight class that’s always been very entertaining and now we’ve got the personalities to back it up. The list is endless for me to defend my belt against once I get it back.”
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