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UFC 173 Factgrinder: The Wrestling of T.J. Dillashaw

At UFC 173, T.J. Dillashaw takes on Renan Barao for the bantamweight title . Before he starred as a fighter, Dillashaw was an excellent wrestler. How excellent? Bloody Elbow wrestling specialist Mike Riordan explains.

Cal State Fullerton Athletics

In 2011, amidst a state-wide budget crisis, Cal State Fullerton (CSF) cut its wrestling program. While jettisoning a sports team to balance the books certainly can make sense, it is hard to imagine how much balance CSF restored after axing a program with an annual recruiting budget of $1000 and 4 total scholarships split among the entire roster. Then again, California Universities love killing off their wrestling teams even more than Don Draper loves old fashioneds and strange.

CSF used monetary woes as an excuse to eliminate a sport that took up an infinitesimal portion of its operating expenses while producing a dozen NCAA All-Americans for a school most of the country never knew existed. If this weren't bad enough, this week the CSF athletic department posted an article celebrating the fact that two of its former wrestlers, T.J. Dillashaw and Dan Henderson, are headlining a UFC pay-per-view. CSF clearly takes great pride in the accomplishments of its wrestlers, not enough to support them properly while they competed, or to allow their program to keep existing, but great pride nonetheless.

Unlike Henderson, who transferred from CSF to Arizona State after his first Olympic appearance, Dillashaw wrestled his entire college career in Fullerton's blue and orange. In 2009, Dillashaw competed at his third and final NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in the 133 pound weight class, where he dropped out of the tournament with an 0-2 record, the same result he achieved the previous two years.

Dillashaw's poor performance in last and most important tournament of his career does no justice to what was, until its final month, a very good 2008-2009 season. Heading into the 2009 Pac-10 conference tournament, Dillashaw had amassed an impressive 27-4 record. Of his four losses to that point, only three he left unavenged, and two came against top competition in Minnesota's Jayson Ness and Boise State's Andrew Hochstrasser. Early in the season, Dillashaw placed fifth at the prestigious Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invite, and won gold at the Reno Tournament of Champions. Dillahaw's success brought him the attention of the wrestling media, and at one point he enjoyed a top-ten national ranking.

Sadly, when it came time for his senior season's stretch run, the wheels totally fell off. In March of 2009, whether due to exhaustion, injury or bad luck, the version of Dillashaw that took the mat did not resemble the nationally recognized wrestler that had achieved so much in the previous five months. At the 2009 Pac-10 championships, Dillashaw entered as the second seed, but after losing to three opponents he had beaten earlier in the year, finished in an ultra-disappointing sixth place and out of automatic qualification for the NCAA tournament. While he would receive an at-large berth to NCAAs, his poor performance in his conference tournament cost him the protection of a seed at nationals.

Three weeks after his disaster at the 2009 Pac-10's, Dillashaw would fall in his first match at NCAAs to Iowa State's seventh seeded Nick Fanthorpe. In his first consolation bracket match, and final bout in a CSF singlet, Dillashaw rematched with the same wrestler he defeated in the finals of Reno, Edinboro's Ricky Deubel, and lost in heart-breaking fashion.

T.J. Dillashaw's wrestling style

Dillashaw's style did not bear the hallmarks of a wrestler who would develop into an elite mixed martial artist. Though he always maintained a good pace, and never backed down from the sport's physicality, he lacked the top-flight, blow-through-your-opponent explosiveness which factors so prominently in the offensive wrestling employed by high-level fighters.

At his best, Dillashaw won in wrestling by putting together smart matches, and hustling from all three positions. By the time he left college, he had become a very proficient from bottom, and could escape from most riders quickly and adeptly. In the top position he held his opponents down with a solid leg-riding game, which made effective use of his rangey frame. While wrestling on his feet, he always made it difficult for his adversaries to score, but experienced a problem suffered by many long and lanky wrestlers: difficulty achieving meaningful penetration on leg attacks against tough competition. When Dillashaw did generate offense from the neutral position, he favored knee pull singles, which he shot to both sides.

Factgrinder Final Analysis

Despite the underwhelming results of his final wrestling tournaments, in his final couple of seasons at CSF Dillashaw showed he was an extremely good college wrestler, similar in skill class to UFC standouts like Urijah Faber, Frankie Edgar and Rashad Evans.

I'll also take this opportunity to note that Dillashaw was a sixth place finisher in the 2007 University National Greco-Roman wrestling championships. This constitutes a nice achievement, but does not mean terribly much when lined up next to what he did as an NCAA wrestler. In the past, I have provided lengthy explanation as to why we probably shouldn't refer to top-eight finishers at a University National Championship as "All-Americans".