UFC bantamweight TJ Dillashaw is a man with big goals. Coming off a knockout win at UFC 158 almost three weeks ago, Dillashaw (8-1 UFC) is set to face Brazilian fighter Hugo Viana at UFC on FOX 7: Henderson vs. Melendez April 20 in San Jose. In between a strength and conditioning workout, a sparring practice, a phone interview with an Irish magazine and negotiating the purchase of his first home, the 27-year-old Angels Camp native made time to talk with frequent Union Democrat contributor and MMA correspondent Amber Pappé and provided a glimpse into his upcoming fight, his life as a mixed martial artist and his rising star in the sport––Editor.
UD: Coming off a knockout win in Montreal at UFC 158 last month, a fight you took on four weeks notice, you are now set to face Hugo Viana on April 20. Why take another short notice fight?
TD: I was set to face him back in December, before I was injured. I am always ready to fight. I work with a team that is always in training, so I am always in shape. I don’t really take any down time. After Montreal, I got called two days later to see if I wanted to fight on the San Jose card to fill in for the injured Francisco Rivera. It is close to home, which means family and friends can come. It also gives me another chance to make money, and it keeps my name out there.
UD: Fighting back-to-back, do you have any concern about fatigue being a factor?
TD: No, I am used to a 10-week training camp. These were both short notice fights, so the two together were only seven weeks.
UD: Such short notice does not allow for much game planning. Is this a problem or a concern?
TD: My coach has told me not to worry about my opponent or his style, but to just do what I do. I plan to go with the flow and be creative. I know (Viana) has good cardio. He strikes a lot like Wanderlei Silva with wide hits, but I’m not thinking about a game plan right now. I think he will be overwhelmed by my technique. I just train with a stronger team. We are always ready — we don’t have to get ready.
UD: In Montreal three weeks ago, you knocked out Issei Tamura, adding another decisive victory to your record. Does a win on April 20 put you in a position to face a Top 10 opponent?
TD: Of course I would like to fight tougher and tougher guys and move up the ladder; I feel like I belong there. But I will take who they match me up with and however they build me. I am an employee of the UFC and my job is to fight; the rest I leave to the matchmakers.
UD: There has been considerable press about you and your success. You have been described as an up-and-comer with championship potential and called a future contender. How do you feel about these tags?
TD: I can look at it in two ways. In some ways I’m nervous about it because it’s like, oh, dang ... my name is out there. In other ways, I feel like I knew it before anyone was even saying it. Every day I practice with guys who are ranked two and three in the world, and I am holding my own and even beating them. So, inside I already feel like a Top-10 contender. It’s just the matter of getting there.
UD: But isn’t there a bit of a difference between you feeling it inside and someone else putting that designation on you?
TD: Yes, but it is also seeing what you believe and feel coming true. It’s a bit like The Secret, where you see it and see it and see it (in your head), and then it actually happens.
UD: Is the media hype ever a burden, a cumbersome expectation to live up to?
TD: I try not to make it that way; that’s a negative way to look at it. If I catch myself thinking that way I stop it and turn it around to the positive. I also don’t read a lot of what is written about me.
UD: Your coach, Duane Ludwig, said that he sees you as the Rory MacDonald to Georges St. Pierre. In others words, he sees you on the edge of stardom. Does that send chills up your spine? What’s your take on the comparison?
TD: Nice! (Big smile, big laugh) It makes me feel more confident. Duane is a very respected man of MMA; he’s been kickboxing since he was 10-years old. He’s an amazing technician. For him to say that about me reinforces that I am doing the right things. Obviously, there are those times when, in the back of your head, you have to live up to those predictions and those names, but I have learned how to get past that. I learned that from wrestling.
UD: Let’s talk about wrestling. You enjoyed a storied success in the sport, but there were some disappointments in your collegiate career at Cal State Fullerton. Did those experiences have a benefit?
TD: Absolutely. In my wrestling career, I had to live up to a lot of expectations and labels; it was hard to get past all that. I don’t want to make the same mistake in my MMA career. I think those things happened for a reason. I had to learn from them. This is my life and what I do every day. Knowing how to deal with labels and expectations is part of it.
UD: Obviously your wrestling background has had a huge impact on you and your MMA career. What is your reaction to the recent news that the IOC may drop wrestling as an Olympic sport?
TD: Wrestling is one of the original Olympic sports, it will be sad if it is dropped. It would be a crime. Wrestling is one of the toughest sports out there, not just in terms of athleticism and the work ethic (required), but mentally as well. Wrestling teaches discipline in every aspect of life. It has shaped me in so many ways. In Montreal, (at UFC 158), Cage Fighter sponsored me; they are working to save wrestling. I was honored to wear their gear and appreciate the work they are doing. I totally support the movement to save Olympic wrestling.
UD: Your wrestling roots have served you well, but what about community? This is a hometown paper. The readership is made up of people who know you personally, as well as those who, from a distance, have come to know you by watching you and your athletic career evolve over the years. Has growing up in Calaveras County also played a key role in who you are?
TD: Absolutely! It’s brought me up to who I am. The person I am is because of home. I could have been a different person if I had grown up in a different place. I wouldn’t have had the same freedom to do what I did as a kid if I hadn’t grown up in Angels Camp.
UD: In what way?
TD: Living in the city is a different life. Now that I live in Sacramento, I see that more. There are so many people and so many rules; there are so many things I was able to get away with as a kid living in a small town. I could be a hooligan as a kid and do dumb stuff and learn that way. So, yeah ... living in a small town had a huge impact on me. I was also surrounded by competition — at school and at home with my brothers and cousins. Our parents all worked so we were home taking care of each other (or not taking care of each other), and we played rough and hard. It made us who we are. Growing up in Angels Camp made me tough and gave me character.
UD: You say growing up in Angels Camp made you tough, but what kind of tough? Certainly you could have acquired resilience in more urban places like Stockton or Sacramento.
TD: Well, that’s a different kind of tough. That’s more like street savvy and an awareness of threat. But here, in a small town, you get picked on as a kid and have to learn to defend yourself. It’s not the same kind of threat, but it still shaped me. This was the perfect place to be a kid, make mistakes and learn from them. My parents let me do that.
UD: Related to that toughness, Ludwig also said that you have a little “extra kill” in you. He didn’t say it as an affront, but he did say it. Is this intensity ever a weakness, or an Achilles heel?
TD: It’s something you have to learn how to control. It also gives me my competitive edge. Most of my teammates will say that I am the most competitive guy they’ve ever met. I think that this is what drives me. Even in wrestling, I was a pretty mean wrestler in the (wrestling) room. If I didn’t think that you were going to challenge me in practice, then I was really aggressive and would push you even harder. I always wanted (to take on) whoever was going to make me better. This killer instinct is a great thing to have in the UFC because that’s what they want to see. They don’t want to just see me happy to win; they want me to be aggressive.
UD: Is there someone in the sport you admire, both as a fighter and a person?
TD: I have never really looked at it that way. There are lots of guys I admire, not just one who sticks out. Many live the right lifestyle and are doing the right things. Really, I respect all the top named fighters because of the fact that they are where they are because of the way they work.
UD: What about a fighter you would model your career after?
TD: Shoot! I have really good examples in my gym and on my team. I learn by their successes, as well as their mistakes. The people I am surrounded by have already started modeling for me by their example.
UD: Fighters often have a “hard luck” story. Many come from difficult circumstances and challenging backgrounds, and this often fuels them. What’s your story? What fuels you?
TD: Right. I did not come out of a difficult background. No, we never had to struggle. My parents took care of me. You could say I was spoiled, but I also had to work. My dad definitely instilled in me hard work my entire life; he taught me great things. I know that hard work is going to pay off and is necessary to continue the lifestyle that I want, one where I won’t have to worry. I want to be able to give my children, the children I will some day have, the same kind of life I had growing up. I want to be able to do the same things that my family did for me. This is what fuels me.
UD: A successful life is relative to the individual. Some would argue that MMA is a brutal sport with an unconventional lifestyle. How do explain the culture of the fighting life?
TD: I know that what I do is really hard work, and I am very lucky to do it. In the past two years, I have been to Australia, Canada, Brazil and across our nation — I get to travel the world. Those are perks of my job. For me, it is a normal life because I was always on the go with wrestling and competing. I have never had a 9-5 job. This is what I know.
UD: With the travel and the attention that comes with being a professional athlete, is it a glamorous life?
TD: It is and it isn’t. The glamorous part is that I get to decide my schedule and live a healthy and fit life. On the other side, there is so much pressure and hard work in what I do. The dedication required is insane; that’s why not everyone can be a fighter.
UD: As an elite athlete you train 6-8 hours a day. What do you do to create some sense of balance in your life?
TD: I live this every day, so I need an escape from it at times; I need to unwind from fighting. I don’t need to come home and watch fights or read about it. If there is a big fight, I’ll watch it. But, I like to come home and relax. I hang out with family, with my brothers. I have a girlfriend who I spend most of my time with and two dogs.
UD: For you, wanting to be the best is not a cliché. It is what you have your sights sets on, and there are people in your corner, literally and figuratively, telling you that you can make it happen, true?
TD: Yeah. You always tell yourself you can be the best, but in the back of your mind you might also be thinking, if I don’t become the best, it will be okay. That kind of thinking takes away some of the pressure, but if you want to be the best, you have to think it; that’s how you become it. That’s how I have to set my mind, and even though there are moments of doubt, I have to remind myself. I have to believe.
UD: You are probably your harshest critic, but most of the time do you believe in yourself and the possibility of making big things happen in the sport?
TD: I believe that I can be the best. That’s not to say that everything will work out exactly as I plan. I could have been the best at wrestling, too, but everything didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. You only get one life. I have the capability to become the best, and I am working toward that. Fighting is great. It’s an awesome life, but what matters most in my life are the people who love me and the people I love.