Team Alpha Male representative, T.J. Dillashaw, looks to bring a championship strap back to Sacramento, Calif., by defeating Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Bantamweight kingpin, Renan Barao, this Saturday (May 24, 2014) in UFC173's main event from MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
After a series of injuries, fight switches and other odd circumstances, Dillashaw finds himself with one hell of an opportunity on his hands this weekend in "Sin City."
The 28-year old is still relatively new to mixed martial arts (MMA), having a mere 11 professional bouts to prepare him for one of most experienced champions in UFC today. The second largest under dog on the card, Dillashaw's chances at earning the belt are not great on paper.
However, he's risen quickly in a short amount of time, establishing himself as one of the premier 135-pound contenders. In addition, his relative inexperience means that Dillashaw is still rapidly improving, which can be seen from fight to fight.
Most important, "The Viper" is entirely confident that he will walk away with the belt after a night in "Sin City." Could we have another Chris Weidman on our hands?
Let's find out:
While it's arguable who is the best striker currently fighting out of Team Alpha Male, the one whose style of striking most resembles recent head coach Duane Ludwig's own version of Muay Thai is Dillashaw. Like his recently-departed coach, Dillashaw works his opponent from head-to-toe, switching targets almost as often as he switches stances.
It's important to note that Dillashaw is very light on his feet. The wrestler moves very well, bouncing around and switching to Southpaw in search of opportunities to land. It's also worth mentioning that -- although Dillashaw's lead hand often dips rather low -- he keeps his chin tucked behind his shoulder at all times.
Once he settles into the fight, Dillashaw opens up with his kicking attacks. The Californian often uses classic Muay Thai set ups to land his kicks such as the left hook-right low kick combination. In fact, Dillashaw ends his combinations with a kick more often than not.
In his last four bouts, Dillashaw has shown serious dedication to landing head kicks. Starting with Issei Tamura -- who he knocked out with a high kick -- Dillashaw has managed to land a head kick in every bout. While they are sometimes deflected or just don't land with the necessary force to finish, Dillashaw's head kicks are a constant threat to his opponent.
To set up the high kick, Dillashaw has used several techniques.
Against Tamura, his right head kick was skimming over the top of Tamura's head as Tamura ducked away from it. To set up those head kicks, Dillashaw was ducking his head low and following over the top with a head kick. Dillashaw countered Tamura's head movement by switching to a left high kick after a right hand and level change. In one knockout, Dillashaw used two head kick set ups based off of looking low and changing levels.
For Dillashaw, these look low-throw high combinations are made even more threatening by his wrestling game. His opponent is forced to respect his level change feint but also must be wary of the head kick.
It's an effective double threat.
In addition, Dillashaw successfully went body-body-head with kicks out of the Southpaw stance against Mike Easton. After landing a number of power kicks to Easton's inside leg and mid-section, Dillashaw simply switched his target a notch higher. Easton's hands lowered to prevent damage, allowing the kick to land cleanly and open up a cut.
Dillashaw is developing an effective teep kick as well, as he dug a few into Easton's gut to stymie his aggression in the third round. He's also been playing around with front kicks and tries to land a crane kick fairly often.
"The Viper's" boxing seriously improved between the Assuncao and Easton fight. He's long been aggressive with strikes, but Dillashaw put together beautiful and complex boxing combinations against "The Hulk" unlike anything he had thrown prior.
He's not a very active jabber, but Dillashaw's volume of jabs did increase somewhat against Easton, especially from Southpaw. He also showcased an ability to smoothly switch stances in the midst of boxing combinations, which allows him to exit and enter at a larger number of angles.
The most impressive improvement to Dillashaw's game was his ability to punch while off the center line. Dillashaw was stringing together four punch combinations and moving his head with each punch, forcing Easton to miss frequently. Then, he would finish his combo and exit at an angle or safely duck out.
That's smart boxing.
Dillashaw also showed a willingness to hang out in the pocket that's unusual for MMA fighters. Generally, fighters will throw their punches and fully back out of range, hoping to avoid counter strikes just by being far away. That's usually fine in terms of not getting hit, but it forsakes the opportunity to counter the counter. Instead, Dillashaw often landed his combination, slipped a couple of Easton's return strikes, then fired off another two or three punches before backing away.
Though it's not incredibly complicated, Dillashaw has an active and effective clinch game. He mixes between knees and punches well but usually attacks with a takedown before really working his opponent over. One particularly effective punch is Dillashaw's straight right hand on the exit. Against Hugo Viana, Dillashaw repelled a clinch attempt then caught "Wolverine" standing still with the punch and sent his eyes rolling.
Though his defense has seriously improved since the Dodson loss, Dillashaw is still susceptible to counter strikers. His aggressive combinations and occasionally loose punches can get him in trouble. In fact, Dillashaw's only other loss came from Assuncao backing away from his punches then repeatedly stepping in with a right hand. Though it was an extremely close fight, it proved that the issue remained.
A collegiate wrestler for Cal State Fullerton, Dillashaw was ranked tenth at 133 lbs in his senior year. Dillashaw's explosive wrestling skills have transitioned well into MMA, and he has a fairly deep arsenal of takedowns.
Dillashaw's primary takedown is his single leg. Regardless of whether or not his opponent is pinned to the cage, Dillashaw usually finishes by running the pipe. If that fails, Dillashaw will also try to off-balance his opponent by raising his opponent's leg high and dumping him. To do this, Dillashaw has to get both hands underneath the leg and lift it to at least chest height.
In addition, Dillashaw has shown a strong blast double leg. It looked especially quick against Raphael Assuncao when Dillashaw shot out of the Southpaw stance. When Dillashaw uses the double against the cage, he's excellent at forcing his opponent to raise his hands high or lose his base with strikes just before he shoots.
Finally, Dillashaw is far from helpless inside the clinch but usually only transitions to clinch takedowns if his shot fails. His clinch game is fairly simply: he secures underhooks and then drags his opponent to the mat.
Once Dillashaw secures top position, he's very effective with his ground striking. He's patient until he gets around his opponent's full guard, but then he aggressively slams elbows and punches into his opponent. On his fight to enter The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), Dillashaw stunned and finishes Matt Jager with a diving punch followed by a brutal series of elbows from half guard.
In his second UFC fight against Walel Watson, Dillashaw demonstrated his ability to control position and do damage. "The Viper" spent a majority of three rounds alternating between mount and back mount, searching for submissions, and absolutely demolishing Watson with ground and pound. Dillashaw was unable to finish the gutsy "Gazelle," but he did land 154 strikes to Watson's 19 according to Fightmetric.
Dillashaw has yet to give up a takedown, and there is little signs of that changing. Dillashaw's sprawl is fast and powerful, shutting down any straight forward takedowns. Furthermore, Dillashaw's balance and scrambling abilities are really impressive. His past opponents have timed takedowns well and caught him in awkward positions, but they still cannot finish the shot.
For example, Assuncao caught a head kick (after absorbing it) and basically flipped Dillashaw over. He should have had an easy takedown, but Dillashaw was able to bounce away and create a little bit of space. That space allowed him to spin and force Assuncao to transition to a single leg. From there, Dillashaw easily limp-legged out of his grasp.
Although Dillashaw has not yet showcased the famous Team Alpha Male guillotine, he has proven to be quite adept at the other grappling trademark of the team: scrambling to the back mount.
Dillashaw is hyper aggressive when it comes to taking his opponent's back. He literally dives for the position, jumping towards his opponent's back when given the slightest opportunity. To quickly take his opponent's back, Dillashaw secures whatever grip he can on his foe's upper body and then flings his lead hook around. Similarly, Dillashaw will jump at his opponent's back if he secures the back clinch.
Once he gets to the back mount, Dillashaw attacks with the rear naked choke. Since his decision victory over Watson, Dillashaw has gotten better at hiding his non-choking arm when attempting the rear naked choke. This prevents his opponent from stopping the pressure. In addition, Dillashaw stopped caring about whether or not he was under the chin and is more than willing to crush his opponent's jaw.
Another effective jiu-jitsu technique that Dillashaw utilizes is the stacking pass. After breaking his opponent's guard, Dillashaw grabs his opponent's ankles and forces them over his opponent's head. From this position, his opponent can either roll backwards and give up his back, allow Dillashaw to pass to side control, or be nearly defenseless to punches. Dillashaw normally makes his opponent's choice for him by throwing the legs up very quickly, almost forcing his foe to roll to turtle.
The perfect spot for Dillashaw to hop onto the back.
Defensively, Dillashaw has been put in a couple bad spots and managed to maintain his composure. Notably, Watson's desperate flying triangle and Assuncao's anaconda choke attempt. In both cases, Dillashaw's head and arm were trapped in compromising positions.
However, Dillashaw stayed calm and wiggled his way out of both attacks.
His defense against Assuncao was particularly smart, as he pushed the Brazilian up against the fence, which prevents his opponent from really rolling into the choke. That's a veteran defense that requires composure and Octagon awareness, something most young fighters forget about in the heat of a scrap.
Best Chance For Success
To defeat Barao, Dillashaw cannot allow his opponent to control the pace and range. Getting stuck at the edge of Barao's strikes is quite painful -- the Brazilian is excellent from his preferred distance. In addition, Barao will not tire from fighting inside his comfort zone.
Instead, Dillashaw needs to constantly blend his wrestling and striking. Most important, Dillashaw needs to always be attacking with something. Small strikes add up, and Dillashaw strikes during transitions very well and should use this to his full advantage.
Preventing Barao from settling in and playing his game should be Dillashaw's top priority.
Plus, Barao has yet to meet a fighter who can get in range for takedowns, meaning his past opponents have been forced to shoot from too far out. It's easy to defend takedowns that are obvious, but Dillashaw has the diverse skill set necessary to keep Barao guessing. Should Dillashaw commit to a takedown that has been set up well, his chances of finishing the shot are quite high.
Will Dillashaw end the Brazilian's lengthy win streak or can Barao defend his undisputed title for the second straight time?