There's been quite a bit of talk about a possible title bout between newly crowned T.J. Dillashaw and perennial contender Urijah Faber, much more so than would normally be the case with a fledgling champion and his long time mentor. But with bantamweight still lacking star power, and taking into consideration that Urijah's five (FREAKIN FIVE) title shots since losing the WEC featherweight strap are due to his popularity with Zuffa almost as much as they are to his stellar track record, a future fight between the two starts making sense. When you throw into the mix the new champ's roll as "teachers pet" to now former coach Duane Bang Ludwig and Faber's apparent clash of personalities with the same man, the plot starts to thicken. The final factor in making this scenario a plausible option rather than just an MMA armchair-general's pipe dream is Bang's leaving Team Alpha Male to start his own gym; T.J. has already stated that he intends to split his time between the two camps. When all of these points are thrown together, to think that the always goal oriented Faber would challenge his fellow teammate and that Dillashaw would be fine training exclusively with Ludwig for the fight isn't that far fetched.
And lets be honest. This fight would sell. The splitting of the most "bro" camp in all of MMA, the mentor taking on the pupil, the old guard face of MMA south of 155 vs. his young potential replacement, the constant bickering about who got the best of who in training... this fight, if it were to go down, would have a ridiculous amount of story lines for the UFC to screw up with their painfully bad promotional clips. So lets say that the UFC doesn't give the recently murked Barao a rematch, or the deserving but dull Assuncao a chance to go 2-0 against the champ, or even the ever-injured Cruz a crack at what never truly stopped being his. Instead, lets say that Faber, Dana's favourite pint-sized poster boy, decided that he wants yet another shot at UFC gold, and that Dillashaw has no choice but to pack his bags with Duane and accept. In such a scenario, lets break down what both men would currently bring to the championship table.
At this point in his career Dillishaw is, more or less, a strictly stand up fighter, and a damn good one at that. His footwork is beautiful and intelligent, his constant faints, level changes, and stance switches actually accomplish things like creating angles and setting up strikes on his opponent, and he's shown a fantastic understanding of fluid and effective combination striking- something that is still sorely lacking in MMA. His fake-takedown-to-left-high-kick trick is particularly potent, and he goes to it with frequency. He's now consistently shown the ability to hurt his opponents with strikes (Tamura, Viana, Barao) while at the same time proving to be very hard to hit in return, even when finding himself exchanging heavy leather deep inside the pocket. He's perfectly at home changing direction and cutting angles in mid-flurry, spamming effective feints and misdirection strikes to land shots, and dishing out serious punishment from southpaw or orthodox. When Zane Simon stated that he thought Dillashaw was one of the most technical strikers to ever fight in the UFC, I'd have to say that he wasn't far off. The current version of T.J is a calm, calculated striker in possession of a high fight IQ, defensively sound offence, and a coach that knows his suff.
His mentor, on the other hand, is a whole different kind of MMA striker. Faber's striking, and his MMA game overall, has and always will rely on one key element-natural athleticism. This is a very dangerous foundation for a a fighter to build his skills upon; while he's in his physical prime things will more often than not go an athlete like Urijah's way, but as soon as his prime years are behind him, a dramatic plummet in performance will soon follow. At 35 years of age, that moment may be fast approaching, but for now Faber appears to be as explosive and fast twitch as ever. While some of Bang's coaching has definitely rubbed off (getting Mcdonald to rush forward before expertly pulling off to the side and cracking him with a big shot was a thing of Ludwig beauty), Urijah is still a very basic striker. Picture this. Heavily sat down in a wide stance, weight loaded onto his front leg, hands outstretched, gingerly testing the range, body a coiled, twitching spring of muscle,... this is the Cali Kid we have all come to love and know, and he hasn't changed all that much since his WEC heyday. From this stance, Faber will twist from the waist, seemingly giving different looks by moving his head,and paw at the no-mans-land between his opponent and he with his left, looking to grasp and trap his adversary's lead hand. From here he will suddenly blast forward, trying to land a crackling hook to the head or body of his opponent before darting out to a safe distance once again. If this bullrush attack hurts his adversary, you can be sure that Faber will quickly set upon him with a torrent of merciless strikes and power submissions until the ref steps in. Faber is in essence a hairless, pot-shotting gorilla... and his freakish speed and timing has allowed this limited and predominantly lineal (the KO sequence against Mayday a noted exception) style to remain effective for over a decade. Faber has shown an excellent ability to recover from big shots, but against Dillashaw's 3-4 strike combos, movement, and calm striking IQ, his blitzes and oft-porous defence will be hard pressed. However, Faber's deficit in the standup aspect of the fight may very well be balanced out by what should be a fair sized advantage in the transition and ground games.
If T.J. is one of the best strikers on the UFC's roster, then it goes without saying that Urijah holds the same title in phase shifting. From alternating strafing strikes and power guillotines on dazed opponents to chaining together takedown attempts with back takes and clinch thows, Faber simply has "it" when it comes to the in-between areas of fighting. Much like his striking, this portion of The Cali Kid's game relies heavily on his physical gifts; nearly unparalleled strength at 135 and feline-like reflexes are dangerous things when combined with over a decade of muscle memory grappling. When the clutch is engaged and the fight is shifting from a stand up gear to a grappling one or vise versa, Urijah almost always comes out on top. He just simply knows when to shoot for a double off of a punch, when to throw an elbow instead of pass the guard, and where to be and with what when the other guy is in the midst of exploding to his feet (transitioning from a reverse crucifix to a rear naked choke off of menjivar standing up, I'm looking at you). The fleeting seconds between striking and grappling are Faber's domain. Its there that he's the most dangerous, and where he's scored the majority of his wins. Against his most successful pupil, Faber would be wise to keep the fight in a permanent state of scrambles and chain wrestling; it could very well lead to him tapping out T.J.
Dillashaw, while he appears to make a conscious effort to still incorporate his wrestling into his fight game, simply doesn't have the same instincts that he exhibits in his standup when it comes to phase shifting. At this point you can practically see T.J laboriously switch mental gears before he shoots for a takedown; he's just not as fluid as a guy like Faber when it comes to the transition game. In his fight with Barao, the few takedowns that he attempted appeared to be mere afterthoughts, coming at the end of striking combinations, but very much separate from those combos. His wrestling game appears to have been put on the back-burner as a result of his new striking savvy; he's still without a doubt an excellent wrestler and top control grappler, but those two areas of his game and his striking stand very much independent of one another at this stage of his development.
On the ground, both men embody the Team Alpha Male spirit- get on top, get to work, and get that
submission guillotine. Both do their best work from the top position, and it would be sensible to think that Faber's more advanced transition game would see him end up there more often than T.J. We've never really seen the new champ put on his back and forced to work, but suffice to say that as the larger, more experienced grappler, Urijah's best chance at victory would be to force this scenario as much as possible. If Dillashaw's refined striking leads to successful takedowns, Urijah has shown an excellent, and above all calm and composed bottom game on several occasions (The first round against Alcantara, the hellacious 3 minute crucifix against Aldo, etc.). On paper, the nod in the grappling department goes to Faber.
Overall, a potential matchup between the two Alphas is an immensely compelling proposition. Both men are insanely well conditioned, but at 28, T.J. is in his physical prime; at 35, Faber may be basking in the final rays of his long and impressive athletic peak. However, Faber is the larger man, and at this point I would say he is still the more physically gifted athlete of the two. The striking advantage without a doubt lies with Dillishaw; phase shifting is Faber's area of dominance. The ground game is a more even affair, but once again The California Kid's transitional skills, and size and experience if he gets on top, have me leaning towards Faber in any potential ground exchanges. Overall, I see Faber's tenacious and very physical top game and scramble abilities wearing out the champ and winning him at least 3/5 rounds, provided he doesn't get cold-cocked standing.
At this point, only these two men truly know if what we've seen from them in the octagon applies to their training sessions in the gym. Dillashaw might pretzel Faber on the ground; Urijah might tag T.J. sparring way more often than T.J lands on him. No one but Team Alpha Male really knows how these two stack up... but I for one know that I would be willing to pay sixty-some bucks in order to become one more person who's in on that secret. If Urijah takes Dana up on his offer and asks for perhaps his last shot at a title, I definitely won't be disappointed. You shouldn't be either.