T.J. Dillashaw not backing down from the great Renan Barao

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – Almost out of nowhere, the talk has sprung up: Renan Barao is the best fighter in the world. Renan Barao is as fearsome as it gets. Renan Barao is a stone-cold killer.

The odds are overwhelmingly in Barao's favor as he prepares to defend his bantamweight title on Saturday in the main event of UFC 173 at the MGM Grand Garden against No. 1 contender T.J. Dillashaw.

He's a minus-650 favorite at the MGM Grand sports book and the number could go up before it comes back down.

For weeks, Dillashaw has been asked during interviews about Barao's greatness. If he were to turn to the Internet to get away from reporters asking incessantly about Barao's prodigious talents, Dillashaw would find himself being taunted by fans on social media, telling him he has no chance to win.

Dillashaw has also been repeatedly reminded about his gym's failure in its biggest fights. Team Alpha Male is one of the finest gyms in mixed martial arts, except when it comes to title fights.

Team leader Urijah Faber is 0-6 in his last six world title fights, including two losses to Barao. Joseph Benavidez is 0-3 in championship matches. Chad Mendes is 0-1.

Barao has an exceptionally low-key personality and there is nothing about him that would make a casual fan who hasn't seen him fight want to buy his pay-per-view, so UFC president Dana White has gone over the top in an attempt to hype him up.

He's not only the best fighter in the world, White has repeatedly said, he's also the scariest.

Dillashaw has heard all of this ad nauseam, so much that he laughs about it now.

"I'm pretty sure I'm going to show up," he says, chuckling.

The problem with all this, of course, is that in its bid to build up Barao, to elevate his drawing power to something close to his fighting ability, the UFC has effectively ignored Dillashaw.

There are a lot of fighters who have won titles as massive underdogs. Just ask former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra, who knocked out the legendary Georges St-Pierre to win the title in a bout still considered the greatest upset in UFC history.

Buster Douglas won the boxing heavyweight title as a 42-1 underdog to Mike Tyson in 1990. Evander Holyfield won as a 25-1 underdog to Tyson in 1996.

Becoming the first man to defeat Barao since he was an 18-year-old rookie nine years ago is a massive challenge, to be sure, but it's not one Dillashaw has shied away from. Barao first emerged on Dillashaw's radar in the summer of 2012, when he worked the corner for Faber when Faber met Barao in Calgary for the interim bantamweight belt.

Dillashaw's job that day was to analyze the bout and give advice and suggest adjustments for Faber.

But Dillashaw had a hard time not putting himself in Faber's place and imagining what he'd do against Barao.

"After watching him fight that fight, I knew the guy was the champ and that's where I wanted to be and so I had to kind of pay more attention to him than the rest of the guys," Dillashaw said.

Dillashaw is a wrestler who is used to the grind and battling adversity. Wrestlers generally don't get intimidated or back down from much, and Dillashaw isn't going to back down from Barao.

Running recklessly at Barao isn't the wisest move, because Barao has a variety of techniques and could end any fight in an instant.

But Dillashaw also understands he can't let Barao dictate the terms of engagement, and that if Barao is backing up rather than coming forward, he's far less dangerous. And so Dillashaw has worked assiduously to find ways to prevent Barao from simply attacking all night and to get him going backward.

He's gotten all sorts of advice from his teammates about not only how to fight Barao but how to deal with the pressure of a title fight.

And though the last title fight victory from a Team Alpha Male member came nearly six years ago, when Faber decisioned Jens Pulver at WEC 34 on June 1, 2008, Dillashaw said their advice has been invaluable.

"Any one of those guys could have won the belt," Dillashaw said. "They were all good enough to have won; it just didn't happen. Joseph was super close to winning his first title fight; in his second, he just got caught. It happens. Dumb luck. Chad Mendes looked awesome in the first round [against Jose Aldo] and if Aldo didn't hang onto the cage, it could have been a totally different fight.

"Urijah just didn't put things together, but all of those guys could have won. It's just a matter of going out and believing in yourself. MMA is such a crazy sport and things can change in the blink of an eye."

And so Dillashaw smiles as he listens to all the predictions of doom that may come his way.

In the blink of an eye, life could change dramatically for him.

Barao is an exceptional fighter, Dillashaw said, but he's not perfect.

"There's no such thing as a perfect fighter," he said. "He's extremely talented, no question about it, and he's a great champion. But this is about me executing my plan and doing what I need to do and being better for 25 minutes on this one night."

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