Saturday July 25, at UFC on Fox 16, UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw meets the man he won the belt from, Renan Barao, for the second time, in a fight that was originally to take place last summer until Barao suffered a fluke injury while cutting weight.

It’s a fight that fans are, at best, lukewarm to, which would be curious were this not the UFC bantamweight division. When first the two met last May, Dillashaw vs. Barao became an instant classic, and a sleeper (if not better) for Fight of the Year 2014. Barao was the established bantamweight champion, having gone over thirty fights without a loss. The Brazilian won interim gold while Dominick Cruz struggled with injury, then saw his belt upgraded to the undisputed title when Faber was stripped due to inactivity. Dillashaw, meanwhile, was something of an also-ran after The Ultimate Fighter 14. Knocked out in the finale by the man who is now looking at his second flyweight title shot, John Dodson, Dillashaw was an interesting prospect out of Team Alpha Male, but no one expected him to topple “The Baron” at UFC 173 when he filled in as a short notice replacement for Raphael Assuncao.

Yet Dillashaw proved what most in the MMA world already know: in a fight, anything can happen. He scored the upset, and while the fight didn’t end up as Fight of the Year, multiple publications and the MMA Awards gave it the Upset of the Year award for 2014.

A rematch was scheduled months later, but the aforementioned weight cutting mishap felled Barao, who was replaced by the virtually unknown to UFC fans Joe Soto. Soto, a former Bellator flyweight champion, was felled in the fifth in a fight many thought Dillashaw coasted through. The real test — the might most wanted to see — was Dillashaw versus the returning Cruz. However, after decimating Takeya Mizugaki with a first round knockout at UFC 178 in September 2014, Cruz again fell to an ACL tear. The best fight the division had seen in years was out of the cards, and back in was Dillashaw vs. Barao II.

It’s not a knock on either man’s abilities, it’s just not the fight fans wanted. That said — the pair surprised us once. Is it that unlikely that they’ll do so again?

One thing is for certain: Renan Barao will need to have learned from past mistakes. Dillashaw, meanwhile, already has the blueprint for success. Here are his keys to victory come Saturday night.

Strike Hard, Early, and Often

Barao was beat up by the end of his first meeting with Dillashaw. Come the fifth round, he’d been knocked down, struck almost at will by his opponent, and was a bloody mess. He kept on coming until head kick and a swarm of punches, but it was the early damage that changed the course of the fight.

While it’s cliche in the fight world to say that the guy who won was the guy who hit his opponent more, in Dillashaw vs. Barao, it was very, very true. It’s clear that Barao didn’t expect to see a last minute replacement come out of the gate so strong, and it — along with a solid punch from Dillashaw — stunned him.

While he’ll be more prepared this time, it’s still the blueprint for success. Strike hard, early, and often. Dillashaw must not let Barao find his groove.

Footwork & Stance

One of the most notable aspects of Dillashaw’s striking game has been his footwork, and ability to fight (successfully) out of both stances. Many fighters will switch to a southpaw stance, or vice-versa, but few seem as comfortable as Dillashaw does when fighting at a high level.

Further, his footwork was quite good in their first meeting, a ways ahead of Barao’s. This combined with his stance changes allowed him to pressure the Brazilian, strike at will, and escape unharmed. It’s likely this is something Barao and his team have reviewed in training, but it’s hard to emulate in sparring, so Dillashaw may still have the edge here. He has also continued to work with coach Duane “Bang” Ludwig, who was credited with really honing his striking game last year, despite Ludwig no longer being the head coach at Team Alpha Male.

A Full Gas Tank

There’s a good chance Saturday’s rematch between Barao and Dillashaw will be a closer affair. The element of surprise will be gone. There’s a very good chance this goes the distance, and Dillashaw needs to be able to go hard for five rounds. That shouldn’t be a concern, however — his last two fights have entered the fifth and final frame, though neither have gone to the judges.

Dillashaw has all the tools to be a dominant champion at bantamweight, and if he puts them together at UFC on Fox 16, we may see him reign for quite some time.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.