No one knows what to expect from T.J. Dillashaw, the memories of his world-class exploits having faded in his absence.
The former Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder will return from a two-year United States Anti-Doping Agency-imposed suspension when he faces the surging Cory Sandhagen in the UFC on ESPN 27 main event this Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Dillashaw, now 35, has not set foot inside the Octagon in 917 days. He owns a 12-4 record in the UFC—a run that includes victories over Walel Watson, Vaughan Lee, Issei Tamura, Hugo Viana, Mike Easton, Joe Soto and John Lineker.
Ahead of Dillashaw’s intriguing battle with Sandhagen, a look at some of the rivalries that have helped shape his career:
Assuncao was awarded a split verdict over Dillashaw in a contentious UFC Fight Night 29 bantamweight showcase on Oct. 9, 2013 at Jose Correa Gymnasium in Sao Paulo, Brazil. While Dillashaw managed to climb onto the Brazilian’s back in the first round, Assuncao gained a foothold in the second, where he connected on several clean punches upstairs. Neither man seized control in Round 3, as their back-and-forth exchanges left their fate to the scorecards. All three judges scored it 29-28: Richard Bertrand and Brian Puccillo for Assuncao, Sal D’Amato for Dillashaw. Assuncao outlanded “The Ultimate Fighter 14” finalist by narrow margins in the first and second rounds, but he conceded two takedowns and became entangled in three submission attempts from the American. Dillashaw avenged the defeat at UFC 200 a little less than three years later, as he laid claim to a unanimous decision over the World Extreme Cagefighting veteran in their three-round rematch.
Dillashaw sprang a stunning upset on May 24, 2014 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, where he took out Barao on a fifth-round technical knockout and became the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder in the UFC 173 main event. Barao wilted 2:26 into Round 5, losing for the first time in more than nine years. Multi-punch bursts, well-disguised kicks, relentless movement and a seemingly endless gas tank carried Dillashaw to the most significant victory of his career. He nearly finished it in the first round and held a commanding lead on the scorecards entering the fifth, where he drew the curtain with a head kick and follow-up punches. Dillashaw never allowed the Nova Uniao ace to establish himself in the fight. He landed 101 more strikes than Barao—a man to whom some had pointed as the sport’s pound-for-pound best. Dillashaw cemented himself as the world’s premier bantamweight in their July 2015 rematch, as he put away Barao with fourth-round punches, improved to 2-0 in their head-to-head series and retained his title under the UFC on Fox 16 marquee.
Cruz moved, countered and willed his way to a split verdict over Dillashaw in the UFC Fight Night 81 headliner on Jan. 17, 2016 at the TD Garden in Boston, as the Alliance MMA cornerstone reclaimed the Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight title across five memorable rounds. Judges David Ginsberg and Tony Weeks saw it 48-47 and 49-46 for Cruz, while the aforementioned D’Amato scored it 49-46 for Dillashaw. With that, the gold changed hands. The statistical data pointed to the close nature of the fight. Cruz outperformed his counterpart 112-109 in significant strikes, while Dillashaw held a 130-122 edge in total strikes. Cruz landed at a significantly higher percentage in both categories and also held a 4-1 advantage in takedowns. Still, both men had a case in terms of arguing the final decision. The emotional nip-and-tuck victory returned Cruz to the bantamweight throne a little more than two years after recurring injuries forced him to vacate it.
Dillashaw wiped out his former Team Alpha Male stablemate with punches in the second round of their UFC 217 co-main event on Nov. 4, 2017, claiming the undisputed bantamweight crown for a second time at Madison Square Garden in New York. Dillashaw finished it 2:41 into Round 2. Garbrandt had the Sonora, California, native in real trouble near the end of the first round, where he knocked down Dillashaw with a clean right hook and swarmed with follow-up punches until the horn sounded. The challenger retreated to his corner on unsteady footing but came out for Round 2 with a renewed sense of purpose. Dillashaw sat down an off-balance Garbrandt with a head kick, allowed him to rise to his feet and got back to work. A blinding exchange ensued, and Dillashaw found the mark with a right hook. Garbrandt collapsed to the canvas, where he was met with a volley of unanswered blows that closed the deal. They met again nine months later, and it did not go well for “No Love.” Dillashaw leveled him with a knee strike and follow-up punches 4:10 into the first round of their UFC 227 rematch, as he successfully defended the bantamweight title and authored a definitive chapter in their rivalry.
Dillashaw crashed and burned in his bid to become a simultaneous two-division Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder. Cejudo retained his undisputed flyweight crown in a statement-making performance, as he dismissed the Californian with punches in the first round of their UFC Fight Night 143 headliner on Jan. 19, 2019 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The promotion’s reigning bantamweight champion at the time, Dillashaw succumbed to blows just 32 seconds into Round 1. It was a result no one saw coming. Cejudo fired out of the gates, pairing leg kicks with rapid-fire punches upstairs. He pushed an off-balance Dillashaw backward, wobbled him with a partially blocked head kick and dropped him to all fours with a well-placed right hand behind the ear. Cejudo followed up with a ferocity he had rarely shown, even as his dazed counterpart reached for a single-leg out of pure desperation. Dillashaw was met with unanswered rights and lefts to the head, leading referee Kevin MacDonald to call for the stoppage despite protests from the Duane Ludwig protégé.