By AMBER PAPPé
For The Union Democrat
Just three months ago, as he ushered in the new year with a big win over Mike Easton in Atlanta, UFC bantamweight TJ Dillashaw reflected, “2014 brings both long term and short term goals, but I can’t look too forward: I have to focus on each fight and let it keep me in the moment.”
It didn’t take long for the 28-year-old Angels Camp native to make that long-term goal a reality.
A big moment has arrived.
The Team Alpha Male fighter will face bantamweight champion Renan Barao in a five-round title fight at UFC 173, May 24 in Las Vegas.
“This happened faster than I expected, but it’s worked out perfectly,” Dillashaw said Monday by phone. “I’m on the fast track to where I want to be.”
Originally matched up with Japan’s Takeya Mizugaki on the main card, Dillashaw got the big news Thursday.
“When Mike, my manager at MMA Inc. left me a message to call him, I just assumed that Mizugaki had dropped out and I had a new opponent,” Dillashaw said. “When he told me I would be facing Barao, I got chills.”
The original main event featured middleweight champion Chris Weidman versus Lyoto Machida. With Weidman out due to a knee injury, the UFC matchmaking wizards shuffled a handful of key players and the stars aligned for the fifth-ranked Dillashaw (10-2) to meet the Brazillian star (34-1).
“I’ve only been in the sport for four years and a pro for two, but this is what I’ve been working for since I got into the game,” Dillashaw exclaimed. “My dreams are about to come true.”
With the title shot goal driving him the past two years, Dillashaw has kept Barao in his mind’s eye.
“I was training to meet Mizugaki, but even when I’m training for a specific fight, I’m also preparing for the best person in the weight class and that’s Barao,” Dillashaw said. “[Coach] Duane [Ludwig] and I have been game planning so I’d be ready when the opportunity presented itself; we were expecting this day to come.”
The next eight weeks will be filled with focus and fine-tuning, preparation, publicity and a clear understanding of what is ahead.
“Barao is definitely dangerous; he has the longest win streak in the UFC for a reason,” Dillashaw said. “This moment is amazing and so surreal. It really shows that hard work pays off. If you believe and you put in the work, your day will come. And it has.”