Pivotal Moments: Dillashaw vs Barao, part 1

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

TJ Dillashaw did a number on Renan Barao last Saturday, dominating the bantamweight champion en route to a fifth round knockout. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down the techniques behind his stunning victory.

Typically, "Pivotal Moments" is a series that focuses on the techniques and strategies behind epic, back-and-forth fights. This edition, then, will be somewhat different, because TJ Dillashaw vs Renan Barao was anything but back-and-forth. In fact, aside from a swing 2nd round, Dillashaw absolutely dominated one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters on earth, winning one of the biggest upsets in UFC history with grace and flash.

Last week, Renan Barao was the undisputed bantamweight champion of the world, and he was set to dominate TJ Dillashaw for his second official title defense, fourth if you count those that occurred while he was still interim champ. TJ Dillashaw was a promising fighter who, just one fight removed from a close split-decision loss to Raphael Assuncao, wasn’t expected to be ready for a title shot quite yet. Keen-eyed fight fans knew that Dillashaw had what it took to give Barao a tough fight, but not even the staunchest Dillashaw supporter could have predicted what actually occurred.

Today, we’re going to break it down, in detail, round-by-round.

This is Pivotal Moments: Dillashaw vs Barao.

Find part two of this artcle here.

ROUND ONE

Relaxed, poised, and focused. That's how TJ Dillashaw looked in the beginning of the first round of this fight, the biggest of his life. Most importantly, it was clear that he had a strategy for dealing with Barao's unique and varied skillset.

Last week I broke down the tools a fighter would need to outwork Barao who, despite his dominance, has gotten by with some serious flaws in his approach. I wrote:

The moment that Barao faces an opponent who not only works in behind a jab but continues to move his feet and improve his position after the punches start to fly, we will see him seriously tested. It's an admirable trait to be willing to plant one's feet and throw, but neglecting to adjust to your opponent's movements in favor of throwing more punches will only get one so far.

This was exactly the case against Dillashaw, who consistently closed the distance with jabs, goaded Barao into one of his trademark flurries, and then gracefully floated around him while he was punching.

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1. Dillashaw throws a short jab, stepping off-line to his left as Barao tries to parry his left hand.

2. Barao tries to counter with his favorite left hook, and Dillashaw follows his flicker jab with a right hand, but both men miss their marks.

3. Dillashaw's right foot drags forward after his right hand.

4. Barao's feet are in virtually the same position that they were at the start of the sequence, while Dillashaw steps around and lands in a southpaw stance.

5. Dillashaw sticks Barao with a hard right jab.

6. Unafraid to follow up, Dillashaw touches Barao's chin with a  left cross.

I'm typically not a fan of stance-switching, but that's because it's almost always done poorly, particularly in MMA, where countless fighters find themselves enamoured with the idea of switching leads before they've even gotten good at their natural stance. Dillashaw, however, is a masterful switch-hitter, and his supreme comfort in either stance is part of what makes him so difficult to hit, even as he throws himself bodily into his punches and kicks.

Normally, it is a very bad idea to let one's rear foot drag forward on the cross. It indicates that the fighter's weight has come completely onto the front foot, and that he will be unable to follow his rear hand up with a safer attack from his lead. Dillashaw, however, uses the natural tendency to launch oneself forward on power punches to shift into the opposite stance, from which he can seize unexpected angles on his opponent. The switch to southpaw in frames 2-4 above is as smooth as can be, and because he is not tied down to his orthodox stance, Dillashaw can work his way to Barao's side much more quickly than anticipated.

Barao did as I predicted, preferring to plant his feet and throw rather than adjusting to his opponent's movements. Against a certain caliber of striker that will work, particularly considering Barao's power and excellent chin, but against Dillashaw we saw that Barao is, at the moment, incapable of doing things differently. Dillashaw was the first opponent in a long time to jab and feint his way around Barao's whirlwind of power strikes, and it worked like a charm.

The first round also proved that Dillashaw is a thinking fighter. For any given set-up, Dillashaw has at least three different follow-ups, making it very difficult for his opponents to predict his power strikes. The incredible first round knockdown, for example, was the product of such a switch-up.

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1. Dillashaw throws a stutter-stepping jab, drawing a parry from Barao (not visible).

2. Barao attempts to counter Dillashaw's jab with a jab of his own.

3. Barao's punch falls short as Dillashaw pulls his head back, launching his shin into Barao's armpit.

Barao throws a very nice, technical jab here, pulling back to his rear foot and sinking his head down and to the right. As such, his extended right arm protects him very well from Dillashaw's kick. To Dillashaw, however, this momentary failure simply allowed him to narrow down his choices. The next one would prove much more successful.

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1. Dillashaw shows the same jab as before, and Barao once again tries to parry it.

2. Barao backs up, shooting out his counter jab, but Dillashaw stays glued to him, slipping the punch and taking a deep step forward.

3. Dillashaw floors Barao with a massive overhand right counter.

This time, Dillashaw comes over Barao's left arm with a wide right hand. The arc of the punch perfectly bypasses the defense that had worked so well against Dillashaw's kick just thirty seconds before. This also gives us a glimpse of Dillashaw's surprisingly deep understanding of distance. Before, he was at the perfect range for his head kick to land. Now, opting for a shorter punch, he cleverly uses his jab to disguise a long step with his left foot, meaning that Barao, who is attempting to backpedal out of harm's way, doesn't realize how close Dillashaw is until it's too late.

ROUND TWO

After the knockdown in round one, it was hard to believe that Dillashaw could prove any more emphatically that he was capable of beating Barao, but round two sealed the deal. Ironically, this was Barao's best round of the night, and could easily have gone to him on the scorecards. The story of the fight remained a Dillashaw one, however, simply because the Alpha Male member refused to let Barao's considerable offense deter him. Dillashaw attacked Barao as if he were already the champion and Barao the annoying challenger come to take his belt.

Barao is well known for adapting round-to-round. He was dropped by Michael McDonald, but finished him a few rounds later. Eddie Wineland stole a round from him before Barao knocked him out in round two. Even Urijah Faber had some nice success in his rematch with Barao, but it didn't last long. As a result, many fans were expecting the champion to come out with a different approach in round two. True to form, Barao was much more aggressive in this round, making Dillashaw pay for his inflated confidence.

As I wrote last week, Barao's tendency to brawl is not, as some have suggested, due to a lack of self control. Rather, Barao engages in slugfests for the mental advantage it affords him. In other words, when he trades punches with his opponent, he teaches them that they cannot simply walk into his wheelhouse and hit him without incurring serious damage. Any mental edge Barao might have gained by tagging Dillashaw in round two was nullified, however, by a shocking realization: not only could Dillashaw take Barao's shots, he didn't appear to even care. As with Chris Weidman vs Anderson Silva, the challenger's refusal to acknowledge the champion's skills was a huge factor to his success.

Dillashaw mitigated the Brazilian's power with supreme confidence, and near-flawless technique. Check it out.

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1. Dillashaw shows off his dance moves just out of Barao's reach.

2. Entering range with a cross, TJ slides into a stable, lowered stance.

3. Dillashaw follows up with a right uppercut that misses the mark.

4. As Barao continues to move back, Dillashaw moves with him, keeping him trapped in the pocket. He keeps his feet under his body and sticks Barao with a jab.

5. Barao suddenly plants his feet and throws a hard right hand, but Dillashaw is balanced enough to slip it.

6. Not so fortunate with the next blow: Barao cracks Dillashaw with a solid left hook, but the challenger eats it and keeps going.

Against Barao, Dillashaw reminded us once again of his incredible grasp of distance control, particularly for someone who's really only been training striking at this level for less than two years. We will cover his ability to keep Barao in his preferred range in tomorrow's installment, but for now we ought to address the supposed risks of Dillashaw's newfound style.

TJ caught a good deal of flack after his win for crossing his feet and shuffling around out of stance throughout the fight, which is traditionally a big mistake in combat sports. The reasoning behind this rule is that crossing one's feet makes one easier to knock down, and easier to angle around. So theoretically, Dillashaw was putting himself at great risk throughout a fight with one of the best strikers in the sport.

But hold on: let's take a look at the example above. In frame one, when Dillashaw is crossing his feet and standing out of stance, he is standing just far enough away from Barao that the Brazilian would only be able to reach him with kick or a jab after a step forward, and any time that Barao does step forward, Dillashaw can react to the step, and move accordingly. By making himself appear out of position (as well as taunting the opponent with his hands down and his head forward), Dillashaw can goad his opponents into attacking when it is ill-advised to do so.

Dillashaw knows when it is safe to stand "incorrectly" and when it is not. As proof, one need only look at the rest of the sequence above. The instant that he moves into Barao's range, Dillashaw gets his feet firmly under himself and bends his knees. When Barao catches him with one of his vicious left hooks, Dillashaw is barely even fazed thanks to his excellent positioning. You can practically see the shock of the blow travel down Dillashaw's rear leg and into the floor. And if you watch the GIF, you'll see Dillashaw change angles and go back on the offensive immediately after tasting Barao's power.

You see, context is important with sweeping statements. "Hands up" isn't bad advice, but it is worse than useless without the necessary context. In the same way, it isn't wrong to caution fighters against crossing their feet and giving up position, but Dillashaw clearly knows what he's doing when he does.

Check back tomorrow for part two of this breakdown, featuring Dillashaw's brilliant techniques from rounds three through five, including the tremendous knockout.

For more analysis, as well as fighter and trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. This week's episode features an interview with BE writer and professional fight scout Pat Wyman (yes, it's still coming, along with a slew of other exciting changes to the site and podcast format).

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