Echoes of Tokyo in 1990: Appreciating T.J. Dillashaw’s upset of Renan Barao

Earlier this year, a stunning thing happened in the UFC cage and MMA fans haven't really spoken of it with the reverence it deserves.…

By: Brent Brookhouse | 9 years ago
Echoes of Tokyo in 1990: Appreciating T.J. Dillashaw’s upset of Renan Barao
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Earlier this year, a stunning thing happened in the UFC cage and MMA fans haven’t really spoken of it with the reverence it deserves. Outside of the UFC promotional machine, T.J. Dillashaw was seen as little more than a warm body for the supremely talented Renan Barao to toy with and dismantle in front of a disappointingly small pay-per-view audience when the two faced off at UFC 173. Dillashaw not only upset the apple cart, but did so in a shockingly dominant way.

In the moments following the fight, some fans chose to compare the fight to James “Buster” Douglas’ knockout of Mike Tyson. Such a comparison is hardly surprising.

Barao and Tyson were on ridiculous 30+ fight win streaks, they finished their fights more often than not and they’d staked claims as kings of pound for pound rankings (Tyson entered the ring against Douglas as Ring’s #1 P4P fighter, Barao was being pushed as #1 by the UFC).

Dillashaw and Douglas were lightly regarded underdogs, but fighters of considerable talent who’d not “put it together” to the degree many felt possible and they both emerged not only victorious, but dominated en route to victory.

Dillashaw, however, did it against a far more inspiredchampion, whereas Douglas took on a seemingly unmotivated Tyson who was being cornered by a shockingly inept crew.

Tyson was skipping out on roadwork sessions and telling his trainer, “If I get my butt whipped, I’ll take the blame,” while Douglas trained harder than ever and found himself motivated by the passing of his mother, a mother Douglas had told not to worry about Tyson because, “Mama, I ain’t worried about that punk! I’m a killer!”

The Dillashaw story lacks the cultural cachet of Tyson/Douglas. While everyone knew (knows) who Mike Tyson is, Renan Barao has spent his career toiling in a sort of anonymity unbecoming of his talent. While Douglas had the motivations of tragedy and opportunity on the biggest of stages and Tyson reached a level of excess that would define his career and his collapse, Dillashaw comes from a camp named “Team Alpha Male” where they celebrated his title win by eating a cake in the shape of an ejaculating penis.

So, yes, while the Dillashaw victory lacks some of the trappings that made for such a Made For Hollywood situation, it still was incredible.

Barao was far from a champion who’d made it and was ready to coast on his previous success. He’d been expressing displeasure with his contract, pointing out that the challengers he’d faced were out-earning him. Dana White would respond and lecture Barao–through a media directed rant–to shut up lest he become “one of those guys,” leading to videos (which have since been removed) comparing White’s lavish lifestyle to the far more meager circumstances of the man he’d previously sold as the closest thing in the UFC to Floyd Mayweather.

Here was yet another fighter who had fallen victim to the Tysonification of UFC champions. The company, the media and the fans tend to throw a fighter into the “like Tyson” category when they fall into circumstances where they’re wrecking their opponents without attracting fans, in a shallow division with few compelling opponents or a lighter weight but finish a high percentage of fights. It’s a move that attempts to squash criticism or notions of why someone might not be “must watch” by linking them to the ultimate “must watch” fighter of the last 50 years.

Barao was on a record setting hot streak, he was motivated to improve his station in life through an increase in his income and he was in shape. He was nothing like the Tyson who showed up in Japan.

And Dillashaw kicked his ass.

The UFC schedule is relentless, however. And, a week after UFC 173 was watched by roughly 200,000 households on pay-per-view, there were two UFC events on the same day, and another a week later, and another a week later…and so on.

There’s no time to marinate in the significance of these moments, and that may be the great unspoken issue with the UFC’s aggressive market flood (read: oversaturation) strategy. Dillashaw achieved something shocking and truly meaningful, but we have no time to let it sink in before we have to worry about the next flood of 10-14 fights.

The two will rematch on Saturday. It’s true that this fight probably shouldn’t be happening, there was no controversy and no doubt as to who the better man was on May 24. But, it is happening and it’s happening with Dillashaw as the betting favorite.

Regardless of the outcome, let’s not lose sight of how shocking Dillashaw was in his brilliance the first time around. What happened that night was special, even if it won’t occupy a special place in mainstream sports history like February 11, 1990.


* Dillashaw vs. Barao photos by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

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Brent Brookhouse
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