SACRAMENTO — It takes a true champion like TJ Dillashaw to accomplish the astounding feat he did on Saturday night.
Purchase these photos at www.uniondemocrat.com. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat TJ Dillashaw retained his bantemweight title in front of a hometown crowd on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
UFC 177 originally featured a highly-anticipated rematch between Dillashaw and Renan Barao, but after a dramatic turn of events led to Barao’s late scratch from the main card Friday, the fight schedule was changed.
UFC newcomer Joe Soto, a former Bellator champ, fought in place of Barao and got his shot at the bantamweight title against Dillashaw at Sleep Train Arena.
Soto entered the championship tilt riding a six-fight win streak.
“It was a tough one, man,” Dillashaw said. “To switch my opponent at the last minute like that, it was a real stressful situation that I just had to man up and do. I think that’s the positive I took out of it, you know. It could have been a negative-negative, but for me to start my legacy as a champ, I’ll take fights on one-days notice.”
And that’s one of the few reasons why Dillashaw is still the UFC bantamweight champion.
In the final round, Dillashaw knocked Soto off balance with a masterful right head kick to the UFC rookie’s left temple and finished him off with a flurry of punches for the knockout to retain his title.
Referee John McCarthy called the fight at the 2:20 mark.
“I don’t think that anybody — not even me or any of my staff — had more pressure on us this weekend than TJ Dillashaw did,” UFC President Dana White said.
“He carried himself like a champ through this whole thing. He defended his title at home, and I think he hit it out of the park tonight. I’m happy for him.”
Dillashaw was the aggressor and enforcer early, landing a series of quality shots on Soto, but the UFC rookie proved he belonged with a conservative approach in his debut.
Soto, who wrestled collegiately and was a roommate of UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones, marked up Dillashaw a few times on effective counter punches to the head, but the titleholder dictated the fight throughout with his constant motion, hand speed and standup in the Octagon.
“He did a good job with his defense and covering up,” Dillashaw said of Soto. “I got a little too loose sometimes because I was able to be aggressive because he was just covering up. I wanted to touch. I didn’t want to put too much into each punch because I knew he was a good wrestler. I didn’t want him to shoot underneath a lot of my punches, so I had to touch a lot more. I had to try and use some angles where he couldn’t get the takedowns, but he was tough, man. He covered up and threw some good overhand rights. But I should be ready for them because all Alpha Males have good overhand rights. I took a couple of them.”
Soto started bleeding profusely from the tip of his nose in the third round due to absorbing a barrage of hits from Dillashaw.
And as the fight wore on, it was evident the former Bret Harte Bullfrog standout was clearly the more polished mixed martial artist.
Dillashaw scored two takedowns and outstruck Soto 156-63. He also led 40-36 on all three judges scorecards before registering his second straight five-round, title-fight knockout victory.
“I thought I made it competitive,” Soto said. “It was kind of hard with it being on short notice. I had wrestled with him before, but I never trained against him in standup. I’m disappointed that I didn’t win. I didn’t get my offense going and made it tougher on myself. I would definitely take a rematch, I’m confident against anyone.
“When I looked at the division, I always thought TJ would be the toughest matchup for me because of all of his movement. I trained for three rounds, going five rounds was a little tiring, but I always prepare for the worst-case scenario. This experience is going to make me a better fighter. I had never fought in the UFC before, but this was a great experience.”
The bantamweight champ has won all three of his fights this year and improved his record to 12-2. Soto drops to 15-3.
Dillashaw, along with Yancy Medeiros, earned Performance of the Night bonuses. Medeiros submitted Damon Jackson via guillotine in the second round to kick off the main card on pay-per-view.
Also, a large contingent of Dillashaw supporters arrived at Sleep Train by the car loads, including three charter buses from Angels Camp, Tuolumne and San Jose.
Dillashaw’s parents hosted a tailgate on the north end of the arena parking lot for a group that purchased 630 advanced tickets.
“I have a great hometown,” Dillashaw said. “They watched me all throughout my wrestling career, and now they’re supporting me throughout my fighting career. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger. I go home and I get so much love, so I appreciate it. ... I pulled up into the parking lot, and the bus and everyone was like, ‘What’s going on out here?’ It was just motorhome after motorhome and tour buses. It was just really cool.”
Notes: Joe Soto was originally slated to fight Anthony Birchak in the prelims televised on Fox Sports 1, but stepped up to fight TJ Dillashaw. ... UFC President Dana White announced after the fight that Soto was immediately transported to an area hospital. ... The announced crowd at Sleep Train Arena was 11,100. ... All five winners in the main card — Yancy Medeiros, Diego Ferreira, Bethe Correia, Tony Ferguson and UFC bantamweight champion Dillashaw — were rewarded a Harley Davidson motorcycle for their performances.