LAS VEGAS — T.J. Dillashaw hadn’t fought in 30 months. He injured his knee in the first round. A cut that he suffered in training re-opened in the second round and was so bad, that former UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier said it was making him ill looking at it.
In training camp, he’d torn the MCL in his right knee and injured his left shoulder.
His opponent Saturday in the main event of UFC Vegas 32 at Apex, Cory Sandhagen, fought a brilliant fight.
Yet, Dillashaw managed to overcome all of that and claimed a split decision victory that vaults him right back into the bantamweight title picture. Judge Derek Cleary had it 48-47 for Sandhagen, giving him the final two rounds. He was overruled by judges Sal D’Amato and Junichiro Kamijo, who each had it 48-47 for Dillashaw.
Yahoo Sports had it 48-47 for Dillashaw, the two-time former bantamweight champion.
“Guess what? Daddy’s home, bitches,” Dillashaw said in the cage after the fierce back-and-forth battle with Sandhagen.
Dillashaw never lost the title in the ring, and figures to be the challenger for the winner of the Oct. 30 bantamweight title rematch between champion Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan.
He was stripped of the belt following a Jan. 19, 2019, loss in a flyweight title fight to Henry Cejudo after he tested positive for Procrit, an anemia medication that contains EPO. He was suspended for two years by USADA.
He was supposed to return against Sandhagen in May, but the bout was postponed when Dillashaw was cut. That cut opened after a hard left hook from Sandhagen in the second, when it appeared Sandhagen was taking over with his striking.
But as he’s done throughout his career, Dillashaw managed to find a way. He’s as tough a fighter as there is in the UFC and he’s a fierce competitor.
The fight could have gone very badly for him if he’d allowed Sandhagen to continue to pick him apart at range. He admitted he got lazy and said after getting to the corner following the round, he realized what he needed to do
“I came out in that second round … and I was worried about my knee,” he said. “I can’t really tell you what happened until I watch it. It was all kind of a blur. But like I’ve said, I can change who I am from round to round. Those are the things you have to do to be the best in the world."
He’s not the most popular fighter among his peers, but no matter what one thinks of him personally, there is no doubt that he’s an elite fighter.
And he’s going to make every effort to have his next fight be for the belt. But if it doesn’t work, he’s going to fight and not wait because he’s had enough of being away and out of action.
“Daddy’s going to get that belt back easy, guys,” he said. “Easy money for that belt right now.”
It probably won’t be easy because beating world-class fighters isn’t easy, but don’t doubt for a moment that even at the advanced age (for a fighter) of 35 and more than seven years after he first claimed the crown that he could do it again.
If he does, he’d join Randy Couture as the only fighter in UFC history to hold a belt in the same division on three separate occasions.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a man whose official UFC career began in the worst way possible. He was knocked out in less than two minutes by John Dodson in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter on Dec. 3, 2011.
It was an ignominious way to open his career, but he didn’t let it impact him. Less than three years later, he was the champion, and he’s gone 5-2 in title fights since. His loss to Dominick Cruz on Jan. 17, 2016, was a heartbreaker in an agonizingly close fight that could have gone either way.
Saturday’s fight was similarly close and Sandhagen had every right to feel he’d won. Dillashaw was up two rounds to one on all three cards after three rounds. Cleary gave Sandhagen Rounds 4 and 5 and thus the fight. D’Amato gave Sandhagen the fourth to even it, but gave Dillashaw the fifth and decisive round. Kamijo gave Dillashaw the fourth and Sandhagen the fifth.
Sandhagen’s strikes from range were causing no end of problems for Dillashaw, who for the last three rounds kept his right hand pressed up by his eye to protect it.
But Dillashaw used kicks to cut the distance and limit Sandhagen’s mobility. He was able to score on the inside and got points by controlling Sandhagen along the cage.
He’s not a flashy fighter and everything he does is hard work: He earns what he’s gotten through the sweat of his brow. His success is a direct result of hours upon hours of work and an unwillingness to ever give in.
“I just work [expletive] hard,” said Dillashaw, who praised strength and conditioning coach Sam Calavitta. “I just work my ass off.”
It might be a rare moment of humility from Dillashaw, but it’s not entirely true. Yes, he’s an exceptionally hard worker. But you don’t do what he’s done in the sport without a boatload of talent.
He’s found a way to maximize it and that’s made him one of the best ever.
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