Bad history, a grudge, elite talent: Cody Garbrandt-T.J. Dillashaw could steal show at UFC 217

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Cody Garbrandt (L) and T.J. Dillashaw do not like each other. (Getty)

The bantamweight title fight Saturday at New York’s Madison Square Garden between champion Cody Garbrandt and ex-champion T.J. Dillashaw figures to be an outstanding fight.

But sometimes, just the promise of a memorable battle isn’t enough to get folks to pay attention.

And so, as much as the matchup, the story for the Garbrandt-Dillashaw bout that will serve as the co-main event of a loaded UFC 217 card is the drama between the two.

Dillashaw reached the finals of “The Ultimate Fighter” and then went on to win the bantamweight title while a part of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male. He is the man who finally brought a championship to the talent-laden team.

Garbrandt joined the team and immediately impressed all who saw him. In December, he put on a virtuoso performance in lifting the title from longtime champion and Team Alpha Male nemesis Dominick Cruz.

That win led to Saturday’s match with Dillashaw, who had lost his title to Cruz by the narrowest of margins on Jan. 17, 2016, in a bout that could have gone either way.

These are two highly gifted and intelligent fighters who easily could put on a fight for the ages.

But as one might expect in our celebrity-obsessed culture, that’s not the focus of the bout. Instead, it’s about who did whom dirty and the split between Dillashaw and Team Alpha Male. The tension between the two was palpable on the set of “The Ultimate Fighter,” when they coached against each other earlier this year.

We love a look behind the curtain and a chance to see how the sausage is made.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that it would come to this. Faber is a Hall of Famer. Dillashaw is a former champion. Garbrandt is the reigning champion and could be the one to follow in the massive footsteps of Chuck Liddell, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor to become the promotion’s next superstar.

They were teammates, but there is only one title and it was probably just a matter of time before their competitiveness led to some sort of dispute.

Cody Garbrandt could be the UFC’s next superstar. (Getty Images)

The drama over the split was accelerated when Dillashaw began traveling to Denver to work with coach Duane Ludwig, whom he believed would improve his striking. Indeed, Dillashaw’s development was accelerated when Ludwig helped him with his footwork and his angles. In a way, he became a mini-Cruz by using those traits to make himself more offensive and less vulnerable to counter attacks.

But then allegations came out that Dillashaw went beyond the line in training and that he was hurting his teammates. That, Team Alpha Male members said, was the reason for the split, not so much Dillashaw’s decision to use Ludwig.

Chris Holdsworth, another Team Alpha Male fighter who won Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” hasn’t fought since 2014. He said Monday on “The MMA Hour” that he was kneed in the head during a training session with Dillashaw. He’s had concussion-related issues since and hasn’t been cleared to compete since “The Ultimate Fighter.”

“There were multiple occasions where T.J. got a little bit too aggressive and he went overboard in training,” Holdsworth told host Ariel Helwani. “He’s kneeing you while we’re boxing. He’s throwing elbows while we’re doing jiu-jitsu. And I remember that instance that’s out in the public. Yeah, it’s definitely true. I shot in on T.J. and I was on all fours. He was sprawled out and he kneed me on top of the head. And that was before ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’

“I remember I was jarred up and everyone was watching, and I took like 30 seconds off and I kept going, I kept going through the rounds and I finished practice. But after that practice, I was concussed, and that was my first concussion. And it just kind of kept happening from there.”

Garbrandt and Dillashaw were originally going to meet on July 8 in Las Vegas at UFC 213, but Garbrandt injured his back and had to withdraw. At the time, Faber told Yahoo Sports that he’d had to regularly counsel Dillashaw about the way he handled himself in training.

Dillashaw, he said, was too rough and didn’t recognize limits.

“Yeah, man, I don’t know what he was thinking, but I talked with T.J. a lot about that,” Faber said then. “There’s a fine line there. When we’re in practice, we’re trying to get better and learn, and this is a contact sport, but it’s practice, not a fight. T.J., man, it was like he was doing it intentionally. I don’t know, but it was just kind of crossing the line.”

The situation devolved and led to bad feelings and a lot of media attention. But what it also did was covered up the fact that Garbrandt and Dillashaw are two of the best fighters in the world, regardless of weight class, and their bout could steal the show Saturday.

Garbrandt irritated middleweight champion Michael Bisping, who defends his title against ex-welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre in Saturday’s main event, by suggesting that the bantamweight title bout is the true main event.

“This isn’t a gimme fight,” Garbrandt said. “The GSP-Bisping fight is the gimme fight. They’re just trying to sell the tickets. Our fight sells on all avenues, all angles, everywhere. Everyone wants to see this fight. It’s a grudge match. It’s two fighters who are going to go out there, so that in itself is the main event. No disrespect to Rose [Namajunas] and [women’s strawweight champion] Joanna Jedrzejczyk. I think they’re great fighters, but we’re the real main event.

“Bisping and GSP, they can travel around and can do all the press and media. I can sit back and just train and focus on T.J. I don’t think it needs to be overhyped [more] than it’s going to be. It’s a fight that doesn’t need hype, it doesn’t need media, press behind it or any of that. I think the fight sells itself.”

It does, but so many of us love the drama that we can’t resist.

So while Garbrandt-Dillashaw promises to be a momentous match, “As Team Alpha Male Turns” is getting at least as much attention.

It’s a part of the business, but the drama will end on Saturday when Garbrandt and Dillashaw settle the only argument that really means anything: which of them is the greatest bantamweight mixed martial artist in the world.

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