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Gaps in the Armor: How to beat UFC bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw

How does one come back from the kind of beating TJ Dillashaw put on Renan Barao in their last fight? Well... BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch has some ideas that the former champ might be interested in.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Well, this should be fun.

In May I wrote an article explaining how one might dethrone the UFC bantamweight champion, Renan Barao. I knew that the challenger, TJ Dillashaw, would be a tough test for the champion, but it's very difficult to pick against a record like the one touted by Barao at that time (nine years and 33 fights without a single loss), and the Brazilian's last fight was  actually the second of two victories over Urijah Faber, the literal and spiritual head of Dillashaw's gym. As a result, that article felt somewhat like an exercise in futility. Beat Renan Barao? Not likely.

To think, then, that just three months later I would be writing another article on how to take the bantamweight title, only this time it's Dillashaw wearing the belt, and Barao the one desperate to wrest it back from him. After winning the first bout against 5-to-1 odds, Dillashaw enters this weekend's UFC 177 as both the champion and the betting favorite. And fair enough, as Dillashaw looked damn near unbeatable in a four-and-a-half round drubbing of Barao, which began with a sensational first-round knockdown and ended in a cathartic fifth-round knockout. How, many of us are now asking ourselves, can Renan Barao beat the man capable of such a dominant performance?

I won't, however, make the same mistake I did last time, and assume that Barao's title bid is a lost cause. There is still hope for the Brazilian finisher to reclaim his belt and wash the bitter taste of his second-ever professional loss from his mouth. Because as good as he looked, no man is invincible, and even TJ Dillashaw is not without his weaknesses.

This is how to beat the new bantamweight champion. These are the gaps in the armor.


In short, Barao needs to attack with kicks, and counter with punches, all while staying away from the fence. When studying a fighter, it is always a good idea to first assess where in the cage or ring he prefers to fight (a rule I learned from BE's own Patrick Wyman). In Dillashaw's case, he finds most of his success when his opponent is backed up near the walls of the Octagon. Of course, Dillashaw is excellent coming forward in general, but his blistering offense really shines when his opponent runs out of real estate and finds himself forced to move in a limited, predictable manner.

In addition, Dillashaw's style leaves him unavoidably vulnerable to counter punches (more on that in later), and his defensive habits leave him susceptible to round kicks to the body and legs. If Barao can pot shot Dillashaw with kicks and respond to his rushes with controlled movement and punches, he can absolutely turn the Bang Muay Thai fighter's style against him, and reclaim his belt.

Now, let's get into the details.

Defusing the Shift

Dillashaw's astounding offensive diversity is almost completely founded on his ability to fight comfortably out of either stance. Barao struggled mightily with this aspect of Dillashaw's game in the first fight, as he consistently found himself in Dillashaw's range no matter how hard he tried to escape. Dillashaw's stance switches give him a distinct advantage when it comes to covering distance. In one stride Dillashaw can move twice as far as a conventional fighter shuffling forward in the same amount of time, and his willingness to punch out of either stance means that, whenever Dillashaw does find himself in position, he will immediately start throwing (GIF).

So what's a former champ to do?

For one, angular footwork would be the go-to solution to this problem. A small, well-time pivot, for example, would allow Dillashaw's opponent to move away from his rapid advances and stay a step ahead of him in the positioning department. Barao, however, is not exactly a scientific mover. In fact, the Brazilian's footwork is often downright bad, and was one of the main flaws I called for Dillashaw to exploit in their first fight. I have chosen, therefore, to remove the more complicated aspects of positioning from this article, as the idea is to not only create a gameplan for beating Dillashaw, but one which Barao himself is capable of executing.

Fortunately for Barao, a fighter of considerable talents other than swift, coordinated foot movement, sharp angles aren't exactly necessary to stifle Dillashaw's attacks. Rather, a small step back can  be enough to kill Dillashaw's offensive flurrying at the root, provided that step is coupled with an attack.

For an example of this tactic at work, let's turn to the last man to beat Dillashaw, top bantamweight contender Raphael Assuncao.

(Click to enlarge)


1. Dillashaw, after some pawing jabs, prepares to attack with a left cross.

2. Dillashaw throws his left hand, and Assuncao moves just out of range--note the yellow line indicating his starting position.

3. As Dillashaw follows through with his punch his left foot (circled) drags forward.

4. Before Dillashaw can fully assume an orthodox stance and resume attacking, Assuncao pops him with a stiff right hand over the top.

Dillashaw's cross, whether thrown from orthodox or southpaw, with right or left, is always thrown with extreme forward momentum. Almost invariably, his rear foot drags forward with the momentum of his attack, and he winds up either square (with both feet parallel) or in the opposite stance. His stance-switching is an integral part of his game, which is to say, he's not actually accustomed to punching without falling into the opposite stance afterward. Against an opponent who retreats incessantly, as Barao did in the first bout, this works like a charm. As mentioned above, Dillashaw can change distance and angles with extreme quickness thanks to his fluid foot placement.

But when an opponent is willing to stay close enough to counter, as Assuncao did above, Dillashaw can very quickly find himself in hot water. Stance-switching, you see, is an entirely offensive maneuver. It creates a world of opportunities for an aggressive fighter, but there is absolutely no defensively-minded reason to do it. Any time Dillashaw switches stance, he must necessarily find himself between stances at some point. There's just no way to go from orthodox to southpaw or vice versa without becoming momentarily squared to the opponent, and a squared fighter is a vulnerable fighter.

Thus, the key to killing Dillashaw's switch-hitting game is to mimic Assuncao's actions above. Assuncao moves back (and yes, slightly to his right), but only far enough for Dillashaw's punch to just miss. Then, denying Dillashaw the space or time to adapt to his new position (which he does with shocking alacrity), Assuncao simply . . . throws back. It's as simple as that. Granted Barao, lacking the defensive awareness or the disciplined movements of Assuncao, is likely to eat his fair share of shots sharing the pocket with Dillashaw, but a spirited resistance is far more likely to work against the champion than a vain and desperate retreat.

Mitigating the Double-Threat

What, then, about Dillashaw's vaunted switch-ups? If one thing has marked Dillashaw's transformation from submission wrestler into dangerous kickboxer, it is his reliance on the double-threat of his rear hand and rear kick. Both of these strikes are a potent weapon for Dillashaw, but it is in combination that they truly shine. The essence of this tactic is demonstrated by the man who made it the signature of his MMA career: Mirko Cro Cop.


This type of attack is beautiful in its brutal simplicity. First the attacker threatens with the rear hand, either by feinting it, or by landing it, or both. Then, once the threat has been established, he begins to throw the rear kick. If the opponent, expecting the punch, parries or slips, he leaves himself open to the kick. If he leaves his head where it is and focuses on blocking the kicks, he remains a target for the punch. So long as the attacker maintains the initiative, he will eventually outmaneuver the defense of the opponent.

Fortunately for Renan Barao, a small retreating step should help to eliminate this problem as well. By momentarily removing himself from punching range, Barao more or less eliminates the threat of the head kick--because Dillashaw falls forward on every cross, his punching range is all but identical to that of his head-kicking range. This means that, in order to make his switch-up work, Dillashaw will need to throw body kicks, which Barao can catch.

Let's once again turn to Raphael Assuncao to see this approach in effect against Dillashaw.

(Click to enlarge)

1. Dillashaw stands in southpaw, Assuncao in orthodox.

2. Dillashaw utilizes one of his many footwork tricks, switching his feet . . .

3. . . . only to step right back into southpaw and throw a left hand. Assuncao attempts to counter with a jab while moving backward, but misses.

4. Dillashaw's cross, of course, was merely the disguise for a left kick to the ribs, which Assuncao catches.

5. Dillashaw bounces around on his base leg, waiting for Assuncao to release his left foot.

6. Assuncao obliges, but not before cracking Dillashaw on the jaw with a short overhand right.

For Barao, this tactic of stepping back to catch a kick would almost certainly result in the Brazilian taking the brunt of Dillashaw's strike to the ribs, not an enviable position in which to find oneself. Still, Barao has always been a fighter willing to take one to give one, and his ability to generate deceptive power with his punches means that he stands an excellent chance of stunning Dillashaw with a strike if he manages to catch him before he can recover his feet, as Assuncao did above--Assuncao, not a fighter known for his punching power, managed to stagger Dillashaw with the punch above, simply because the Alpha Male fighter was in no position to absorb a blow to the chin.

Barao is much slower than Dillashaw, who is fast even by bantamweight standards. As a result, Barao would be well-advised to take advantage of every opportunity he has to strike Dillashaw in close range. Given Dillashaw's stellar wrestling skills--particularly in the clinch--Barao is not likely to put the champion in a disadvantaged position in a pure wrestling scenario. Given Dillashaw's fondness for kickboxing and near-complete inability to keep his kicks from being caught. Barao will find his brief window of opportunity to land powerful short-range strikes when Dillashaw struggles to free his leg, and it is at these moments that those blows will have the most telling effect.

Sweeping Up with Kicks

Something that Barao struggled with in the last fight was Dillashaw's angular movement. We've already addressed the most direct method for Barao to hit Dillashaw mid-angle change within punching range, but Dillashaw does not need to come forward in order to find angles. Indeed, his knockdown of Barao in the first round of their bout was set up off of circling and backward movement on the outside. This is another area in which Dillashaw's speed gives him a distinct advantage. If Barao grants Dillashaw freedom to move about the perimeter of the Octagon, then he all but  agrees to let Dillashaw run circles around him (unless he's made a dramatic--and unlikely--improvement to his own footwork).

Rather, Barao needs to use safe, consistent attacks to punish Dillashaw's side-stepping and flashy footwork on the outside. Kicks are the order of the day.

(Click to enlarge)

1. Dillashaw moves left, his back to the cage.

2. Dillashaw crosses his feet, moving his right foot past his left, as Barao loads up on a kick.

3. Barao's kick is blocked, but it forces Dillashaw to stop his momentum.

4. Dillashaw backs off momentarily to reset.

This may seem absurdly reductionist, but this aspect of the gameplan really is as simple as that. For Barao's kicks to be effective, they do not need to land clean. They do not even need to land to any particular part of the body. Legs, ribs, head--the only thing that really matters is that Barao uses them to halt the sideways and backward movement of Dillashaw. Not only will these kicks wear on Dillashaw over time, but the cumulative effects of dozens of hard round kicks (and Barao possesses some of the hardest in the UFC) will ultimately convince Dillashaw to stop moving in the direction of the strike. Anything Barao can do to limit Dillashaw's many options for movement and attack will benefit him in the long run.

So there you have it: a gameplan designed for the specific skills and limitations of Renan Barao. Kick going forward, punch going backward, stay away from the fence. Sounds simple enough, but it never is in application, particularly against the adaptive duo of TJ Dillashaw and Duane "Bang" Ludwig.

Can Barao execute this gameplan? I don't know. This fight will be an ultimate test of how good Andre Pederneiras and the crew at Nova Uniao really are at strategizing for opponents. But if Barao can stick to these simple guidelines, he just might be able to find the gaps in the champion's armor, and test TJ Dillashaw's chin.

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