In the modern UFC landscape, it can be difficult to differentiate real “grudge matches” from those manufactured for fight hype. When it comes to Saturday’s UFC 217 co-main event, however, the tension between Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw is all too real.
It wasn’t that long as when UFC Bantamweight champion Garbrandt and former titleholder Dillashaw were training partners at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Calif. They’re now bitter rivals who are set to meet for the title in Saturday’s pay-per-view co-headliner at Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 4th.
In addition to Garbrandt and Dillashaw being the two best 135-pound fighters in the world, they have deep seeded issues with one another. The crux of those problems centered around differing ideas of loyalty when Dillashaw parted ways with the team.
Although MMA is an individual sport, no fighter steps in Octagon having done everything alone. It takes coaches and training partners to compete at the highest level, and for some time Garbrandt and Dillashaw were part of that process for each other. That’s until a rift divided them, and after that, there was no turning back.
“All my teammates, they built T.J. up to where he’s at,” Garbrandt tells Rolling Stone. “They know T.J. like the back of his hand. They taught T.J. everything. I had [coach] Justin Buchholz in this camp preparing for T.J. Justin taught him how to throw a punch, so I’m extremely confident when I get in there.”
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Both fighters were recruited to Team Alpha Male by team founder and former UFC fighter Urijah Faber. Dillashaw was the first to rise to prominence, overtaking up the divisional rankings as Faber’s career was nearing its end. After Faber lost a February 2014 fight to then-champion Renan Barao, he used the platform of his post-fight interview to pump up Dillashaw by encouraging the UFC to give him a shot at the title. Dillashaw got the opportunity several months later, and he managed to claim the title by ending Barao’s 31-fight unbeaten streak.
It was about at that time where the rift truly began. Dillashaw became attached to striking coach Duane Ludwig, who parted ways with Team Alpha Male due to conflicts with Faber. Dillashaw wanted to stick with Ludwig, and his desire to train with him at another gym caused serious problems, all of which unfolded in the public eye.
Dillashaw wanted to train with Ludwig and also continue his work with Team Alpha Male, but that didn’t sit well with Faber. He was essentially given an ultimatum to either stay or go for good, and Dillashaw chose the latter.
Once he was out the door, Faber, Garbrandt and other Team Alpha Male members didn’t hesitate to air dirty laundry.
“T.J. was never the best teammate,” Faber says. “He would, like, try to hurt people.”
Garbrandt provided some more insight on what Faber meant.
“That’s the truth,” Garbrandt says. “We’re talking about cheap shots. … I guess (UFC fighter) Chris (Holdsworth) choked him out, and T.J. got up and fucking kneed him in the back of the head when he was down on the mat.”
While all this was going on, Garbrandt was making his rise up the rankings as the next big thing in the weight class. His knockout-centric fighting style allowed him to become a top contender within 18 months of his debut, putting him on an inevitable crash course with Dillashaw.
Dillashaw lost the UFC title to Dominick Cruz by controversial decision in January 2016. Garbrandt was next in line to challenge for the gold, and he got his shot at Cruz at UFC 207 in December, putting on a brilliant performance to capture the 135-pound title.
Although Dillashaw has always insisted his departure from the team was more a result of being forced out than anything else, Garbrandt has never been fond of how his former training partner conducted himself. He’s questioned Dillashaw’s character and called him a “snake” who was trying to play both sides. That’s unacceptable in his opinion, and he thinks Dillashaw is aware of what he left.
“He regrets (leaving the team) every day of his life,” Garbrandt says. “But his ego won’t let him admit that. Let’s be honest, T.J.”
Garbrandt is a loyalist to his very core. He thanks Faber and Team Alpha Male for their contributions for his success and is awestruck by Dillashaw’s apparent unwillingness to do the same.
Dillashaw says he’s over it at this point, though. He feels he did nothing wrong in the situation, but given how he’s been treated since the fallout, he says Garbrandt claims of regrets couldn’t be more false.
“I find it funny because they’ve actually made it easier for me to leave Team Alpha Male,” Dillashaw says. “They’ve shown my decision was right with how immature they’ve been and with all the bullshit they care about, and how much they care about my life. Just how childish they’ve been just made my decision easier. I’m just going to let them keep talking because they’re making themselves look like fools.”
Dillashaw also says he wasn’t that close with Garbrandt, anyway. The fight is certainly personal, but he says the level of disdain going into UFC 217 is mostly one-way traffic.
“We weren’t really friends, we didn’t like hang out outside the gym,” Dillashaw says. “He was hungry kid coming into the gym. I had the belt at the time when he was coming in. I coached him at practices, I would hold mitts for him before his first couple UFC fights, but it was strictly business. He was just a training partner. We weren’t really friends outside the gym.”
Drama aside, what’s left between Garbrandt and Dillashaw is a matchup of two incredibly talented fighters. They have differing options on what’s right, and it just so happens two thrilling athletes get to settle the score inside the Octagon.
They both know each other quite well from their time training together, and although it’s impossible to know the real truth of what happened behind closed door, Garbrandt and Dillashaw each believe they got the best of each other in the gym. Garbrandt insists that will translate on fight night.
“This is a gimme fight,” Garbrandt says. “This is a fight for me that I’m going to end this dude, and go on, and I can pick my fights after that.”
Garbrandt has never lost in his professional career. Dillashaw promises to be the first, and the fact he can end the rivalry and take the belt are added bonuses.
“I trained a lot with this guy and I know his holes,” Dillashaw says. “I’ve picked apart tape. Everyone is beatable inside that cage.”