LAS VEGAS – Mixed martial arts is a vastly different sport than any other, largely because of the attitudes of the men and women who compete in it professionally.
If T.J. Dillashaw upsets Renan Barao next month in the main event of UFC 173 and wins the bantamweight title, the wider world may finally realize what those on the inside have known for years: As a group, there are no more classy, loyal, dedicated and sincere athletes than MMA fighters. For weeks earlier this year, Dillashaw gave every ounce of himself to help Urijah Faber do what he so desperately wanted to do himself.
Faber, Dillashaw's close friend, training partner and mentor at Team Alpha Male, was fighting Barao for the title in the main event of UFC 169 on Feb. 1 in Newark, N.J.
Dillashaw couldn't have been more committed to the task if he were getting ready for the title himself.
And therein lies the rub.
Dillashaw knew he was closing in on a title shot and that if Faber was beaten by Barao, his time would come much sooner.
But if Faber were to upset Barao, that would have greatly diminished Dillashaw's chances of getting a quick title shot himself, because the UFC likely wouldn't have asked two close friends to meet with other quality opponents available.
Dillashaw, though, did everything he could to make Faber as ready as possible and then when the fight came, Dillashaw rooted heavily for a Faber win.
"They don't make them any better than Urijah," Dillashaw said. "He's a good guy; a great guy. I wanted to see him get that belt so badly."
But the true measure of their friendship came in the seconds after a highly disputed finish. Barao badly hurt Faber and knocked him down. As he was starting to throw hammer fists, referee Herb Dean shouted for Faber to do something.
Out of Dean's view, Faber gave a thumbs up, indicating he was OK. But Dean stopped the bout, early in the view of many, and Faber was angry. But only seconds later, when he was interviewed in the cage by Joe Rogan, Faber campaigned for Dillashaw to get the next shot.
"This was probably his lowest moment as a fighter, maybe the worst moment of his life, and Urijah thought of me," Dillashaw said. "If that doesn't tell you the kind of guy he is, nothing will."
And then Dillashaw unexpectedly got the shot, in a bout thrown together hastily when the UFC was trying to react to a series of injuries.
Dillashaw is going to be a massive underdog to Barao, who hasn't lost in nine years and goes into the bout on a 33-fight unbeaten streak.
UFC president Dana White never predicts the result of the fight, but the way he gushes about Barao makes it obvious how he sees the bout.
"Look man, I understand why people are so high on Jon Jones and are saying he's the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world," White said. "I get that. It makes sense. I understand it. But at the same time, think of this: [Barao] hasn't lost in nine years.
"In this sport, are you [expletive] kidding me? Do you know how incredible that is, what he's doing? I'm telling you, this guy could be the best in the world."
Those words, "the best in the world", are ones that resonate and carry deep meaning for Dillashaw. He was a college wrestler of some note, but when it was all over, was planning to go to graduate school.
UFC middleweight Mark Munoz invited Dillashaw to a wrestling camp, where he met Faber. And it was from there that Dillashaw began thinking of MMA as a career.
Dillashaw took to it quickly and began to seriously consider it when it dawned upon him that he could fulfill one of his lifetime dreams.
"You know, I want to be the best in the world at something, and I have felt that way for a long time," Dillashaw said. "I've always been so competitive in my life. Once I find out I'm good at something, I want to be the best at it and once that feeling gets in my blood and I can set some goals, I can't let it go.
"MMA was one of those things that I saw that I was good at and that I could improve at and that I could become the best in the world. How awesome would that be, no matter what job you have, for one day to wake up and know, 'Hey, I'm the best in the world at this. There's no one better.' ?"
It's a tall task and Dillashaw concedes he's developed great respect for Barao. But it is not impossible, he insists, that he'll walk out of the cage at the MGM Grand Garden that night with the belt strapped around his waist.
"There are always doubters and always people who do nothing else but tell you that you can't do something," Dillashaw said. "But why worry about them and let them bring you down? I prefer to think differently than that.
"I believe in myself. I believe in what I've done and how I've grown in this sport and how I'm going to prepare for this fight. Renan is great, but he's human and every human can be beaten. I know that and it is pushing me to do whatever it takes to be the best."
If he wins it, it would change the dynamic at their friendly little gym in Sacramento, Calif. Faber has long been the top dog, but if Dillashaw wins the belt, it would put him as the champion in the class his mentor competes in.
Faber is in Abu Dhabi for the UFC Fight Night card on Friday and could not be reached for comment. Dillashaw had no doubt, though, that a title win would not create any issues between Faber and himself.
"MMA is an individual sport, but it's also a team sport because no fighter can get to this point without teammates who help him," Dillashaw said. "I just happen to have a great teammate in Urijah who has already done so much for me and who I know will be as happy if I win this belt as he would have been if he won it himself. And I would have felt the same way if he'd won.
"It won't change a thing between us. It would be just something that we all accomplished together, as a team."