Former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw said he and every fighter who competes in high-level MMA are “bred” to believe they will succeed, regardless of the obstacles they face in training.
So even with a shoulder so badly injured it dislocated an estimated 20 times before a UFC 280 title fight with Aljamain Sterling, Dillashaw believed he could persevere. And more importantly, he wouldn’t let any other reality intervene.
“I’m addicted to being on top,” Dillashaw said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “I thought I would go out there and get it done.”
As the world saw, Dillashaw had no actual chance to win against Sterling. The ex-champ’s left shoulder dislocated on a takedown in the opening minute of the fight, and from there, he was fighting just to survive. He weighed defending his head against punches and getting up, hoping to bide enough time to make it through the round so his corner could pop his shoulder back in (which they did, right before the cageside doctor came to check on it). Until the end, he never conceded the fight was lost.
For the second time in his career, Dillashaw, who previously was suspended two years by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for cheating, has assumed the role of villain. Fans, media and the UFC have blasted his decision to fight hurt. Some, though, have come very close to accusing him of malfeasance.
Dillashaw accepts his position as the bad guy, but there’s one accusation to which he takes exception: that he committed “borderline fraud,” a term longtime MMA analyst Luke Thomas to describe his actions.
“Like I’m not being thrown under the bus enough,” he said. “Like he thinks I went in there to collect a paycheck. I went in there with the utmost belief that I was going to win, and I was going to get my title back, something I’ve been waiting to do for three-and-a-half years and chomping at the bit. I just beat Cory Sandhagen on one leg, and why not? Why would I not believe I can beat a guy who’s less dangerous and that I matched up with really well.
“The shoulder obviously came out a lot sooner than I hoped and didn’t go back in, which, on average, was not the case – so unfortunate kind of events.”
Since the fight, Dillashaw said he’s been diagnosed with a “full thickness” tears of his supraspinatus and infraspinatus (both muscles connected to the rotator cuff of the shoulder), tears in his teres minor and anterior labrum, and the humeral head in his shoulder is “dented” from the dislocation.
On Nov. 8, the ex-champ will undergo what he said is a third surgery to repair the left shoulder, adding to a list of procedures that stretches back to his days as a college wrestler. In 2017, Dillashaw re-injured it on the set of The Ultimate Fighter 25 while playing tetherball on a balance beam for a coaches’ challenge against ex-teammate and opposing coach Cody Garbrandt.
Dillashaw expects to be out up to seven months before he returns to training. That timeline – and a title shot offered by the UFC after Sterling called him out – factored most into his decision to fight injured, he said. A paycheck was not his primary motivation, he added, despite long stretches of inactivity stemming from his two-year suspension and a knee surgery underwent after his win over Sandhagen in 2021. The ex-champ said he no longer needs to fight for money, having invested his money wisely and set up several businesses outside fighting.
Being champion is the bigger reward he can’t pass up.
“I lost a lot more money than anyone else,” Dillashaw said. “Losing a world title, that’s millions of dollars out of my pocket. I should be sitting on top, looking for the next big fight.”
In the wake of Dillashaw’s loss, fans and media questioned whether online bookmakers should refund bets in the wake of his disclosure. For Dillashaw, that implies he wasn’t fighting in good faith, when in fact he was taking the biggest risk – his own body – to defeat an inferior opponent.
“I took a gamble as well, and that’s why it’s called f****** gambling. You don’t know the situation. I took a gamble. I could have sat out and got surgery, but when I come back, who knows if I’m going to get a title shot right away, or I’m going to have to fight my way back up in it, or how bad this shoulder is. Let’s be honest, this is my third surgery in my left shoulder. It’s not like I’m a spring f****** chicken and it’s going to be an easy fix. It’s a serious thing.
“I will be coming back. I’m not going to let my story end that way. But it’s still in the back of your head – I go in for surgery, I’m out for a year, and I was just out on surgery. There’s no guarantee you get a title fight when you come back. There’s a lot of options I’m weighing out, me getting this fight, against a champion that’s very beatable. I think he’s the most beatable champion right now in the division. I think he’s some big holes in his game, and I match up well with him, I’m going to roll them dice and I’m going to bet on myself, even with one arm.”