UFC bantamweight contender Jimmie Rivera talks with Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch about his sparring session with TJ Dillashaw, his win over Urijah Faber, and his desire to fight Cody Garbrandt for the belt.
For months now UFC bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt has been threatening to release a video which shows him knocking out former champion (and former teammate) TJ Dillashaw in a sparring session–a video which may or may not actually exist. With Garbrandt and Dillashaw coaching opposite one another on season 25 of The Ultimate Fighter, the rivalry between the first and second men to win a UFC title for Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male is just heating up. If it does exist, now would be the perfect time for Garbrandt to leak the (admittedly ethically ambiguous) footage.
In the meantime, however, there definitely is a video of someone sparring TJ Dillashaw, and it isn’t Cody Garbrandt, or even a member of his ex-team at all. The man in question is hard-hitting contender Jimmie Rivera, now 4-0 in the UFC, and his plans include taking out every current and former member of Team Alpha Male in the bantamweight division. Rivera has already ticked one off his list with a dominant win over UFC and WEC legend Urijah Faber, the man who once called TJ Dillashaw his prized student. And while Rivera cannot brag that he knocked Dillashaw out in the training room, the footage below does show him outworking Dillashaw on the feet, and landing some crushing blows in the process.
Bloody Elbow spoke to Rivera about the sparring session, his thoughts on the Garbrandt-Dillashaw rivalry, and his plans going forward in the stacked UFC bantamweight division.
The video shows Rivera and Dillashaw, decked out in shinguards and gloves, exchanging blows on the fenced-in mat at Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Roufusport MMA academy. According to Rivera, the footage was taken about four years ago.
“My buddy Louis Gaudinot, that 125-er with green hair, was fighting Tim Elliott in Milwaukee,” Rivera recalls. “And I actually always thought these guys were on a whole other level–Urijah Faber, TJ Dillashaw. So we went out to Anthony Pettis’ gym, and we got to roll with Faber and Dillashaw. And I was like, ‘Wow. I thought these guys were way better. They’re not!’ And I got to spar with Dillashaw. Like, this was the guy who came close to winning the Ultimate Fighter? I’m like, ‘What?’ It just put everything into perspective. I realized how good I am, and it was a confidence booster, it really was.”
Rivera looks to have Dillashaw’s timing in the clip. He begins by countering Dillashaw’s jab with an overhand right-left hook combination. Dillashaw attempts to respond with one of his now-familiar shifts, and awkward bit of footwork designed to confuse Rivera’s defenses, but Jimmie evades the punch with efficient head movement, and shortly after lands a quick jab of his own to set up a ripping left hook to the body.
The session is hardly an all-out gym war, but the blows being traded are serious. Dillashaw has garnered a bit of a reputation as a gym bully. Rivera, however, was neither caught off guard by the intensity of the session, nor did he feel that Dillashaw was going too hard.
“That was the only session I ever had with him, and we really just went in there and got our gear on, and it was like, ‘Oh, you got a partner? You wanna spar?’ And we sparred. I remember it just being fun. He was trying to get good shots in, but I was just playing and having a good time. Throwing stuff, making him miss. Getting some kicks and punches off. I was just having fun.
Did he bully me? No. Obviously he landed a couple of shots, but nothing that was devastating. That’s when I realized that he doesn’t hit hard. He doesn’t hit hard, at all.
“Did he bully me? No. Obviously he landed a couple of shots, but nothing that was devastating. That’s when I realized that he doesn’t hit hard. He doesn’t hit hard, at all. If they said, ‘You’re fighting Dillashaw tomorrow,’ I would be like, ‘Alright, let’s go! Let’s do it.’ You know? I don’t have to worry about his shots.
“Yeah, he doesn’t have that power. I mean, look at his rematch with Barao! Barao didn’t drop. Dillashaw threw, like, 20 punches. Hit Barao. Barao was still standing. The ref had to stop the fight, because he doesn’t have that punching power. You already know he doesn’t have that punching power. Did he bully me? Nah, he didn’t bully me at all. I mean, I had fun. I think the best thing he got was a high kick, but my arm was there. He got me a little off-balance. He hit me with a jab here and there, but I’m not gonna lie to you, that was pretty much it.”
Whatever intensity Dillashaw brought to the session was nothing new for Rivera, who trains with an impressive stable of fighters at Tiger Schulmann’s New York-based Martial Arts Academy. In fact, despite the fact that Dillashaw himself has admitted to going too hard in training, Rivera found the session to be fairly low-intensity compared to some of his usual training.
“I didn’t realize he had that reputation as a bully,” said Rivera. “That’s kind of funny, because with my teammates I’m very competitive. So when we go, we go. I’ve got to win. If I lose, I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s go again.’ But it helps us push each other to get better.
“The other day my buddy Danny Ramirez–he’s an amateur guy, up-and-coming–we grappled. After five minutes I was getting mad because I couldn’t tap him out. I’m like, ‘We’ve got to keep going.’ We went for, like, 20 minutes till someone got a tap. And I went, ‘Right, let’s go kickbox.’ That helps us get better. The kid is so good right now. He’s going to be great when he turns pro. He’s 10-0 as an amateur, but the kid gets better each day, because we try to beat the shit out of each other. But in a cool way. In a cool way.
Every sparring session isn’t a hard session. We do it once a week, if that. But whenever we roll or wrestle, we go hard. We try to win. That’s the whole purpose of training. You’ve got to.”
What shocked Rivera most about sparring with Dillashaw was just how easily he was able to compete with some of the best bantamweights in the world, even before he had signed with the UFC. It was shortly after this session that Rivera scored a pair of impressive knockout victories in Cage Fury Fighting Championships and earned his shot at the biggest prize in mixed martial arts.
In addition to the kickboxing video we have, Rivera recalls grappling with Dillashaw and Urijah Faber on the same day.
“I actually thought he kicked my ass in grappling. But I go back and I watched the session, a couple months ago, and I was like, ‘Holy shit. I swept him right away, I did this, I did that.’ I didn’t even remember it. I watched it and jumped right back into training.
“I grappled Faber, too. We did two rounds, and the one thing he did catch me with was a guillotine. That was it. You know, I’m not ashamed of it. He caught me with a guillotine, I mean, it happens. It’s training, whatever. It’s not a fight. Then [when the fight with Faber was scheduled] I was like, ‘Alright, we’ve got to work guillotine defense and make sure we’re on point with that so that he doesn’t get it in the fight.’
Rivera was well-prepared for everything that Faber had to offer, which, to hear him tell, wasn’t all that much, anyway.
[Urijah Faber] never evolved. He never grew, and got better as the years went on. He always stuck with the same things. So, it was kind of easy to figure him out.
“Well, he was a little easier of a fight,” Rivera says, sounding almost embarrassed for the UFC hall-of-famer. “Because he didn’t have that much in his arsenal. He never evolved. He never grew, and got better as the years went on. He always stuck with the same things. So, it was kind of easy to figure him out.
“He threw a lot of right hands. He was a wrestler. And there was one other thing . . . oh, guillotines. He was really good at guillotines. So I worked nonstop wrestling. And I trained with a few people for that fight, and I wasn’t even paying attention to what they were throwing half the time, I was just focused on the right hand.”
Despite having met and rolled with Faber before, and having prepared extensively to avoid his best weapons, Rivera does admit that finally meeting “The California Kid” in the UFC was a somewhat intimidating experience.
Rivera rocks Urijah Faber with a right hook. He won a unanimous decision over the veteran contender at UFC 203. Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
“In the first and second rounds I went a little light, and I was a little starstruck. I’m like, ‘I’m fighting Urijah Faber. I grew up watching this guy; I can’t fucking believe I’m fighting him now.’ And then as I’m fighting him, I’m like, ‘Come on. I’ve got to work. I’ve got to do stuff.'”
It didn’t take Rivera long to turn the tables.
“It got to a point, especially in the second round, where every time I came in he was going away. I’m like, ‘Fuck! If he’s not going to stand there and bang, and every time I step in he’s going to move, what am I going to do? It was kind of hard. It was like a cat-and-mouse game, because I would come in, I’d hit him, and he would leave. He didn’t want to bang.
“So it was what it was. And then in the third round I got that bad eye poke, and I was looking out of one eye. Obviously I was going to play it safe for the round.”
Rivera speaks of the fight with Faber, easily the biggest test of his career, as a challenge on multiple levels. That alone is a testament to his skill and talent: Rivera earned a clear unanimous decision, with all three judges giving him all three rounds.
With the Faber fight in the rearview, Rivera is now focused on climbing to the very top of the bantamweight division. Two of his biggest targets are Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw. It has been four years since Rivera last had contact with the latter, but Rivera is unconcerned, despite the fact that Dillashaw has now spent four more years working with Duane Ludwig to improve his game.
Asked whether any of those improvements stood out to him, Rivera replied, “Nah, I don’t really see it. He has the same style. Watching the way he fights, he switches a lot . . . you know, there are little things he does I think one thing he brings to the table is that he’s got a good gas tank. And I think he’s a smart fighter. But at the end of the day, he’s beatable. I can’t say he’s not good–he was the champ at one time, he’s fighting for the belt again–so I can’t say that. But is he on my level? I don’t think he’s on my level at all.
“He has two arms, two legs, and we bleed the same color, so it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day. If I get that shot, I’ll show what I bring to the table. I haven’t got that shot yet, but the closest I got was training with him, and you saw what I did. I already beat his coach . . . so I might as well finish up the Beta Males and beat Cody and get the belt. That’s it, right there. That’s their team at 135.”
Either one. I mean, I already beat up TJ, and sharing is caring, so I might as well pick Cody. It’s always fun punching someone you haven’t got to punch yet.
As for which one he would rather fight first, Rivera is most excited about enjoying new experiences in his fighting career.
“It wouldn’t matter. Dillashaw likes to wiggle a little more; Cody doesn’t, as much. But it wouldn’t matter. Either one. I mean, I already beat up TJ, and sharing is caring, so I might as well pick Cody. It’s always fun punching someone you haven’t got to punch yet.”
Oh, and Rivera had a helpful message for Dillashaw on Instagram, as well.
Here’s a step by step instructional video for @tjdillashaw for the next time he’s confronted with violence from @cody_nolove #selfdefense #basics #betamaleproblems #ufc #TUF101 #exfriendissues p.s. Thank you @thebrokage & @simslizard
For the full audio of our 50-minute interview, in which Rivera expands on his training methods, his relationship with Tiger Schulmann and the UFC, and his love of martial arts, find Heavy Hands on Patreon. The talk is available as a bonus episode, along with several others, via monthly subscription.