The Biggest Upset In MMA History?
That is the only word said by the usually boisterous UFC President Dana White after UFC 173 ended with TJ Dillashaw giving the middle finger to the naysayers by beating the unbreakable Renan Barao to take home the UFC Bantamweight championship.
Coming into the fight, nobody outside of a diehard MMA fan knew who TJ Dillashaw was. And even if they knew who he was, they surely didn’t give him a shot in hell to break the longest unbeaten streak in all of mixed martial arts owned by Renan Barao. Oddsmakers had the Team Alpha Male fighter as much as a 10-1 underdog. Considering that Barao hadn’t lost in his past 33 fights – a stretch of nine years – it made sense. And when you put Barao’s streak up against the Team Alpha Male curse of failing to capture UFC gold (0-6), the task for Dillashaw had only become more daunting.
But that’s why they fight the fights in the Octagon and not on paper.
Dillashaw handled Barao from the opening bell with ruthless aggression and opted to use his impressive striking over his heralded wrestling to put a beating on the Brazilian. From the moment that Dillashaw dropped Barao in the first round with a right hand, the 28-year-old never looked back. Even more impressive is despite his comfortable lead, Dillashaw still sought the finish in the fifth round. And he got it with a wicked head kick.
When you put together Barao’s streak, Team Alpha Male’s curse and Dillashaw’s seemingly unimpressive resume, does it add up to the biggest upset in mixed martial arts history?
“It’s up there,” White said during the press conference after the fight. “Serra-GSP was a pretty big one too.”
White is referring to the 2007 fight where Matt Serra shocked the world by knocking out Georges St-Pierre and claimed the UFC Welterweight title. Although it was a massive upset, revisionist history makes the Serra victory bigger than it was. St-Pierre had yet to become the GSP we know today. At the time, St-Pierre was 13-1 and riding a six fight winning streak. Serra, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 4, wasn’t given much of a chance to beat the Canadian but did so with a blistering knockout.
But what makes Dillashaw’s victory over Barao more impressive was that Barao was riding a ridiculous winning streak and White was singing his praises as arguably the best pound for pound fighter in the world. Meanwhile, Dillashaw was a replacement for Barao’s original opponent, Raphael Assuncao. His resume wasn’t all that impressive either. A record of 9-2 heading the fight didn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of the oddsmakers. Also, Dillashaw had been knocked silly by John Dodson, who is now campaigning in a lower weight class, in The Ultimate Fighter finale. His other loss was a split decision to Assuncao.
It wasn’t that Dillashaw won that was shocking; it was how he claimed victory. There was no lucky punch or flash knockout involved. Dillashaw gave Barao hell from the opening bell and dominated the through four rounds before flattening the Brazilian great in the fifth with a devastating head kick. It was total supremacy of a man thought to be unbeatable. Serra’s win, while impressive, doesn’t look as imposing today as it did then.
Perhaps the only upset that shook the MMA world to its foundation more than what took place in Las Vegas at UFC 173 was when Fabricio Werdum defeated Fedor Emelianenko back in 2010. Fedor, who was then considered to be the best fighter on the planet, entered the cage with a 31-1 record. The Russian had been on a tear, stopping his last eight opponents with six of those victories coming in the first round. Meanwhile, Werdum (who was as much as a 10-1 underdog) had recently been ousted by the UFC and working his way back up through Strikeforce. Nobody gave Werdum a chance until Emelianenko – whose lone loss to that point was due to a cut in a fight he wasn’t losing – fell into a triangle choke in the first round and shockingly tapped out.
The difference between that fight and Dillashaw’s victory was that it was on the grandest MMA stage of them all and for the company’s world title. Not to mention that Dillashaw wasn’t even supposed to be facing Barao and had never come close to headlining a pay per view. As a matter of fact, the last PPV fight Dillashaw fought on, UFC 158, found him fighting on the Facebook preliminaries and not on the PPV portion of the show.
Dillashaw further distances his upset win by deploying a game plan that saw him beat Barao at his own game. Anyone who graciously gave Dillashaw a chance figured he could only win if he dragged the fight to the canvas and used his wrestling in hopes of grinding out a victory. Instead, Dillashaw chose to stand and trade punches with Barao over the course of the fight. He never once opted to use his wrestling and relied on movement to set up his combinations. According to Fightmetric, Dillashaw landed an astounding 169 of 344 strikes (49%) to Barao’s 68 of 277 (25%). It was as one-sided a victory as you’ll find in MMA and it came by an overwhelming underdog.
“It was the plan all along,” an elated Dillashaw said. “I needed to move my feet and use my angles to be the faster athlete tonight. The plan was to take him down if need be, but I didn’t feel that I needed to.”
Only time will tell if Dillashaw’s victory will be remembered as the biggest upset in the history of mixed martial arts. Either way, it becomes the most significant moment in the career of Dillashaw and brought his team their first taste of UFC gold. For him, accomplishing what Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Joseph Benevidez couldn’t is more satisfying than being in possession of the upset of the century.
“I got into the gym looking up to all of those guys,” Dillashaw said of his more popular Alpha Male stablemates. “It’s kind of crazy for me to be the one to bring home the belt and it is a great feeling.”
Dillashaw is in the business of proving people wrong and did so at UFC 173. But now the challenge is not to become a trivial pursuit question and become one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world. That new journey starts now.