Was T.J. Dillashaw's victory the greatest upset in UFC history?

Tuesday May 27th, 2014

T.J. Dillashaw's stunning defeat of Renan Barão created some interesting possibilities in the bantamweight division.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Taylor Jeffery Dillashaw, UFC bantamweight champion. Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

Here's another one to try on for size: Greatest Upset in UFC history.

Was it? Was Saturday night's technical knockout of Renan Barão -- he of the 33-fight, nine-year unbeaten streak -- really the most surprising result in the fight promotion's 20 years? That was one of the muddling thoughts that were ping-ponging around the old cranium even as the fifth round of the UFC 173 main event was unfolding, with the great Barão still on his feet but lumbering like a dead man walking. These head-scratching, skull-pounding stimuli, scattered brain synapses unable to be neatly organized while a magic show was happening right before our wide eyes, kept coming and coming, as relentless as Dillashaw's withering attack and no less disorienting.

A couple of nights' sleep have calmed the nerves a bit, but there's still too much here -- What does this mean for T.J.? For Barão? For the bantamweight division? For the UFC? For the collective psyche of fans? -- to be sorted into something coherent and fluid. Still so shocking. So confusing. So inspiring of octagon contemplation, even some outside-the-eight-sided-box thinking.

So here are 22 thoughts about what transpired and what is to come. Why 22? Well, the octagon has eight sides, "Dillashaw" has nine letters in it, and the title fight went five rounds. Or maybe 22 was simply where we were when the brain hit overload and shut down:

1. Well, was it the greatest upset? Let's define "greatest" as not simply the most unlikely but also the one of largest magnitude. That narrows the discussion to just championship fights. And ever since April 7, 2007, the gold standard has been Matt Serra's knockout of Georges St-Pierre to grab away the welterweight belt. That was a stunner, but I'm here to say Saturday night's was bigger.

2. Here's one reason I think what I think: St-Pierre, for all his grandeur, was not on a Barão-like run. Any of us watching the Serra fight who were capable of remembering back just three years had seen GSP lose before. Sure, it was to Matt Hughes, considered at the time to be the greatest 170-pounder ever, but the aura of invincibility had a hole in it.

3. Another factor is a comparison of challenger resumes. Serra's had what Dillashaw's did not: a big name on it. Matt's meeting with B.J. Penn had come nearly five years before the St-Pierre bout, and he had lost, but he'd taken "The Prodigy" the distance. So as much of an underdog as Serra was, we at least had to suspect that, having previously been in with one of the sport's all-time wonders, he wasn't going to be overwhelmed by the moment. How Dillashaw, stepping into the spotlight after a career spent in shadowy prelims, would react to the shimmer and the heat, much less the sight of Barão across the cage, was anybody's guess.

4. The way Saturday's fight played out also set it apart. Serra's victory came midway through the first round on a flash knockdown followed by a swarm of punches. Maybe "The Terror" terrorized St-Pierre too quickly for his own good, because it's not uncommon to hear his glorious game-changing blow described as a "lucky punch" (Try floating that assessment out on Long Island, pal). Dillashaw got a first-round knockdown, too, and nearly a no-less-sudden finish. But Barão survived to the horn, and no doubt many in the audience expected the Brazilian slayer to come out in Round 2 and send T.J. back to Palookaville. He didn't. Dillashaw remained the aggressor and the more accurate, more dangerous striker all the way to the fifth-round finish.

5. And, oh, what a finish. In any measurement of the greatness of this weekend's fight and the victor's performance, style points must be awarded. Dillashaw was far, far ahead on the scorecards -- even on the one filled out by judge Chris Lee, which outlandishly gave Barão the second round -- as he left his corner for the final five minutes. This fight was his. He could have started his victory dance right there. But perhaps T.J. had visions of Johny Hendricks and "Shogun" Rua trudging around in his head, all downcast, and he didn't want to be the latest challenger to think he'd won the belt only to have the judges tell him otherwise. Or maybe Dillashaw simply has a killer instinct that doesn't let up. Whatever the inspiration, his fifth-round aggressiveness, which led to the TKO at 2:26, was an exhilarating coda to what already was a masterwork.

6. We'd never before seen anything remotely as masterful from Dillashaw, so the million-dollar question lingers: Have we just witnessed the emergence of a star, or will T.J. be remembered as a one-hit wonder? And if the latter turns out to be the case, is it because he had just one of those out-of-nowhere nights of virtuosity or because his knockdown punch in the first round and swarm of fists on the floor left the champ a diminished fighter the rest of the way?

7. André Pederneiras, coach of Barão's Nova União team, is pushing the Barão-as-a-diminished-fighter angle. According to a MMAfighting.com report, Pederneiras told a Brazilian radio show, "After the first knockdown, Renan couldn't get into the fight anymore and he went dizzy with every blow." Maybe that's sour grapes, but I have to say that as the fight wore on, I was confused by what I was seeing, and thought Barão didn't look like Barão.

8. We'll never know what was in Barão's head and heart as the rounds of fighting passed. We saw what we saw, and it's open for interpretation. We can judge the Brazilian for being unable to dip deeply into the well, like Jon Jones did against Alexander Gustafsson, and turn the tide his way in the championship rounds. Or, if we believe that Renan was indeed a broken fighter from the end of the first round on, we can acknowledge his stoic resilience as the unappreciated heroism of Saturday's main event. He didn't have much for Dillashaw, but he fought on rather than looking for a way out.

9. If there's a silver lining to the Barão defeat, it's that we'll no longer have to listen to UFC president Dana White talk about Renan having won "35 in a row" even while the fight promotion's own statistics weren't bearing that out. I think we all can agree that the 27-year-old is now 32-2 with one no-contest...and is on a one-fight losing streak.

10. Getting back to Dillashaw, maybe there's a middle ground between him being the greatest of all time and a one-night standout. Maybe his fluid, aggressive style simply makes him a bad matchup for Barão. Perhaps T.J. has improved enough overall that, even if his reign is halted, he'll remain somewhere in the mix of 135-pound contenders. We won't know until we see him compete again. But for now let's unhaltingly embrace Dillashaw as the champion. He earned that.

11. That "until we see him compete again" part plays right in to the "million-dollar question" thing. Dillashaw's first title defense, Dana White said at the postfight press conference, will be a rematch with either Barão or Raphael Assunção. A second go with Barão would clearly be a bigger money fight for the UFC and its new champ, but the other would give Dillashaw a chance to avenge last year's split-decision loss and also give Assunção the title shot he was supposed to have on Saturday (Before the UFC turned to T.J., Raphael had declined the offer of a fight with Barão because of a rib injury). Which way will Dillashaw lean, toward revenge or renumeration? And will the UFC lean the same way?

12. If I were the matchmaker, I'd go with Dillashaw vs. Barão II. A 33-bout unbeaten streak earned Renan the chance to immediately redeem himself.

13. But I would pay no heed to the suggestion of André Pederneiras, who in the above-mentioned Brazilian radio interview called for a rematch at UFC 179 in Rio de Janeiro, home base of Nova União. "Let's see if these guys are man enough," Pederneiras said of Dillashaw and his camp, "to fight Barão in his house." Nonsense. His fighter had the leverage to tell the UFC where he wanted to fight when he was champ. Now Dillashaw has the belt. If you want it back, Renan, go get it, even if that means fighting on the island of Lilliput, home base of Team Alpha Male.

14. Speaking of the Alphas, what an oddly wonderful moment in the octagon on Saturday night. When Dillashaw was announced as new champion, he was in tears and so was Duane Ludwig, for whom this was the final fight as Team Alpha Male head coach. Much praise had been heaped upon "Bang" for the improvement seen in the standup game of the wrestling-based team, with one sticking point: Despite all of the knockouts by Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez under Ludwig's tutelege, all three have fallen short in title fights. Finally, just before the curtain dropped on Duane's reign, one of his guys got over the hump.

15. If there was a bittersweet moment amid the Alpha Male celebration, it belonged not to Ludwig but to the man who hired him, Urijah Faber. He's the 35-year-old alpha of the Alphas, the visionary who launched the team a decade ago and built it into one of the two most renowned collections of lighter-weight fighters (along with Nova União, which in addition to Barão features featherweight champ José Aldo). Faber is a former WEC champion, but in the time since the UFC absorbed that promotion, "The California Kid" has fought three times for the 135-pound belt and lost each time, including a first-round TKO at the hands of Barão back in February. What was really on his mind -- behind the smile for the cameras -- as he watched his understudy, Dillashaw, waltz around with the strap he has failed to get his hands on?

16. Faber's archrival, former champion Dominick Cruz, also must have been kicking himself (hopefully, not hard enough to cause injury) as he watched Dillashaw utilize movement that roughly approximated his own to confound Barão. "The Dominator" has not fought in over 2½ years because of knee and groin injuries, but in the leadup to his scheduled (then canceled) showdown with the Brazilian a few months ago, Cruz consistently said he has the style to defeat Renan. It was as if he left out his blueprint for T.J. to follow.

17. That's not to say Dillashaw is a Cruz clone. His movement is a work-in-progress and nowhere near as refined as Dominick's. However, he packs a bigger punch. So if it had been Cruz, not Dillashaw, in the cage with Barão on Saturday, he might have mystified the champ even more with his feints, but would he have hurt him anywhere nearly as badly?

18. Extrapolating Dillashaw's performance through a Cruz lens is a fantasy world exercise, of course, but given the stiff odds T.J. overcame, every UFC fighter now can do the same in the approach to any fight. If Dillashaw can best Barão, that means Chad Mendes can beat Aldo this summer, despite being finished in the first round when they first met for the Brazilian's featherweight strap. Ali Bagautinov can beat Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight belt next month. Alexis Davis can defeat Ronda Rousey. Every underdog has renewed faith that he or she can beat every favorite. Sweet anarchy.

19. You know who has reason to feel especially optimistic? John Dodson. Going into his June 7 bout with fellow flyweight contender John Moraga, Dodson might want to reflect back upon the night in December 2011 when he earned his UFC contract with a Knockout of the Night performance in the finale of Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter. His first-round KO victim that evening? T.J. Dillashaw. (The fight prior to that for Dodson was a win in the Nemesis Fighting promotion in the Dominican Republic...over Moraga.)

20. The loser in all of this? EA Sports, whose UFC video game does not include the new champion in its roster of fighters. You can play while pretending to be Bruce Lee, but no T.J. Dillashaw.

21. No, really, the actual loser is Brazilian MMA, whose pre-eminence in this fight company created as a showcase of its jiu-jitsu has been chipped away in recent years to the point where, at this point, just one of the UFC's nine championship belts is held by an athlete from the land of bossa nova. José Aldo is all alone now, with Anderson Silva no longer the middleweight champion, Junior dos Santos dethroned at heavyweight, the reigns of Lyoto Machida and "Shogun" Rua over at light heavy, and Barão vanquished at bantam. (Cue up the "USA! USA!" chant.)

22. The big winner, as always seems to be the case, no matter what the result inside the cage, is the UFC. Dana White has lashed out at suggestions that Barão, a quiet young man with no English to get him through a promotional tour, is a hard sell. But it's true. His star has shone only as brightly as his fight performances have. Dillashaw isn't exactly Mr. Personality, but he'll likely get much attention on the strength of his astounding upset alone. T.J. claiming the championship shakes things up, if nothing else. Rather than a bantamweight division that was appearing stagnant, the fight promotion now has so many possibilities. Among them is a return to power by Barão, who could very well win over fans if his evening of vulnerability transforms him into even more of a destroyer than we were sure he was.

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