Sunday July 26th, 2015

“You go in there with the feeling that you can’t lose. You’re on top of the world.”

That was T.J. Dillashaw talking about confidence, specifically the confidence that accompanies a fighter into the UFC octagon when he enters as a champion. It was Dillashaw’s state of mind on Saturday night when he defended his bantamweight belt in the main event of a UFC on Fox fight card at the United Center in Chicago, and that’ll be his head space the next time he fights, too, as the champ stopped Renan Barão via fourth-round TKO to retain the strap he’s worn for 14 months.

That Dillashaw (12–2) was walking into the cage to face Barão (33–3, 1 NC) only boosted his sky-rocketing self-belief, since it was the Brazilian whom he beat last year to become champion. On that night in May 2014, the Californian was an underdog by as much as 12–1 to Barão, who hadn’t lost in nearly a decade. But Dillashaw floored him late in the first round and beat him to the punch the rest of the way before scoring a fifth-round stoppage.

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Going into this rematch, that first meeting was open to multiple interpretations. Is Dillashaw really that much faster, stronger and more explosive than Barão, as their first dance seemed to suggest? Or had that concussive right hand in Round 1 turned a killer of a champ into damaged prey?

On Saturday night, it was obvious from the get-go what Dillashaw believed. He believed in himself. He believed he was the better man. He believed that Barão had nothing for him.

He was right.

The ex-champ did have his moments in a close first round, landing some crisp knees to the body. But whatever confidence Barão brought into the cage seemed to dissipate once he realized that Dillashaw wasn’t dancing this time. In the first meeting, the then-challenger had used quickness and purposeful footwork to evade the Brazilian’s offense while moving himself into various angles of attack. There was a little of this in the rematch, but for the most part Dillashaw stood in front of Barão, generally in a southpaw stance, and peppered him with punches that often went unanswered.

Beforehand, Barão had talked about how the one big early punch in the first fight had put him “on autopilot” the rest of the way and had let it be known that it wasn’t the real him who lost to Dillashaw that night. Well, the rematch saw no single haymaker change the course of the fight. Dillashaw simply beat down Barão in both body and spirit, ruthlessly and relentlessly.

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The fight was barely two rounds old when Barão began fading, while Dillashaw looked like he could have gone 15 rounds, not merely the required five. Where was the Barão who’d twice beaten Dillashaw’s mentor and training partner, Urijah Faber, and had looked like a terror against other top contenders? The combat sports adage that “styles make fights” was on full display as Dillashaw picked apart a man who not long ago was in pound-for-pound top 10s and was considered one of the sport’s most fearsome strikers.

Barão was flagging late in the third round when Dillashaw trapped him near the cage and unloaded a blitz of fists and elbows until the horn sounded. The champ turned and briskly walked to his corner, while the challenger appeared a bit tipsy as he made his way to his stool. It seemed like just a matter of time.

Dillashaw, to his credit, didn’t take his foot off the gas. Round 4 was just 19 seconds old when he landed a flailing left hook that pushed Barão back against the cage. What followed was a blinding finishing flurry, as Dillashaw unleashed over 30 punches in mere seconds and landed all but a half-dozen. The beaten-down challenger sagged defenselessly in the face of the onslaught until referee Herb Dean jumped in at the 4:28 mark. The official time of the TKO was 35 seconds of the fourth round.

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Barão shook his head at the stoppage. He never went down and wanted to keep going, but there was no fight left in him.

Where does Barão go from here? Where does Dillashaw?

The Brazilian might well be headed to the featherweight division, considering how he’s struggled to make 135 pounds. But while he looked slow against Dillashaw, he could be overpowered by 145-pounders. Then again, maybe he just matches up badly with the champ, and against everyone else he will still be the cage assassin we saw in him for years. Or perhaps losing for the first time in nine years, and losing badly, then losing badly again, has sapped the man of that championship-level confidence that once drove him.

As for Dillashaw, the next time we see that irresistible confidence oozing out of him, wouldn’t it be great if, at the time, he was standing in the cage staring across at Dominick Cruz? “The Dominator” knows a thing or two about the confidence of a champion. He’s an ex-champ not because somebody beat him for the belt but because it was stripped away from him in January following three years of inactivity, healing from multiple knee surgeries. Cruz says he’s nearly ready to go and was on Twitter before Saturday’s fight, stalking both Dillashaw and Barão.

Dillashaw took note of this, and after his big win he set his sights on another go with a former champ.

“As long as he stays healthy,” said the champ. “I don’t know if he can.”

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