By AMBER PAPPE
For The Union Democrat
Professional mixed martial arts fighter TJ Dillashaw, a 2004 graduate and standout wrestler at Bret Harte, put his athletic prowess and fiery spirit to the test Wednesday night as he battled for one of 16 final spots on Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter.
After a lengthy process of tryouts and interviews that began in March with thousands, 32 fighters made their way to Las Vegas for the last leg of their journey to TUF, Season 14. With the UFC's acquisition of the WEC in Jan. 2011, the show featured bantamweights and featherweights for the first time. Dillashaw, who fights out of Sacramento with Team Alpha Male, is a bantamweight and one of 32 chasing the dream and a shot at a UFC contract.
To earn a place in the house and a spot on the show, Dillashaw (4-0) faced Matt Jaggers (20-7). Jaggers, a pro since 2006, is an experienced fighter who has fought in several well-known promotions, including Elite XC, Pride and King of the Cage.
"He's fought everywhere and had a lot of big fights," said Dillashaw. "Some of the guys knew of him, but I didn't. I didn't really want to know anything about him. I just went out there knowing I was going to impose my will on him, and that's what happened. Knowing that he could not hang with me if I did, I went at him 100 miles an hour. I made myself as tired as I could possibly be in one round."
Acutely competitive, Dillashaw's intensity and tenacity were on full display in his matchup with Jaggers as he wasted no time finishing his much more experienced opponent. The confident Angels Camp native secured the victory by technical knockout via ground and pound with three seconds left in the first round, propelling himself into the house and securing one of the coveted spots.
UFC president Dana White said, "TJ Dillashaw comes right out, controls the fight, gets him right down to the ground and finishes him."
For Dillashaw, that was the whole point; he came to brawl and finish every fight.
"He is a well-rounded, experienced fighter," said Dillashaw. "But I knew I had to win. I knew I wasn't going home."
With so much on the line, it is no surprise that the elimination rounds were all-out battles. Of the 16 bouts, there were eight knockouts, most in the first round, five submissions and only three that went the distance. "There were definitely guys who could have made it in, but didn't," said Dillashaw. "There was just so much talent. Dana's pre-fight speech helped motivate the fierce fights. He told us to put everything on the line. He reminded us that nobody wants to be that guy flying home tomorrow saying to himself that he should have fought harder, should have given more."
Some would also suggest that the lighter weight classes are more intense by nature, adding to the extraordinary efforts.
Said Dillashaw, "The smaller weights are 100 percent more fun to watch; they are more action-packed. That is not to say that the bigger guys aren't talented, great athletes, it's just that smaller guys tend to have better body control. This is why this season is going to be so amazing."
Tryouts are over, the interviews complete, and the war to get into the house is won - a significant step toward realizing the dream is done. Next up for Dillashaw: Team selections, training, cooking, eating, killing time and, most importantly, jumping back into the cage for the next fight of his life where he expects his skills and confidence to continue to serve him well. Team Alpha Male coach and training partner Justin Buchholz believes Dillashaw has the talent and tools needed to achieve greatness.
"TJ picked up MMA faster than anyone I have ever seen," said Buchholz. "He really reminds me of the way BJ 'The Prodigy' Penn first burst onto the scene to become the world Jiu-Jitsu champion after only three years.
"TJ's skill set is incredible! Considering that he has only been training MMA for a year and a half makes it almost unbelievable. I believe he could be a champion as fast as Penn."
Expectations are high, but so is belief. Look for TJ Dillashaw to continue his quest to become the next Ultimate Fighter, Wednesday nights on Spike TV.