The signs were there in Dillashaw's fight with Easton, but it was hard to believe that one of the "lesser" members of Team Alpha Male would find success at the championship level when the bigger names, Joseph Benavidez and Urijah Faber, had each failed in consecutive title shots, Faber to the very man that Dillashaw was set to face. As if driven to greater heights by this doubt, Dillashaw fought Barao with a chip on his shoulder, and a pair of highly coordinated rabbits in his feet, crushing the pound-for-pound great en route to a satisfying knockout in the fifth round.
Today we're breaking down rounds 3 through 5 of this historic bout. Join me in admiring TJ Dillashaw and trainer Duane Ludwig's masterpiece.
This is Pivotal Moments: Dillashaw vs Barao.
Miss part 1 of this article? You can find it right here.
In one sense round two was a mixed success for Dillashaw, as he ate a number of punches and kicks from Barao and likely scraped by on mostscorecards on the momentum of the first round alone. On the other hand, Dillashaw proved to Barao that he could take his best punches and keep coming forward. If anything, the champion's successful offense seemed to remind Dillashaw to fight strategically, as he came out in the third round with an imposing, patient approach.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Dillashaw's performance was how composed he was standing in front of Barao. Even stone-faced Eddie Wineland and the gunslinging Brad Pickett wilted somewhat upon realizing what kind of fighter they were in against, but Dillashaw was supremely confident.
Some of that must be attributed to Duane Ludwig, who equipped Dillashaw with an immense bag of tricks. Ludwig calls Bang Muay Thai a "system," not a style, and he teaches it as such. That means no guesswork, and no frustration. When Barao began stymying Dillashaw's offense with wild punch combinations, Dillashaw had an answer for him, and the answer was handfighting.
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1. Dillashaw stalks forward in a southpaw stance, gripping Barao's left wrist with his right hand.
2. Barao throws a straight right that Dillashaw easily avoids.
3. Again Dillashaw controls Barao's lead hand with his own.
4. Now Dillashaw attacks with his own rear hand. Barao tries to anticipate with a slip, but Dillashaw's punch is not to thehead, but rather a hard uppercut to the body.
5. Dillashaw cuts back into orthodox to club Barao with a rabbit punch.
Here, Dillashaw uses handfighting tactics to thwart Barao's fearsome punching. Controlling Barao's left wrist, he literally siezes the initiative: Barao cannot throw that left without first jerking his hand free, which would give Dillashaw plenty of time to react. Thus, the champion is realistically left with only his right hand able to strike, allowing Dillashaw to focus on only defending attacks from that side.
The disadvantage to this tactic is that Dillashaw is also left with just one free hand. He is not, however, restricted to one kind of attack, or one target. This is where Dillashaw gets clever. After dodging Barao's right, he once again begins controlling the Brazilian's lead, and then launches his own rear hand. Barao reacts much as Dillashaw did to his own cross, slipping to his right, only this punch isn't a cross. Instead Dillashaw opts to throw a difficult-to-defend uppercut to the solar plexus, stepping off to the right as he does so, and then using his angle to hit Barao with his right as he scurries out of range.
That final punch, while not strictly legal or very effective, does indicate the philosophy that makes Dillashaw so dangerous, which we see more of in the next round.
Eddie Wineland had early success against Barao, but learned the risks of giving Barao room to adjust when the champ knocked him out in round two. Barao is such a dangerous fighter not because he is flawless, but because he is one of the best in the world at creating and exploiting openings. To do this, however, he needs space to work and time to think, and Dillashaw denied him that in every round with pressure, pressure, pressure.
Dillashaw, who once struggled to even gauge the distance correctly, now controls it better than almost anyone else in mixed martial arts. By the fourth round, Dillashaw had Barao tentative, so that the champion was frequently covering and backing up, desperately trying to create space. Dillashaw didn't let him.
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1. Dillashaw kicks the inside of Barao's thigh.
2. Barao connects with a counter right, but Dillashaw has returned to stance, and he absorbs it.
3. Dillashaw immediately fires back with a jab.
4. He doubles up, stepping in and finding a bit more purchase on the second jab.
5. Barao goes to "Thai block," extending his left arm and covering up with his right. Dillashaw steps forward and slips outside Barao's left, throwing a southpaw cross that catches Barao's glove.
6. Now Dillashaw shifts, bringing his left foot forward so that he ends up in orthodox, and connects with a straight right over Barao's shoulder.
7. Barao backs up all the way into the fence, where Dillashaw keeps him tentative with a couple of feints.
8. Finally, a hard body kick from Dillashaw.
Let's try to understand what this does to a fighter's mentality. Near the start of this sequence, Barao successfully counters Dillashaw with a right hand, and yet he is rewarded for that glimmer of offense with a barrage of punches from Dillashaw. Upon being struck, Dillashaw immediately forces Barao back with his busy jab, connects with a clean punch, and then lights up Barao's ribs with a kick. By this point, Barao must be wondering how worthwhile it is to even hit this vicious mongoose that answers every strike with a half dozen of his own.
Let's compare, also, Barao's defense in this round to Dillashaw's in the round before. Trapping Barao's left hand, Dillashaw was being proactively defensive. He was able to prevent Barao from attacking, and easily respond when he did. Barao, on the other hand, covers up and backs away. He is doing nothing but reacting to Dillashaw, and creating no offense of his own. In other words, Barao is doing nothing to stop Dillashaw from attacking, only making a token effort to stop those attacks from landing cleanly.
Any time that Barao engaged, he was simply not allowed to exit range without paying the price for his efforts. He was trapped in the pocket with Dillashw, and that's a scary place to be. Later in round four, Barao made the mistake of missing his opponent completely.
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1. Dillashaw stalks forward again, and Barao telegraphs a spin.
2. Dillashaw steps to his left, allowing Barao's back kick to pass harmlessly by.
3. With Barao close and out of position, Dillashaw attacks with a right hook.
4. And another, this one thrown as a shift-step overhand.
Again, let's compare Dillashaw's approach to Eddie Wineland's. Wineland was also able to dodge several of Barao's spinning kicks, but he did nothing with those moments of vulnerability after Barao missed. In boxing you will often hear the phrase "make him miss, and make him pay." This sort of aggressive defense is absolutely essential, as Wineland soon learned: because he gave Barao no reason to stop throwing and missing, Barao was able to adjust his strike to suit his opponent.
Dillahsaw, on the other hand, saw every one of Barao's attacks as an opportunity for offense of his own. After all, one does not win a fight by surviving, but by beating the opponent. The punches in the sequence above aren't exactly knockout blows, but there's no doubt that Dillashaw wins that exchange, and the impact on Barao's psyche cannot be overlooked. Every counter is a reason for Barao to stop attacking, making it easier for Dillashaw to pick his spots.
Ultimately, this methodical mental dismantling is what led to the finish.
By round five, Dillashaw had Barao desperate. In his corner, Andre Pederneiras urged him to fight for his family, telling him that he needed a knockout or a submission to retain his belt. As the round began, we saw a very different Barao from the one who had confidently stalked Dillashaw at the start of round one. After a shocking knockdown and almost four rounds of punishment, Barao was looking to plant his feet, abandon strategy, and knock the challenger out.
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1. Dillashaw moves left, then cuts back to the right when Barao follows him, easily allowing him to place his lead foot to the outside of Barao's.
2. Barao jabs, but Dillashaw slips and connects with a left straight to the body.
3. As Barao readjusts, Dillashaw keeps him off-balance with a series of jabs.
4. Barao counters with a right hand that Dillashaw slips, moving his right foot forward as he does.
5. Another series of quick jabs interrupts Barao's follow-up punches, and puts Dillashaw back in control.
6. Finally, Dillashaw feints a jab. Barao hesitates.
7. Now Dillashaw springs into a left kick, extending his left hand into Barao's face as he does so.
8. Barao reacts to what he thinks is a straight left, parrying and leaving his hand out of position to block Dillashaw's head kick.
If you are part of the old Bas Rutten generation that doubts the efficacy of the jab in MMA, watch this exchange. Here we have two fighters looking to finish their opponent, one hunting for power shots only, and the other utilizing quick, clever jabs to fluster and confuse his foe. Barao, yearning to land a big counter and save his title, has no idea what to react to and what to ignore, and when he finally moves to defend himself and counter, he chooses precisely the wrong attack.
With Barao badly stunned, Dillashaw kept to his gameplan, touching his opponent up with probing punches and moving to the perfect position to get the knockout.
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1. With Barao stunned from the head kick, Dillashaw touches him with several right hooks before throwing one as a shift-punch, stepping to Barao's right.
2. Barao's feet are still planted in place as he throws desperate punches. Dillashaw is now back in his trusty southpaw stance.
3. Barao shuffles forward with a right hand, worsening his position by squaring his feet. Dillashaw touches him with a jab to find his range.
4. Now Dillashaw steps to Barao's left and connects with a devastating left hand.
5. Barao, still out of position, cannot absorb the shot, and tumbles to the canvas.
It's hard to think of a better example of the difference between good and bad footwork. Though Dillashaw's footwork is unorthodox, he constantly puts himself in correct positions in the pocket, one foot threatening his opponent, and the other planted behind him to generate power and absorb the shock of any strikes that do get through.
As I pointed out in my piece "Gaps in the Armor: How to beat Renan Barao," Barao's footwork has always been his greatest weakness. As Dillashaw glides around him, he elects to keep punching rather than repositioning himself to his opponent. The result is that, by the time Dillashaw has found the angle he wants, Barao's feet are not only completely square, but he is standing upright with both knees locked out, in no position to take a hit. Barao tries to save himself from falling, but his legs have already failed to save his brain from the punch, and he is succinctly finished.
Dillashaw seems to have the perfect blend of mental toughness and technical savvy to be champion for a long time. The fact that he was such a huge underdog against Barao (compared to Weidman's reasonable +200 or so against Anderson Silva) is only proof that fans don't pay the lighter weights as much attention as they should. Maybe now, with a killer like Dillashaw at the top of the heap, they will.
For more analysis and fighter/trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. Keep an eye out for a special interview with DUANE "BANG" LUDWIG, to be featured on Bloody Elbow tomorrow.