It could be argued that the best mixed martial artists in the world are men and women so small they find themselves overlooked by the general public. They are the ones that appear lower down on pay-per-view cards, the ones chastised for doing poor numbers, and the ones racking up wins, breaking records and doing see-it-to-believe-it s**t in relative anonymity.
This has, in truth, always been the way in fight sports. Some of the greatest boxers of all-time, for example, at least from a technical and achievement standpoint, resided in the lower weight classes and created their legacies to little or no fanfare, much less fame and fortune. (It was only when featherweight ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed came along in the late-nineties that boxers in and around 126 pounds started making life-changing money.)
In MMA, this has proved less of a theme, but there’s truth to it nonetheless. Ask Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson, the record-breaking UFC flyweight champion who has long felt like a second-class citizen in the sport and often resented being ignored (or simply not appreciated) by the wider public. He keeps winning, defending his title in dominant fashion, but still he seems nowhere closer to the riches enjoyed by those inhabiting divisions north of flyweight. It would rile lesser men. Yet Johnson, despite the odd tantrum, has mostly been able to bite his tongue and dream of big fights in the future.
Talking of big fights, there’s one this Saturday (November 4), albeit one that doesn’t involve ‘Mighty Mouse’. The big fight between little men this weekend, at Madison Square Garden no less, involves UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt and former champion, and former teammate, T.J. Dillashaw. And it’s that aspect, the meeting of former teammates, that really elevates the fight beyond those that normally get ignored down at bantamweight and below.
Anything but an amicable divorce, Garbrandt and Dillashaw are, in promoter speak, the best kind of former teammates. They are teammates with a point to prove. Teammates with history. Teammates who were once under the same roof, trained by the same coaches, but now struggle to see eye-to-eye on anything. Brought up the same way, they’ve since gone different ways. And both, of course, claim their path is the right way.
“All my teammates built T.J. up to where he’s at and they know T.J. like the back of their hand,” Garbrandt says. “They got me ready for Dominick Cruz. They went countless hours, 27 rounds, with Dominick Cruz, so they knew him. They taught T.J. everything and I had Justin Buchholz in the camp. Justin showed him how to throw a punch. Uriah (Faber) has been a great mentor and hands on this camp as well.
“So, I’m supremely confident in knowing T.J. when I get in there and just reading everything. I fight instinctual and we’ll go from there.”
Dillashaw is a little more reticent in his approach, unwilling to engage in a back-and-forth with Garbrandt. “I’m just going to go out there and do what I do,” he said. “You’re going to have to wait and see the game plan. I’m not going to go out here and spill it all out now. But it’s going to be a great night and I can’t wait to get it done.”
It’s fight week now, so both will have understandably toned down the verbal assault, the reality of what’s around the corner dawning on them. But, certainly, it’s this verbal sparring match, seemingly stretched out for years, which has helped elevate this fight above the normal fare. The accompany storyline, the reason for the turbulence, goes something like this: Back in October 2015, Dillashaw left Team Alpha Male and moved his camp to Denver, Colorado to train with his head coach, former UFC fighter Duane Ludwig. He lost his UFC bantamweight title the following year. Garbrandt, meanwhile, an upstart five years Dillashaw’s junior, was on the rise during this time, emerging as one of the best prospects in the UFC, and then, finally, in 2016, got his shot at the UFC bantamweight title, Dillashaw’s old belt, and did something Dillashaw was unable to do: he defeated the ‘The Dominator’ Dominick Cruz. Since then, the meeting of the two, Garbrandt and Dillashaw, has been a natural one, with everything moving in that direction. They coached on The Ultimate Fighter together. They had a fight originally booked for July 8 at UFC 213. They talked s**t on social media to one another.
Now, with injuries healed and anticipation having come to the boil, the two are at last about to settle their feud.
“This isn’t a gimme fight,” said Garbrandt, 11-0. “The GSP vs. Bisping fight (which headlines UFC 217), is the gimme fight. They’re just trying to sell the tickets. Our fight sells on all avenues, all angles, everywhere. Everyone wants to see this fight. It’s a grudge match. It’s two fighters going to go out there. So that in itself is the main event. No disrespect to Rose (Namajunas) and Joanna (Jedrzejczyk). I think they’re great fighters, but we’re the real main event on November 4th.”
That may or may not be true. What definitely is true, however, is that Grabrandt needs Dillashaw just as much as Dillashaw needs Garbrandt and the winner needs Demetrious Johnson just as much as Demetrious Johnson needs the winner. It’s just the way of it in the lighter weight classes. These guys need one another in order to rise above and become stars.
Grabrandt, especially, seems switched on to this. He has opened the dialogue regarding a fight with Johnson and seems more than receptive to it should he taste victory on Saturday night.
“With a knockout of T.J., I wipe out the division,” he said. “There is a big gap between myself and Dominick and then T.J., and it falls off from there. So, T.J. is my next adversary, my next challenge. I know what he brings to the table. I’m focused and prepared to wipe him out and then go on from there. I always like to have a fight ahead of me and plan ahead. Obviously focuses are around T.J., but ‘Mighty Mouse’ is next at 125-pounds.
“I can pick my fights after this. I’ll go down and fight ‘Mighty Mouse’ at 125 and that’s just business. I like the guy a lot but that’s a business move for me.”
A savvy one at that. Dillashaw, 14-3, knows it, too. He tried dragging Johnson into a scuffle earlier this year when the MMA world were busy weighing up the merits of (eventual Johnson challenger) Ray Borg. He failed in his attempt, but his willingness to drop down a division, not go up one (as is typical in MMA), was a surefire sign he too realises the importance of boosting his profile via collaboration.
“It’s one step at a time,” Dillashaw said, speaking days before his title shot. “I’m fighting Cody Garbrandt right now. ‘Mighty Mouse’ is the pound-for-pound king, so that’s who everyone’s going to want to shoot for. He is the one with the target on his back. I’m trying to be the best in the world, so that’s always an option.”
The little guys are waking up to the reality of their situation. It’s options, rather than title belts, that will deliver them the riches and respect they deserve.