The UFC recently made the announcement that their upcoming 25th season of the Ultimate Fighter would feature both Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw in opposing coaching roles.
The UFC’s bantamweight division has all of a sudden become one of the promotion’s most talked about weight classes. This has been a result in equal parts due to a huge influx of talent, the presence of some truly mesmerising innovators and the long-awaited return (and subsequent dethroning) of one of the sport’s all-time greats.
The division’s current champion, Garbrandt, made history in the late stages of last year, shocking the world by completely outclassing then-champ Dominick Cruz over five rounds to nab himself his first taste of UFC gold, and it has to be said that despite going into that fight as a huge underdog he now shows some serious promise in a time for the sport where superstars have become something of a luxury.
With the UFC’s popular show ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ set to embark on its 25th season, the producers have elected to use their platform in an attempt to build up their newest potential star, the young, brash and exciting talent that is Cody “No Love” Garbrandt. Now, I will admit I had dismissed his chances against Cruz, just like many others, when the fight was announced but in the wake of his hugely impressive victory I am officially a fan.
On the merits of Garbrandt alone, however, it would still be a tough sell but with the addition of the former champion TJ Dillashaw, we have on our hands a rivalry with a fiery history, an electric future and most importantly, a potentially huge title-fight on the horizon.
Dillashaw, a finalist on the 14th season of the Ultimate Fighter, claimed the bantamweight title for himself back in 2014, dominating the brilliant Brazilian Renan Barao and ending his 32-fight unbeaten streak in the process. His reign at the top saw him best Joe Soto and Barao once more before being knocked off the throne by the returning Dominick Cruz in a very close encounter but despite this, he remains one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.
A product of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male, Dillashaw rose through the ranks of the California-based gym and as far as we know, was an integral and well-liked member of the team that gave us some of modern MMA’s standout combatants such as Faber, Joseph Benavidez, Chad Mendes and, most recently, Garbrandt. Of course, his time with the team was cut short by his decision to follow famed striking coach Duane Ludwig away when he decided to break off from Faber’s camp, and ever since then there has been a lot of tension between Dillashaw and those still operating under Faber.
One of the main characteristics of the Alpha Male gym is their emphasis on brotherhood and the strong ties that bind all of those who train there. With Faber at the forefront, the bonds that strengthen their overall team mentality have been repeatedly highlighted, and for Dillashaw to leave the camp that took him straight out of high school was perhaps seen as an insult by those who had sparred and grown up with him for all of those years.
Himself and a younger Garbrandt were in fact both brought in by their teammate Faber during his own coaching stint on 2015’s edition of TUF, opposite Conor McGregor. The Notorious One’s early prediction about TJ’s loyalties and the resulting skirmish between himself and the Alpha Male faithful was one that has had reverberations we are still feeling to this day.
McGregor’s comments on the intentions of Dillashaw to leave Faber behind him seemed to distress the then-unranked Garbrandt but despite their near-brawl during the filming of the show, “No Love” has now backtracked on his defensive reaction to the initial claim, taking a shot at his former teammate on social media, championing the exact words spoken by McGregor in 2015.
Pitting Garbrandt and Dillashaw against each other was the only move for the UFC to make with their next edition of the series. As well as this, the head honchos will be praying for the marketable and well-liked Garbrandt to emerge victorious when the dust settles. In Dillashaw you indeed have an incredibly talented athlete, yes, but also one whose stock has taken a big hit in recent times. It’s a sad truth but the power that the UFC’s biggest star McGregor possesses cannot be underestimated.
In one brief moment and one cleverly-crafted nickname, Dillashaw’s persona – in the eyes of many casual fans – will now be seen through the visor of the ‘snake in the grass’ title given to him by McGregor in the aforementioned episode of The Ultimate Fighter.
Look at Jeremy Stephens. Prior to UFC 205, he was a respected, hard-hitting former lightweight competing at a relatively high-level in the featherweight division. After choosing to have a go at the quick-witted Irishman in the pre-fight press conference, now – in the eyes of the masses – he will have his work cut out to avoid being associated with the now infamous “who the f**k is that guy” put-down McGregor directed at him just before his decision loss to Frankie Edgar.
Dillashaw did what he did for the sake of his career, and no true MMA fans should hold that against him, regardless of the strong ties that bind Team Alpha Male together. Faber took offence to the fact that one of his protegés left his camp and despite all of the unnecessary attention that dwarfed that situation, it is still something that happens in MMA all of the time.
That being said, however, Garbrandt is still the guy the UFC want to win here.
With Cruz now set to take on a top 135lb contender to re-establish himself until the show’s finale (whenever that may be), we are left with just two men in the bantamweight title discussion. If Cody does, in fact, claim victory over Dillashaw in the season finale, he will go into his next fight with an unquestionable resumé, more time spent in the public eye to increase his fanbase and most importantly – if you take his recent comments to be truth – an intention to move up in weight and test the waters up there.
Garbrandt stands at 5’8″, which for a featherweight would put him pretty much bang on the average height for the division. He is taller than the likes of the champ José Aldo and Frankie Edgar and despite fighting at bantamweight right now, you can damn sure that the UFC are looking at this season of TUF with the aim of building Cody’s star power in mind and if recent times have told us anything it’s that the fans love the idea of a good ‘ol super-fight.
Garbrandt’s confidence, hard hands and marketable personality and look make him an ideal candidate for the UFC to maybe give him some extra push, and at 25 years of age he has all the time in the world to improve in every facet of his game. I’m not saying he’ll defeat Dillashaw, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bang Muay-Thai practitioner go out there and claim his old title back but since we’re in the business of making outlandish hypotheses, I’ll entertain this one as it is one that makes sense given the current landscape of the sport.
Stars are in very short supply for the UFC right now. You have the likes of Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar facing their own respective problems and the promotion’s one true superstar, McGregor, will not be around forever.
Maybe Garbrandt loses his next fight, maybe Cruz comes back and does what we all expected he would do the first time around but as far as the next season of The Ultimate Fighter is concerned, pay close attention people, you may just be witnessing the birth of a star.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena
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