For Renan Barão, this appeared to shape up as a stay-busy payday. That's not the way the UFC was selling Saturday night's fight with T.J. Dillashaw, because that's not how a fight promotion sells any bout, especially not one for a championship, and particularly not one it's dangling in front of paying customers.
But the main event of UFC 173 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, with the bantamweight belt on the line, was in essence an opportunity for the Brazilian dynamo to keep his skills sharp and earn a few bucks while waiting for one of his deserving challengers to heal up. He initially had expected to face his countryman Raphael Assunção, who is on a six-fight winning streak but had to decline the offer of a title fight because of injured ribs. The promotion's next call likely went out to Dominick Cruz, the former champion, who's been on the mend for two years now. He wasn't ready, either.
So the matchmakers were left to glance down the 135-pound rankings and cross off the names of the injured as well as all the contenders Barão already had beaten. Who was left? Dillashaw.
T.J. is no palooka. He, too, would have been on a six-win run if not for last October's run-in with Assunção, which came down to a split decision. But there was much to suggest that Dillashaw would be in over his head against the champion, who'd not been defeated in 33 fights going back to his 2005 professional debut. Any bantamweight might be considered in over his head against Barão, really. In Dillashaw's case, though, there was a measuring stick. He trains with Team Alpha Male, and the alpha male of that team, Urijah Faber, has twice been dominated by Renan. Were we supposed to expect more out of Urijah's understudy?
Well, expectations be damned, a star was born. Utilizing mercurial movement that made him look like an understudy of not Faber but archenemy Cruz, and packing a punch the likes of which had never touched Barão in the octagon, Dillashaw put on a virtuosic performance from start to finish. And, oh, what a finish. Well ahead on the scorecards going into the fifth round, with the bloated, beaten-down champion desperate to draw him into a firefight that might save the night, T.J. didn't dance away, he stampeded forward. He won the championship the way you're supposed to win a championship.
With Barão (32-2, 1 NC) exchanging with him in the pocket, Dillashaw (10-2) landed a left kick to the head that staggered the champ, followed by a right hand that sent him against the cage, then a left that put the Brazilian on his back and brought the crowd of 11,036 to its feet. The challenger didn't hesitate to pounce, and as he wailed away with punches, Barão just covered up. Then came the inevitable yet surreal moment when referee Herb Dean jumped in at 2:22 to end the fight, the reign, the prolonged preeminence.
"Oh, man, I've dreamed it for so long," Dillashaw said through tears in an interview in the cage afterward, his words drowned out by the sustained electricity in the building. "It's unbelievable, man. It's the greatest feeling in the world. All you have to do is believe, baby, believe you're the best in the world and you'll get here."
Dillashaw sure is a minimalist when it comes to blowing his own horn. His bluster-to-achievement ratio was dwarfed by what the crowd had heard a half hour earlier from Daniel Cormier, who put on an even more dominant, though far less surprising, performance in the co-main event. In a starry meeting of U.S. Olympic wrestlers, Cormier (2004, 2008 freestyle) threw around 43-year-old Dan Henderson (1992, 1996 Greco-Roman) like he was a flyweight. Then he tossed aside Alexander Gustafsson, disregarding the next challenger for the light heavyweight belt and going right at champion Jon Jones. "No matter where you go, boy, I'm coming," he yelled into the microphone at center cage. "You better hurry, because I'm getting better."
Indeed he is. Cormier was never threatened by the vaunted H-Bomb. He took the fight to the canvas at will and kept Henderson under control in every position. And just when it seemed like the one flaw in his game was an inability to do significant damage on the ground, Cormier scrambled his way into a rear-naked choke and finished an exhausted Henderson at 3:53 of the final round.
Then he started fighting Jones. "This is my octagon," he said. "I'm the man."
That did appear to be the case at that moment, but a short time later the eight-sided cage belonged to T.J. Dillashaw. Right from the start, he didn't look like a 6-1 underdog. His relentless movement, coupled with frequent pushes forward, seemed to confuse Barão, who wasn't letting his punches go and was getting tagged by the occasional clean shot. Then, with just over a minute to go in the first round, Dillashaw connected with an overhand right that dropped the champ, and from there to the horn it was predator looking for the kill and prey just looking to survive.
Barão did make it to the break, but he was never the same. Perhaps he was hurt or bleary from the onslaught. Maybe he simply couldn't figure out Dillashaw's attack. A wrestler by background, but a devoted student of striking coach Duane Ludwig, T.J. never let up on the gas pedal. And while Barão has been known as a lethal counterpuncher, he was unable to stop the challenger's advances.
Round after round, we waited to see how the champ was going to turn things around. But this fight did not play out like Jones vs. Gustafsson, when "Bones" heroically overcame a rugged start to seize the fight in the championship rounds. This time the championship rounds were for the crowning of a new champion. This time the evening's hero was a challenger who went for it and got it. Shockingly. Emphatically.