UFC champion TJ Dillashaw (17-3) will ring in the new year with new goals, new challenges and new motivations when he steps into the Octagon on Jan. 19 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Currently in his second reign as the bantamweight king, Dillashaw defeated rival Cody Garbrandt in November of 2017 to reclaim the belt he first won in 2014, then did it again in their August 2018 rematch, dominating Garbrandt and defending the title with a first-round knockout.
Dillashaw now faces newly crowned flyweight champion Henry Cejudo (12-2), a 2008 Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, in a champion-versus-champion clash.
“I’m trying to grow my legacy, and I think Cejudo is the best fight for that; to become a double champion is a big deal,” said Dillashaw of his decision to fight at 125 pounds. “This fight is also a chance to be able to prove my professionalism with dropping the weight, and really show what a true pound-for-pound best fighter in the world can do. Cejudo is a great fight for me. Not only to get a belt, but to beat the Olympic gold medalist at his own game.”
Dillashaw, who hasn’t tipped the scale at 125 pounds since his time at Bret Harte High School when he wrestled at 119, adopted an exacting approach to the weight drop.
With the goal of maintaining and escalating the strength-to-weight ratio throughout the entire weight-cut process – getting stronger while growing lighter – Dillashaw’s strength and conditioning coach Sam Calavitta crafted a precise plan founded in science.
“We have used a very quantitative, methodical, analytical process,” said Calavitta, a former wrestler who now competes as a triathlete. “TJ has not missed a single meal, he has not missed a single drink, and he will eat and drink all the way until the morning of the weigh-in. Everything’s already in place right now; he has reached the benchmarks and is even a little ahead. The numbers will take us right to 125. It’s quite a process and stressful, but TJ is a great person to work with and he’s right where he should be.”
Calavitta’s system has successfully served a wealth of other elite combat athletes, most notably 2018 International Wrestler of the Year David Taylor, Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner, 2019 Professional Fighters League featherweight champ Lance Palmer and Penn State’s eight-time NCAA championship wrestling team.
“I get to bring that (experience as an endurance athlete) on over to what I do with the boys, and it’s a very unique integration,” Calavitta said. The trainer recently qualified for the 2019 Ironman Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii. “You get mixed martial arts coaches, you get wrestling coaches, but very seldom do you ever get combat athlete coaches and Ironman coaches integrating the two together. I’m competitive, and I like to see them go out there and dominate. If we’re able to be part of that process in helping somebody do it for the little bit that we get out of vicariously, well, it’s just worth it.”
Though challenging at times – no cake to celebrate his son’s first birthday and no special holiday meals – Dillashaw has found the weight-drop process energizing.
“What really, really excites me about this fight is that I’m changing my body,” he said of the process. “I get to see my body and my mind and my technique change right in front of me. It always changes with each fight and whomever I’m fighting, but dropping down this extra 10 pounds is a big deal, especially for how lean I already walk around. I’m stronger now than I was my last camp, and I’m moving the scale on both ends. I’m getting stronger, I’m pushing more weight, but I’m also lighter. So, my strength-to-weight ratio is insanely improved. That’s the biggest dramatic change. Just the work that has gone into this weight drop has kind of really got me reinvigorated to continue to grow my name.”
While his name is already sprinkled throughout the UFC record books – as a bantamweight, he has the most wins (11), most finishes (7), ranks first in significant strikes landed and knockdowns; second in significant strikes-per-minute and strike differential; has five Performance of the Night bonuses and two Fight of the Night bonuses – and is currently ranked fifth on the Pound-for-Pound list, the 32-year-old Angels Camp native still has compelling ambitions that drive him.
“I believe I’m the best pound-for-pound fighter, and I want to leave this sport being known as the greatest fighter of all time,” Dillashaw said with quiet confidence. “And in doing that, I will have to make some big gains and make some big steps. Cejudo called me out after his fight with Demetrious (Johnson), and it’s perfect because I think this fight is a step closer to doing something no one else has done, and eventually becoming a three-division champion. Obviously I’m focused on this fight, the fight at hand first, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but you’ve gotta have goals, both long-term and short-term goals, and in the long-term goal, that’s what I envision for myself.”
It’s a vision Dillashaw shares with Duane Ludwig, his head trainer and striking coach.
Ludwig, who trained Dillashaw to his first world title in 2014 and has been with him every step of the way since, recognizes something unique in his stellar student and sees the prospect of history-in-the-making Jan. 19 night in New York.
“For TJ to earn another world title to add to his resume is what excites me about this fight; it’s another chance to showcase to the world and to ourselves that TJ really is the best mixed martial artist to ever step foot inside the cage,” Ludwig said. “Not everything that counts can be counted and that’s what TJ brings to the cage when he fights. His commitment to constant and never-ending improvement toward black belt excellence is the epitome of what OSU means – to push and endure, to strive to the top of our potential. His determination to be the best is at a level that I have never seen before. When TJ fights, Bruce Lee’s philosophies come to life; he truly is a very, very rare human being.”