One sentence summary
David: Dillashaw seeks to avenge his loss to Garbrandt seen on Adobe Alpha Male’s Premiere Sew.
Phil: A fight where the level of skill involved has almost exactly correlated with the level of meat-headedness leading up to it.
Record: Cody Garbrandt 11-0 | TJ Dillashaw 14-3
Odds: Cody Garbrandt -175 | TJ Dillashaw +155
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: It was only a year ago that Garbrandt was seen as a minor underdog against Thomas Almeida. Then he crushed him, dominated Dominick Cruz, and now within a single year he’s gone from fascinating prospect to unstoppable tattooed dudebro force. Frankly, it’s well earned. Even though it’s only been a short timespan, it’s not the results (he won a title on his first crack at gold), but the patterns (he has some of the best - I’d argue the best - boxing fundamentals in the game) are there to comfortably predict future and sustained success. Plus future indignance but that’s its own thing.
Phil: I can't think of any more impressive breakout performances than Garbrandt's win over Cruz in the short history of MMA. There was TJ over Barao, Rockhold over Jacare, or perhaps Jones over Shogun, but I can't think of anything which made my jaw drop in quite the same way as watching Garbrandt effortlessly lead Cruz around the cage with little more than short footwork, pivots, a counter hook, and taunts. Like... Jesus Christ he's fast. He looked like he was literally watching Cruz in slow motion, waiting in stance to see if Cruz was going to throw a shot, snuffing it and then skipping out of range while Cruz was still loading up on his next movement.
David: Dillashaw has quietly returned to form. Well, he wasn’t quiet when he challenged Demetrious Johnson, but that’s another tangent for another time. Wins over Raphael Assuncao (an avenging three years in the making), and John Lineker has allowed the UFC to give the spotlight. For a legitimately elite fighter, he’s in a strange position. The demand for a DJ fight suggests he’s approaching Urijah Faber territory - bouncing around at moneyweight for high profile fights that are fun by themselves but that don’t clarify his status or future. Obviously, a win changes this narrative completely.
Phil: Like Garbrandt, he had that one definitive moment where he crushed a seemingly untouchable champion, and everyone watching knew beyond a doubt that they were watching the future of the sport. Dillashaw would rack up a couple of title defenses, so there's no "Machida era" ephemerality here, but it still feels like his time in the sun was woefully short. Still, Cruz was able to prove that the old model still had something in the tank when he beat TJ. Now it's Dillashaw's turn to try and stop the onward march of the future.
What’s at stake?
David: Bragging rights, the title, and perhaps even the soul of Alpha Male itself. It’s a fun days-of-our-lives element to the proceedings that usually has me rolling my eyes, but here it’s just pre-fight schlock, which I’ll take over the more robotic “what was that, Dana? You think I should insult his way of life to sell more tickets?” brand the UFC has built since their inception.
Phil: Bro shut up bro! You're just saying that because you took steroids and banged prostitutes and made everyone else take steroids too and wait did I just implicate my entire team in steroid use?
Where do they want it?
David: So about Cody’s boxing fundamentals. I really feel like he’s the best. Unlike McGregor, Aldo, Johnson, and some of MMA’s other premiere strikers, Garbrandt has the striking mechanics synced perfectly with MMA’s flow. He’s just as good moving forward as he is backward, or side to side and does so within a small attack template. He isn’t Cruz, using as much space as he can all at once in order to be “evasive”. And he’s not McGregor, closing the gap with accuracy and power. Instead, Cody kind of lives within it, crafting violence like the iron filings to his opponent’s punch magnet. This is the hallmark of honest boxing fundamentals - pushing the pace within each pocket of action, in whatever direction the fight flows. Most MMA fighters seem distracted by the wealth of options MMA gives them access to, but many tools can make heavy work. Cody distills it all into its most basic - the attack’s relationship with raw contact.
The thing that has always stood out for me is Cody’s head movement. He’s not exactly Lomachenko, but when that spider sense kicks in, he’s just impossible to catch. His punches are varied but precise, sometimes packing them all into a quick well positioned combination. He also integrates takedowns well into his boxing, which is the one thing I didn’t expect - especially against Cruz, of all people.
Phil: That was one of the weirder things about the whole evolution of the bantamweight division. We had Cruz and Dillashaw, who were both hailed as the switch-hitting, hyper-variable, creative (dare I say it... disruptive) strikers which would comprise the coming generation, and then they've both been debatably surpassed by this guy who is just... basics. Great, basic, boring ol' fundamentals. He sits in orthodox stance, keeps a rigorous eye on foot position, uses hand parries and head movement without overusing either. Every now and again he can swag out a bit, like that sequence when he angled out to escape a Cruz punch, ended up with the dominant angle exposed, then simply blast doubled Cruz from southpaw when he tried to capitalize. Really mostly it's careful distance management, the occasional kick, and some kind of variant of 2,3 or 3,2. He doesn't even have much of a jab!
Much as his fundamentals are impressive, it's when coupled with his absurd physicality that they really shine. He hits incredibly hard, and might be about the fastest person in the UFC. Yes, including Johnson and Dodson.
David: Dillashaw has always been a guilt-by-association Alpha Male archetype - fighters who strike with a lot of movement, basically. Except where many fighters of this “neostriking” cloth share some general similarities, they all have specific philosophies. Cruz uses his movement in combination with defense, and disruption (counters, knee-taps, and resets). Someone like Faber uses it for positioning (better punch or takedown entries). But neither use it for exclusive pressure and offense like TJ. Dillashaw maintains all of that movement coming forward, and often in the pocket. His crouching high kick is brilliantly concealed as a result, and his constant shifts - be it switching stances from open to orthodox to southpaw, rebounding outside the pocket or lunging back in - keep opponents in the position (i.e having to adjusting) that amplify all of that sweet chin music traffic. The word ‘dynamic’ is overused, but Dillashaw is truly that; I’d go so far as to argue he’s THE most dynamic striker when you consider the entire range of different ways he approaches, and executes each move. Within all that he’s a strong wrestler with a classic AM stategy to the ground, using high impact takedowns to scramble toward submission entries.
Phil: I've often felt that Dillashaw is... not exactly overrated, per se, but somewhat mischaracterized. He's often bunched in together with Cruz (even I did it above!), but he really is a very, very different fighter. I would describe him as more of a technical brawler at heart, with a few neat tricks to get inside. There's that darting switch step, and retreating angle, and his tendency to hide stance changes behind his flicker jabs, but whereas Cruz is always focused on hit and don't get hit, TJ is a banger to the core. Against Barao, he used the tricky footwork on the outside to flummox Pegado's distance controlling jab, but for huge stretches on the inside in both fights he stayed in orthodox and drowned the Brazilian in pure volume.
Much of his offense is keyed around the big shots, primarily the right overhand and the left high kick. This is a non-traditional mixup which he hides with footwork and level changes. That blast double / knee tap and headkick mixup will be hard to hit on someone as quick as Garbrandt, but the threat is always there. I've been impressed with his smarts of late, particularly that fight against Lineker, where he mixed up pressure, head kicks and his wrestling to totally nullify a dangerous but limited fighter.
Insight from past fights
David: Besides the Alpha Male live feed? You know, the live feed, regardless of who the hell is actually getting clocked, is nonetheless how I imagine exchanges would look like between Cody and TJ. Dillashaw is always at his most vulnerable in his open stance. Even with all of that movement, his neck is never as flexible, so when he gets hit, he’s getting hit flush. To me the Assunçao fights are the inarguable template for how to slow Dillashaw down - a crisp classic approach forces TJ to respect exchanges within the pocket, assuming the takedowns aren’t there (against Garbrandt, they won’t). So you see less pressure, and ultimately less pace.
Phil: Garbrandt won't have the major advantage that he had against Cruz, which was Cruz's terrible punching form. Cruz has lived for a long time on being fast and confusing enough that he could get away with moving in one direction and punching in the other at maximum windmilling extension, but Garbrandt was able to absorb and blitz or even land same-time counters on Cruz, because the punches were so slow. Cruz was able to pull TJ into counters, and Garbrandt was then able to do the same to Cruz... but what success Cruz had mostly came off short, compact shots. Garbrandt's lack of a jab can conceivably come back to hurt him if he sits back like he did last time out, because no matter how fast you are, no-one can reliably and safely counter noncommittal flicker jabs with a three two.
David: Nothing worth writing to bloody home about. Then again I’ve been out of the loop with the extracurricular stuff. Although I’m wondering how much of these “I used to eat him for lunch in training” narratives are vaguely predictive à la Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.
Phil: I mean, there's that amazing "KO video" which Garbrandt posted, which appears to show a set of two pixels going up to another set of two pixels, just before the second set briefly changes from a vertical to horizontal arrangement. Devastating stuff.
David: Expect a super-mo paced version of the Assunçao fights. Garbrandt will land in the pocket, and be there all the way into round 5 getting his chances. I do think TJ has a legitimate chance here. Unlike Cruz, he’ll be in Cody’s face with multiple high impact strikes at a time, and TJ’s style in general is nothing something he’s had to deal with. But it’s hard me for me to believe Garbrandt won’t be able to find the target enough to make the difference. Cody Garbrandt by TKO, round 4.
Phil: I think TJ's jab may genuinely give Garbrandt some issues that he didn't have against Cruz. There are some punches where pure reflexes just don't cut it anymore. However, this is also the first fight where I think TJ is at a genuine physical disadvantage. Garbrandt is faster, more powerful, and likely more durable. I think TJ will struggle to land his power shots of the overhand and the head kick, and Garbrandt is more likely to be able to catch him with short blitzes while TJ angles out. Best fight of the card. Cody Garbrandt by unanimous decision.