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There wasn’t a lot of faith among MMA fans in Henry Cejudo heading into his title fight with T.J. Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 143 on Saturday in Brooklyn, New York. Dillashaw had looked like he was peaking inside the Octagon entering the fight, and his weight cut seemed to go off without a hitch despite skepticism in advance about how it would go. Dillashaw opened as the favorite and the odds swung further in his favor as the fight approached. Cejudo had only one stoppage win in five-plus years before he stopped Dillashaw in just 32 seconds.
If Cejudo’s triumph felt shocking in the moment, with hindsight it makes a lot of sense. Putting aside the rapid improvement in Cejudo’s hands that we’ve seen in recent years and his win against an all-time great in Demetrious Johnson, it also very much fits the pattern of Dillashaw’s career. Few fighters of his caliber have had careers so marked by regular setbacks followed by impressive rebuilds.
Dillashaw is arguably the second-greatest bantamweight in MMA history behind only Dominick Cruz. However, his career trajectory is very different than other top contenders for that honor like Cruz, Renan Barao and Miguel Torres. Cruz, Torres and Barao’s careers fit the pattern more commonly associated with great fighters. They all had periods of prolonged dominance. Cruz won 13 fights in a row at his peak and 22 of 23; Torres had a 17-fight winning streak and a separate 20-fight winning streak; and Barao went 32-0 with one no-contest in a 33-fight stretch. By contrast, Dillashaw’s longest pro winning streak stands at only four fights.
While Dillashaw has never put together an extended streak of success like so many other great fighters, he stands out in a positive way for his ability to come back from adversity stronger. When great fighters finally lose after prolonged runs of success, the losses often keep coming immediately afterwards. Torres lost five of eight, and Barao lost six of eight after going years unbeaten, and it’s possible the same fate could have met Cruz in his 30s if injuries had allowed him more than four fights in seven years. That’s far from a bantamweight issue, as it has been the pattern for so many great fighters, from Fedor Emelianenko and Anderson Silva to Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva.
Whether it’s that fighters lose focus after a key defeat or that a roadmap is laid out for future opponents, MMA is a sport of steep falls. What has made Dillashaw stand out is his repeated ability to come back stronger from setbacks. Dillashaw has suffered four upset losses, and after the first three, he didn’t simply rebound but rose to a higher level than he was before the defeat. The losses seemed to serve not just as obstacles to overcome but as catalysts for future success.
Dillashaw was strongly favored against John Dodson in “The Ultimate Fighter 14” final in about that most closely resembles his encounter with Cejudo fight: He was stopped quickly by the boxing of a smaller opponent. Going into that fight, the thought was that Dillashaw’s wrestling would carry him in MMA. In the fights that followed, Dillashaw showed he was going to be a lot more than just a wrestler, as he started to put together the striking and movement that would bring him such success.
Confidence was growing in Dillashaw when he fought Raphael Assuncao for the first time, only to lose a narrow split decision to the Brazilian. Close decision losses can often be motivators, and that was certainly the case after that fight, as Dillashaw tasted gold for the first time just two appearances later against Barao. Dillashaw’s two wins over Barao were the biggest factors in elevating his stature in the sport, as Barao was thought to be one of the best pound-for-pound fighters before Dillashaw picked him apart.
Once more the pattern repeated itself when Cruz recaptured the Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight title in January 2016. Dillashaw came back strong again, and this time against an even higher level of competition in Assuncao, John Lineker and Cody Garbrandt (twice). Dillashaw solidified his status as not just a championship-level fighter but one of the best fighters in the sport. With his confidence soaring, Dillashaw was looking for bigger challenges, which is where the idea of winning a title in a second weight class came in.
Dillashaw’s past history with defeats helps to explain his reaction to his loss to Cejudo. His vociferous complaints about the referee in a fight where he was getting pummeled and repeatedly rocked were undignified for a fighter of his caliber. However, they also demonstrated the mentality of a fighter who has bounced back from defeat time and time again. Fighters who win for years on end can more readily accept finally losing. Dillashaw has never had that prolonged dominance and thus he has needed to quickly prove he is better than his defeats. He will need to do it again now.
Dillashaw’s past history suggests he’s going to be a dangerous opponent when he returns. However, the fact he still holds the bantamweight title changes the dynamic. There will be no softer competition to rebound against. There will be only hungry top contenders and possibly another fight with Cejudo. Dillashaw’s unique resilience will be tested like never before.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.