LAS VEGAS – A blowout was expected in the main event of UFC 173 on Saturday and a blowout was delivered.
The result, though, was stunning. The MGM Grand Garden was the scene of perhaps the most shocking upset in mixed martial arts history, as 9-1 underdog T.J. Dillashaw not only won the UFC bantamweight title but dominated Renan Barao in every aspect en route to a win by knockout in the final round.
By the time Dillashaw pounced on Barao after a kick and a series of punches in the finishing sequence, the outcome had long since been decided.
Dillashaw nearly knocked Barao cold in the first and put on a comprehensive beatdown that prevented any one of the 11,036 in attendance or those watching on pay-per-view from calling it a fluke.
"I had the choke locked up [after the first-round knockdown] and I didn't finish him and I was kind of pissed off about it at first," Dillashaw said. "But now, I'm kind of glad I didn't. I got to prove myself even more. If I'd finished the choke, it just would have been that easy of a win. But I got to show more skills the longer it went, so I'm glad I got to dominate that much over that long of a fight."
It was a big night for the UFC, which not only saw perhaps the biggest upset in its history in the main event, but saw yet another contender for the mythical pound-for-pound championship rise up in the co-main.
UFC president Dana White had been touting Barao as the best, pointing to his 22-fight winning streak and 34-fight unbeaten streak as proof. Barao hadn't lost since his pro debut on April 14, 2005, when he was just 18.
The media disagreed with White and in the rankings on UFC.com had voted light heavyweight champion Jon Jones No. 1 and featherweight champion Jose Aldo No. 2, ahead of Barao at three.
Given his long record of accomplishment, Jones clearly deserves the top spot for now, but Daniel Cormier forced his way into that conversation with a brilliant performance in a submission victory over Dan Henderson.
The UFC plans for Jones to defend his belt on Aug. 30 in a rematch against Alexander Gustafsson, but there is going to be a lot of heat for a Jones-Cormier fight after yet another one-sided Cormier win.
"Daniel Cormier is awesome, and he's done it in two divisions," White said of the fighter who began at heavyweight but then dropped to light heavyweight.
The true star on this night, though, was unquestionably Dillashaw, who went off at plus-600 in the MGM Grand sports book. The book wrote 10 times as many tickets on Dillashaw as it did on Barao, but because the size of the wagers on Barao dwarfed the size of those on Dillashaw, the book still came out ahead financially.
It was a night when, in a lot of ways, things didn't go according to plan. White was relentlessly hyping Barao as the greatest fighter in the world, not only because he has a great résumé but also to help build his name recognition.
There were plenty of empty seats on Saturday – the attendance was 11,036 with a gate of $1.7 million, White said – and Barao remains unknown to many fans. White clearly was banking on Barao continuing to pile up victories to garner the name recognition and ultimately become a major star.
Instead, a new star was born. Dillashaw had been steadfast from the moment that the fight was announced that he'd defeat Barao and win the title, but few gave him much of a shot.
But working with coach Duane Ludwig, who was in his last fight as the head man at Team Alpha Male, Dillashaw put together a near-perfect game plan.
Dillashaw circled, switched from orthodox to southpaw and back regularly and rarely had to resort to his wrestling skills.
"The plan was to move my feet a lot, not stand in front of him, use my angles, switch my stances up and just be the faster athlete tonight," Dillashaw said.
He was that. He came out confident and clearly made it difficult for Barao to find the range. But the fight took a significant turn later in the first round when Dillashaw ripped Barao with a powerful right that dropped him.
Dillashaw went for the finish and nearly got it, rolling into a rear naked choke. Even though Barao survived the barrage, he was never the same.
"I don't think he ever recovered from that first-round knockdown," White said.
Dillashaw repeated his first-round performance in the second and walked to his corner and waved his arms, urging fans to get to their feet.
He knew that, barring a disastrous mistake, the title was going to switch hands.
"When he came out for the second, I saw a different look in his eye," Dillashaw said. "I could tell I had him broke. Especially after the second round, I knew I had it. After I went through the second round and felt awesome in that round, I just knew I had him. I could see it in his eyes."
Barao deserved credit for showing guts and staying in the bout for as long as he did, but he never mounted any serious offense and his face was a bloody, swollen mess. He was taken to a local hospital for a precautionary examination.
White said he'll consider a rematch, with Raphael Assuncao the other option for a title fight.
Barao may raise his game and regain the title when he meets Dillashaw again, but Dillashaw fought so brilliantly that his effort on Saturday will never be forgotten.
This was a performance for the ages, and it's one fight fans will talk about for a long time. Matt Serra made a living off of his knockout of Georges St-Pierre to win the welterweight title at UFC 69 on April 7, 2007, but he never again rose to such status. He lost three of his final four fights before retiring.
No one knows what the future holds for Dillashaw, either. The only thing that is certain is that his victory on Saturday is going to be talked about for years and years to come.
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