A look at the slick adjustments that allowed T.J. Dillashaw to reclaim his bantamweight title at UFC 217.
On Saturday’s stacked UFC 217 pay-per-view, perhaps no fight carried as much technical intrigue as Cody Garbrandt’s first bantamweight title defense against then-former champion T.J. Dillashaw.
Garbrandt had looked like the division’s next great champion; incredible reflexes and the sport’s best handspeed bolstered a fundamental boxing game with few equals within the organization. Crippling knockout power and razor-tight footwork enabled a counter-punching game that had – and has – the potential to devastate a fighter with remarkable swiftness.
Dillashaw – one of the sport’s best technicians in his own right – emphatically denied any narrative of a changing of the guard, turning back ‘No Love’ with versatility, toughness, and a slew of adjustments. And as might be expected of a battle between two of the sport’s best strikers, the entire bout seemed to begin, and end, with their feet.
In terms of footwork, the fight can be separated into three distinct stages based on which man was proactive, which man was reactive, and the range from which each fighter was initiating offense.
Stage 1: Dillashaw proactive, Garbrandt reactive, both fighters willing to engage in the pocket
For the first round, T.J. Dillashaw looked exactly like T.J. Dillashaw, and Cody Garbrandt looked exactly like Cody Garbrandt. The challenger shifted his weight quickly, baiting reactions as he repeatedly sought the outside foot positioning from a southpaw stance against his orthodox foe. He shifted back and forth between southpaw and orthodox, using his quick movements and dynamic stance-switching to set up kicks to the legs and body.
Garbrandt, for his part, looked much like he had in his bout with Dominick Cruz. He relentlessly denied Dillashaw’s angles with tight pivots; when Dillashaw was in southpaw, he would pull his lead foot parallel with the challenger’s to deny the outside angle that would provide a straight line for Dillashaw’s left cross. When his foe was in orthodox, Garbrandt would keep his lead foot angled across Dillashaw’s centre line before initiating, giving him a clear path for his own cross. In neutral positions, Garbrandt was confident in his ability in the pocket.
Where the ‘Viper’ looked to attack on angles almost exclusively, the champion would throw lightning-fast combinations if his opponent stood within his range and offered him a decent angle for too long. When he felt that the range was too long to flurry, No Love would either retreat, or snap Dillashaw’s head back with a quick jab, especially when both men were in orthodox stance.
That inherent understanding of distance would be a huge part of Garbrandt’s early success. His punches seemed to come at the exact right moments, he rarely bit on Dillashaw’s shifting feints, and he frequently veered just slightly out of range of hooks and low kicks.
With fifteen seconds left in the round, Dillashaw pushed forward with a lead right cross and slipped a return cross, and the two men each attempted a left hook followed by a right hook. Garbrandt’s tighter punching and more precise footwork result in him landing the only punches of the exchange.
Moments later, Dillashaw again pressured, feinting forward before stepping into the pocket with a jab-cross. When Garbrandt chambered the tight, crippling right counter that would put the challenger on the floor, Dillashaw had not even planted his lead foot yet.
In between rounds, Duane Ludwig offered T.J Dillashaw a piece of advice that would change the complexion of the fight completely.
“We don’t have to set up every kick, we can just blast the f-cking kick that you want, like to the body, all right? Not everything has to be a set-up. Just blast the f*cking kick, okay?”
Stage 2: Dillashaw proactive, Garbrandt reactive, Dillashaw initiating primarily from kicking range
From the beginning of round two, Dillashaw’s step-in movement feints largely disappeared, and he was much more wary about switching stances within Garbrandt’s punching range. Once he was within stepping distance of the champion’s deadly counters, he became more stationary, crouched forward and leading with long kicks to the legs and body. When Garbrandt was a couple of steps out of punching range, the Viper would blast a switch kick towards his body, completely out of range of counter punches. After about 90 seconds, this pivotal focus on distance paid dividends, and Dillashaw dropped Garbrandt with a high left switch kick just over the champion’s guard.
Garbrandt retreated as he ate follow-up right hooks, but once they reset, the challenger continued to pepper him with kicks. And the champion decided to take the initiative in the footwork battle.
Stage 3: Garbrandt proactive, Dillashaw proactive, Garbrandt aggressively initiating punching exchanges, Dillashaw initiating from kicking range
At this point, it’s important to define ‘proactivity’ in the context of footwork. Being proactive is not the same as pressure. It was, in fact, Dillashaw’s pressuring kicking game that persuaded the champion to be more proactive. Garbrandt, while he continued to largely move backwards, was now aggressively seeking angles for attack.
Starting near the two-minute mark of the round – and denied the option of utilizing his tighter footwork to take advantage of his opponent’s pressuring punching combinations – the champion became content to take less and less favorable exchanges.
As Dillashaw threw a low kick slightly too close to Garbrandt, the champion stepped in with a combo of blocked hooks. The challenger’s next two kicks would both see a return kick from the Team Alpha Male fighter soon after. Following these, Garbrandt bit on a level-change feint – out of range – in an attempt to create offense. A rare mistake in his generally meticulous use of distance. Pay attention to the distance through which he chased Dillashaw, and found nothing but air.
Soon after, Dillashaw feinted a jab and cut a sharp outside angle from southpaw. As Garbrandt turned wide to face him, the end was near. An end with completely inverted dynamics to the knockdown that punctuated the first round.
Several follow-up punches later, Dillashaw was once again the UFC bantamweight champion. It was a complete victory of adjustment, versatility, and the ability to take an opponent out of their game.
Dillashaw was able to not only rectify his own mistakes, but instead he baited Garbrandt into making those exact same mistakes. And when Garbrandt did, Dillashaw capitalized.