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How T.J. Dillashaw’s disappointments helped turn him into a UFC title-holder

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

The scene was sadly familiar to Janice Dillashaw. Her cell phone would buzz, alerting her to the arrival of a text message.

It was from her son, and as she read it, she got that helpless feeling all mothers get when their child has hit a difficult point in life.

"It was just completely ripping my heart out," she said.

It happened more than once, and it was never easy for her, her husband, Hal, or her son, T.J. Dillashaw.

T.J. was one of the best wrestlers in California while he was at Bret Harte Union High School in Angels Camp. And then he was one of the best wrestlers in the then-Pac-10 while he was at Cal State Fullerton, when the school still had a wrestling program.

But as good as he was, Dillashaw was unable to win the event that really mattered. He didn't win a state title or the Pac-10 conference championship even though he believed completely that he could.

When he came up short, he'd be devastated and would pour his heart out to his mother via text message.

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T.J. Dillashaw lands a right hand against Renan Barao in their first fight. (Getty)

T.J. Dillashaw lands a right hand against Renan Barao in their first fight. (Getty)

"What he wanted to do his entire life was be in a championship [match]," Janice Dillashaw said of her son. "There were times when he was wrestling in college and we'd be there and he'd go out and the match wasn't his best. He knew it wasn't his best and he'd disappear. That's how T.J. was. He was really hard on himself.

"We didn't know where he was, and I'd start getting these texts [from him]. 'Mom, why can't I ever just win? Why can't it just go my way?' It was just completely ripping my heart out. I couldn't see him. I didn't know where he was, and I'm getting these texts and it's obvious he's really hurting. You want to be there for your child and say the right thing, but it was so hard because I could see how much he was hurting."

Some of the greatest athletes who ever lived failed to win championships, including Hall of Famers such as Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Barry Sanders, Elgin Baylor and Dan Marino.

But Dillashaw, despite coming up short in a number of situations, wasn't destined to be one of them. Few outside of his close-knit circle saw it coming, but Urijah Faber, the former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion and the head of Team Alpha Male, is one who did.

In 2004, Faber was an assistant wrestling coach at UC Davis and recruited Dillashaw during his senior year of high school. He knew then what Dillashaw was capable of, which is why he was so keen on getting Dillashaw to choose UC Davis instead of Cal State Fullerton.

Later, when UFC middleweight Mark Munoz suggested Faber take Dillashaw as part of Team Alpha Male, Faber readily agreed.

"I saw the confidence he had and I saw the way he carried himself, and after the first month in the gym, after watching a few of his sparring sessions, I knew," Faber said. "I knew this guy was something special and that he was capable of big things."

Dillashaw proved his mentor correct in the main event of UFC 173 in May, when he routed Renan Barao and stopped him midway through the final round to capture the UFC bantamweight title.

The win came at a time when the UFC was heavily pushing Barao as perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Few were giving Dillashaw a realistic chance to win the bout. Those who knew Dillashaw, though, were the exception.

Munoz, who was an assistant coach at Fullerton when Dillashaw was there and later became Dillashaw's first MMA coach, expected it.

He knew Dillashaw's personality, he knew his talent and he knew his drive.

"I knew he'd do great against Barao and I told everyone, 'Hey, you better watch out for Dillashaw,'" Munoz said. "A lot of people doubted me, but I knew he was definitely capable. I'm super proud of him because he came from humble beginnings and he worked to put himself in that position.

"I think the most common attribute, or characteristic, of champions is resilience, and T.J. is extremely resilient. … Everyone goes through adversity, but it's how well you deal with that adversity that determines how far you'll go as an athlete. T.J.'s always been resilient. He didn't accomplish everything he wanted in his high school career and he didn't accomplish everything he wanted in college. But he was resilient and he had a lot of perseverance and he just worked and found a way to get better and get it done eventually."

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Few outside of T.J. Dillashaw's inner circle thought he could defeat Renan Barao. (AP)

Few outside of T.J. Dillashaw's inner circle thought he could defeat Renan Barao. (AP)

Dillashaw will make his first title defense on Saturday in the main event of UFC 177 when he faces Barao in a rematch at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif.

It's been a whirlwind three months since winning the belt for Dillashaw. He got married less than a month afterward. He brought the belt with him to the ceremony in Mexico, and at the reception, his friends and family danced with the belt in celebration.

"It was amazing," Janice Dillashaw said of the fun her family had celebrating. "Everyone had absolutely the best time. T.J. came out with the belt on and everyone got into a big circle. One person had the belt on and would dance with it and do their thing and then it went to the next one. It was amazing."

But the fun times are over for now. Dillashaw has another fight to win and he knows he's going to see a determined Barao, who’s desperate to turn the tables.

Dillashaw maintains a healthy respect for Barao, who had won 22 consecutive fights and was undefeated for more than nine years when they met the first time.

But Dillashaw also felt all the tales of Barao's success built him up to be a bit more than he was.

"I do think he was a little overrated," Dillashaw said. "Don't get me wrong: He's a great fighter. But people were too scared of him. They were looking at his name, Renan Barao, and that undefeated streak, and all these things he could do instead of believing he could be beaten."

Dillashaw said he felt his speed, his movement and the angles he gave were keys to the dominant performance he had in the first fight when he pulled off one of the great upsets in UFC history.

He's come a long way from the guy who was preparing to go to graduate school to become a physician's assistant. He was ready to end his athletic career when his mother was sitting in front of the television watching "The Ultimate Fighter."

She knew her sons had been watching it and wanted to see what it was that had captured their attention. When she saw it, she suggested that T.J. would make a good fighter.

That was all T.J. needed to hear. He gave up on graduate school, turned to fighting and the rest, as they say, is history.

He debuted on "The Ultimate Fighter" and steadily improved, though he was overshadowed by many of the big-name training partners he worked with at Team Alpha Male such as Faber, Joseph Benavidez and Chad Mendes, among others.

Faber's team was one of the best in MMA, but it was becoming a theme that Team Alpha Male couldn't win the big one. Faber himself had lost six consecutive title matches, including two to Barao. Benavidez had lost three title fights in a row and Mendes one by the time Dillashaw finally got the shot.

While it may have surprised the wider world, it didn't surprise those on the inside when Dillashaw ended Team Alpha Male's rough streak.

"T.J. has a level of intensity you don't see that often," Munoz said. "He has a great fighting spirit and he has a determination to get better. He's a guy who is never satisfied. Guys mature at different times and I felt that when he put it together, you'd see a truly outstanding fighter. The world got to see in that fight with Barao what I'd seen for a long time: T.J. Dillashaw is a beast."

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