T.J. Dillashaw isn’t just the current UFC bantamweight champion — he’s one of the best mixed martial artists in the world.
In just over five years, Dillashaw climbed to the top of the mountain in the 135-pound weight class thanks to his impressive wrestling ability (he qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament three times at Fullerton State) and the guidance of his striking coach, Duane Ludwig. Entering Sunday’s title bout with Dominick Cruz, only Jon Jones, Demetrious Johnson, and Conor McGregor out-rank Dillashaw in the promotion’s pound-for-pound rankings.
So yeah, the 29-year-old from the small town of Sonora, Calif., has earned the right to run his mouth.
Just don’t expect him to do it.
Dillashaw doesn’t live in the same universe as McGregor. While McGregor will use press conferences to talk about custom-made suits, watches, and the underwear his opponent’s wife may wear in order to drum up interest in his next fight, Dillashaw has been forced to listen to opponents complain about his lack of desire in firing off insults.
Cruz, who will challenge Dillashaw at the TD Garden in Boston, actually asked T.J. why he doesn’t feel the need to talk about his opponents during a face-to-face sit down.
The champ’s answer: “‘Cause I don’t want to.”
Dillashaw has no desire to change the person that he is because he doesn’t want a fake persona to define his run at the top.
“I want you to remember me for my fights, not because of what I’m talking about and the drama I’m creating.” Dillashaw told me. “I want you to remember me because of my great performances. I want to be able to look back at my career and see that, instead of being a reality TV star.”
With the amount of attention McGregor has received over the last 12 months, it makes sense for more fighters to try and follow his path to success, but it’s a dangerous game to play. Not everyone is cut out for a persona that comically degrades their opponent on the microphone.
Cruz has certainly upped the amount of verbal jabs he’s thrown at Dillashaw before they square off Sunday, but the champion thinks this it’s an act of desperation by his opponent.
“It looks out of character,” Dillashaw said, “like you’re trying too hard, so you end up saying some ridiculously outlandish stuff and I feel like that’s what happening to him. I’m not going to play the game or let him get under my skin. He’s just trying to do that to draw some attention towards himself.
“He’s trying to stay relevant because he hasn’t fought that much in the last four years,” Dillashaw added. “He’s trying to pump himself up with a bunch of outlandish talking and he’s kind of being a hypocrite as well. He’s not making much sense with what he’s doing. It’s kind of out of character for him.”
Still, the trend of belittling opponents isn’t going away any time soon in the UFC, especially with the amount of money McGregor is generating. McGregor’s victory over Chad Mendes at UFC 189 had over 1 million PPV buys and his 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo at UFC 194 could wind up as the second-highest-grossing PPV in company history once the numbers are finally released.
It’s not hard to see the correlation between McGregor running his mouth and over a million people forking over $50 to $60 to watch him fight. He’s become the sport’s biggest male star by becoming an entertainer on the microphone and in the cage. It’s easy to see why fighters would want to try and copy his blueprint, even if it means changing their personality outside of the octagon.
“I think only so many people can do what McGregor does. McGregor is really good at what he does and it works for him,” Dillashaw said, “but for people to change who they are to kind of be that type of person, it doesn’t really work.”
Whether it works or not, the UFC appears to be entering a world filled with carbon copies of McGregor’s road to success and excess, something that worries Dillashaw.
“With more people trying to talk that way, it’s going to make it too fake, too WWE. Eventually it’s going to get old. I think it’s already starting to get old,” he said.
It’s a trend that Dillashaw will have to deal with going forward, but his refusal to join the trend makes him more likely to stand out in the landfill of trash talk.
“By being respectful and acting true to my colors, my personality will seem unique in the long run if guys continue to act like this,” Dillashaw said.
There is a sense of pride that you can hear in Dillashaw’s voice when he talks about the legacy he wants to leave. He wants to make sure that every time he steps into the octagon, he’s putting on the best performance he possibly can for the fans, which means he doesn’t have time to worry about stringing together a series of insults.
“Hopefully people will want to watch me fight because I’m no bullshit,” Dillashaw said. “I just step in there and fight.”
On Sunday, Dillashaw has the chance to add another victory to his impressive resume and you can bet he’ll let his fists do the talking.