Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole interviews TJ Dillashaw ahead of the former bantamweight champion’s bout versus champion Aljamain Sterling in the co-main event of UFC 280 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi. Dillashaw will attempt to become a three-time champion and talks about his underdog status heading into the matchup and how he sees the fight playing out.
KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole. Welcome to Yahoo Sports. Cannot wait for Saturday and UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi. What a card they have put together. And in the co-main event, it is champion Aljamain Sterling defending his belt against my guest right now TJ Dillashaw, the former champ. TJ, how are you, my friend?
TJ DILLASHAW: I’m doing great. And I’m amazing right now and excited for Saturday as well.
KEVIN IOLE: BetMGM has Sterling as a minus 175 favorite, you as a plus 145 favorite. Let’s start there. The odds surprise me, that he is basically a 9 to 5 favorite over you. You surprised when you hear that, that you’re an underdog in this fight?
TJ DILLASHAW: People forget, man. People forget when you haven’t been competing how dominant you are. So I ought to remind them all. And I actually don’t mind being the underdog. Every time I come into a title fight, I’ve been an underdog. To become a champion, I’ve been an underdog. I was an underdog against Barao, I was an underdog against No Love Garbrandt, I’m now underdog here. So let’s just keep it rolling.
KEVIN IOLE: So you know, one of the things that has surprised me, when Sterling was fighting Petr Yan the last time, they had a lot of bad blood between them because obviously what happened the first fight. There seems to be that, at least on his side towards you this time, and I did not see that coming. When I spoke to him last week and I brought up the fight, he referred to you as Pillashaw. And he’s made a lot of comments about your past and things like that. And I’m just curious, do you think he’s trying to get into your head or what’s going on with all this trash talk going on?
TJ DILLASHAW: Yeah, probably trying to get into my head as well as sell the fight and maybe pump himself up a little bit. I mean, everyone has to fight differently. Maybe he has to have some animosity towards someone to feel like he gets them going best. For me, I’m not really that kind of guy. I fight best– I’ll call it as it is. I’ll tell you suck if you suck and I’ll tell you I’m better than you. But I ain’t going to get in there and do the whole social media thing. I think he tries a little too hard on social media. But I think it’s just maybe the way he needs to get ready for a fight.
KEVIN IOLE: What does it feel like because you went through that two-year suspension, you’re coming back. And to get another crack at the title, does this feel different than the first time around, given the circumstances of it? I’m sure there was a point in your life where you thought you may not ever get this again, right? Now here you are on the verge of a championship. Emotionally, what is it like for you?
TJ DILLASHAW: No, I actually really never didn’t think I wouldn’t get here again. I mean, I think that’s why I’m here because I ultimately believed it. Like I said, whenever you brought the first time it was all you got to do is believe. You got to believe you can be the best, train your ass off, and it’ll help you get here, you know. I just said this in an interview earlier just, I don’t know, 20 minutes ago that I remember when I got the call about the suspension and talked to Hunter Campbell and apologized to him and told like, hey man, I’m sorry about this. I’m sorry I brought any kind of bad light towards the UFC. But I’ll make a promise to you that I’ll be back and I’ll be back on top.
And I believed it. So I never didn’t think I wouldn’t be here again. Maybe it took a little bit longer. I didn’t expect to blow my knee out in my last fight. But I’m back here and I’ve envisioned this, man. It’s the power of– power of belief. I really believe in that secret, envision what you want.
KEVIN IOLE: Was that something that you’ve always had that confidence and that sort of belief that things are going to go your way if you work hard or is it something that you have a sports psychologist or somebody help you that kind of pushed you down that path?
TJ DILLASHAW: I never used a sports psychologist. I mean, I think it’s a smart thing to do. I definitely do. I just through experience kind of learned to be this way. I’ve wrestled my entire life since I was eight. And I used to deal with fear differently throughout my wrestling career and even beginning of my fighting career. Because I think that we’re all motivated for the most part through fear. It’s about how you deal with that fear. Are going to you let that fear make you a harder worker or are you going to make that fear freeze you? And how do you enjoy– how do you enjoy using it?
So for me, fear excites me. This whole thing of adrenaline that you have that in your body and it creates that spark is through fear. And so I just kind of use that to my advantage. I’ve just learned that through fights on how to use that fear.
KEVIN IOLE: All you guys when you get from Ultimate Fighter or when you get into the actual UFC, you have to advance your game and you have to develop your game. To me, it seemed like the biggest development in your game, especially say when you went up to Barao, was your footwork and your ability to create angles on your feet and everything. And it was almost like you became a mini Jonathan Cruz in a way. Cruz was always known for that great footwork, and that’s sort of what you had done.
How have you taken it then? So we know you have the wrestling, you added that footwork. So in this time off that you had, what did you add to your game that we’ll see against Sterling on Saturday?
TJ DILLASHAW: I’ll just continue to evolve and think about your weaknesses, which I feel like I have very few. Everyone’s always got them, but the less you have, the better. And then kind of really– just kind of comes around to opponent to opponent and adapting to each opponent and creating a style because of that opponent. If you were running enough, you could do that. I didn’t have footwork. I started creating the footwork I think when I fought Mike Easton. That was because of Dwayne and some of the stuff we do and fight southpaw unorthodox.
But I wouldn’t say I created a lot of my motion until I fought Barao the first time. And the reason why I did was watching a fight when he fought Eddie Wineland. I thought Eddie Wineland actually did a pretty good job against Barao that first round he fought him. Did a lot of good feints. He’s got like hopping back and forth motion, some good feints and kind of freeze Barao. And I was like, man, I don’t think Barao likes a guy that moves. I really don’t think he likes it.
So I just started like that fight camp for eight weeks, just feints, feints, motion and then just kind of [INAUDIBLE]. And all that works. And then you find out the next thing in your next training. We started doing a lot of Greco-Roman wrestling with Dario Christensen for one of my fights. It’s like, damn, I got good body locks. So you evolve based on who you’re fighting. And then if it works for you, you keep it.
KEVIN IOLE: You how do you see the match-up with Sterling? To me, I look at him as a really athletic fighter. Obviously he has good quickness. So how do you deal with that, those two aspects, the wrestling and the quickness that he has? It seems to me like those are probably his two best attributes.
TJ DILLASHAW: With being mean. Being mean, man. I’m just going to break him.
KEVIN IOLE: Do you feel like he’s a guy– there’s some fighters you look at and you go, they’re never going to break. They’re badasses and they’re really tough.
TJ DILLASHAW: You’ve seen him break.
KEVIN IOLE: So you feel like you can–
TJ DILLASHAW: I do. I think he’ll break. I think he’s got that weakness in him. He’s got that quit button. I just got to get to it.
KEVIN IOLE: Let me ask you about his first fight with you on then because that was a controversial fight. A lot of people have said he quit in that fight. I watched that fight and I go, this is a very flagrant foul by Petr Yan. So how are you obviously– anybody blaming Sterling for that? I wonder how you look at that. So how did you take it? Do you feel like he quit in that fight or do you feel like there was a give him in that fight? How did you view it?
TJ DILLASHAW: He was going to get finished in that fight. Unfortunately for Yan, he got finished the way he did because Yan was going to beat him and finish him. But the rules are rules. I mean, obviously Sterling should have got the victory of that. I don’t think he should get a belt because of it. And I definitely don’t think he should have handled it the way he handled it. Remember, he got the belt and he was disappointed about it at first. And then like an hour later, he’s like taking pictures with it and he’s the best. So it’s more of that than anything. But man, rules are rules, man.
KEVIN IOLE: You are a guy that has always tried to make history or do things. When you fought Cejudo, you tried to get two belts and whatnot. So what would history be for you? I know you believe you’re going to win this fight. You’re the underdog, you believe you’re going to cover as an underdog. What’s going to be next to be the history-making moment for TJ Dillashaw?
TJ DILLASHAW: I’m just going to keep breaking– I mean, it’s not breaking, just keep adding to my records. I want them to stand as long as they can. I mean, that’s how you’re remembered, is if your records cannot be beaten. So unfortunately, I haven’t been active enough to put some distance in myself in those records. But now it’s time to do that. Now it’s time to pad those records a little bit.
KEVIN IOLE: So you’re coming off a knee injury that’s kept you out for quite a while since Cory Sandhagen. If you rehab that– sometimes they say you can never be quite the same, right? I mean, do you believe that you’re as good or better or is there any concerns at all on how your knee is going to perform?
TJ DILLASHAW: It feels great. I definitely was worried about it during the recovery. But after that second surgery I had, getting stem cell therapy done and just making sure I was really active with my physical therapy. It is great. There’s definitely not even a thought in my head to think about my knee. But I’d say seven, eight months in, I was like, man, what the hell? This thing’s not coming back together.
I just didn’t realize how much work I needed done in there. And I had to get the scar tissue cleaned out in the second surgery because my knee would get really swollen after training. I couldn’t get my heel to my butt. I couldn’t jump very well. There’s a lot of things. It was like, how am I going to be the athlete that I am with one leg? Yeah, I was able to do it once, but I’m going into a fight and people know this. It’s going to be a different story. But I feel good now, so that’s awesome.
KEVIN IOLE: Was there an aha moment like when you’re in training and all of a sudden, you felt like what one day to another there was a huge difference and then you felt like, now I’m TJ again. Do you remember a moment in training when that happened?
TJ DILLASHAW: It was when I came back after the second surgery because the second surgery wasn’t that long of a layoff because it was a scope and they had to go in there and clean it out. So I was not doing super hard training for three or four weeks. And then once I came back, I was like, nice, man. I don’t have to be– this doesn’t have to keep me up at night of I’m never going to be the same.
As well as being able to run around and chase my four-year-old and be able to be an active date with him, get on the mats with him or whatever it’s going to be here in the future, that I know that it seems pretty good. I’m sure, I don’t know, down the road, I’ll probably have to get some sort of knee replacement just because how much work was done in there. But right now, it’s good
KEVIN IOLE: Wow. Well let’s wrap up with this. From the first time you were a bantamweight champion till now, I think the division has really gotten a lot better. Some people think it’s the best division in the UFC. Certainly to me, it’s up there with lightweight and a couple of other divisions. What does it mean to you now if you’re in the best the bantamweight division has ever been and you’re the champion? I mean, does that say something more, you know, act two is even better than act one?
TJ DILLASHAW: I guess. I think more so just the overall journey, just being able to be on top since 2014 and continue to get old in this sport and age like fine wine and stay on top.
KEVIN IOLE: Awesome. Well, good stuff. TJ Dillashaw, we wish you the best Saturday at UFC 280. Thank you so much for your time. Always good talking to you, my man.
TJ DILLASHAW: Absolutely, you too. You have a good one.
KEVIN IOLE: See you, bro.