LOS ANGELES — Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw have one of the UFC's most compelling feuds of recent years. This beef is rooted in betrayal and tribalism, and it led to the demolition of a once-cordial relationship between training partners.
The feud persisted even after Dillashaw knocked out Garbrandt and took his bantamweight title belt last year, following months of verbal sparring and pre-fight scuffling.
Their rematch at Staples Center on Saturday night is the main event of UFC 227. It's also the chance for a particularly personal victory for both men, who declined to shake hands at their ceremonial faceoff Thursday in downtown Los Angeles.
"I prefer to be respectful," Dillashaw said Thursday. "I prefer to be a martial artist, so I like a respect level, but I don't mind the drama, either. I'm going to use it to my advantage."
Garbrandt (11-1) and Dillashaw (15-3) actually have plenty in common. They're both well-conditioned, gifted strikers who became elite competitors at Team Alpha Male, Urijah Faber's famed gym in Sacramento. They've also both become first-time fathers in the nine months since their last bout.
But they simply haven't gotten along ever since Dillashaw won the bantamweight title and also left Alpha Male in 2014. To make an epic story short, Dillashaw says he was thrown out because he wouldn't break ties with coach Duane Ludwig, who had just split acrimoniously from Faber. Several Alpha Male fighters, including Garbrandt, say Dillashaw turned his back on them.
"Let him say what he wants, but that motivates me," Garbrandt said. "If you say you're going to ruin my career and basically take food out of my child's mouth, that's fine. I didn't need any more motivation with my new son, and while I'm coming off my first loss, I've been more motivated than I ever have out of any win."
Any viewer of the pay-per-view show can't miss the clear contrast between Garbrandt, the rural Ohio product with prominent neck tattoos, and Dillashaw, the clean-cut college graduate with a California surfer look. But the rematch primarily is a collision of two fighters with legitimate reason to think they're the best in the 135-pound division.
Garbrandt rocketed to the top of the class, winning the belt less than two years after entering the UFC. He lost his title in equally stunning fashion last November to Dillashaw, who reclaimed the strap he had lost to Dominick Cruz nearly two years earlier.
During his ascent, Garbrandt appeared to be the archetype of the most compelling lighter-weight fighters. He was slick, athletic, stylistically well-rounded and powerful enough to generate knockouts — and he looked the part of a mixed martial arts star, right down to those tattoos that spread down his resplendently multicolored arms. Garbrandt's neck is covered by large wings flanking a diamond, with the words "SELF MADE" atop his sternum.
He seemed ticketed for superstardom — until Dillashaw, the former Cal State Fullerton wrestler whose only losses in the last six years were on debatable split decisions, wrecked the narrative with his fists.
Immediately after their bout at Madison Square Garden, Garbrandt claims he tried to quash their grudge, but Dillashaw rejected him. Dillashaw says he isn't to blame for not wanting Garbrandt around him.
"You've got me by the throat before, and that pushed me overboard," Dillashaw said, recalling a past scuffle between the two. "What's changed now? Just because I slapped you upside your face, what's different? Why have you got to be fake?"
While Garbrandt doesn't accept the blame for this state of affairs, he insists he has grown and changed since his wife, Danny, gave birth in March to their first child, a son named Kai. But Garbrandt also angrily declined to apologize this week for a series of racially insensitive tweets from his early 20s.
"I've never felt entitled to anything in my life," Garbrandt said. "I feel like everything happens for a reason. I've been given second chances my whole entire life. ... T.J. is a tough adversary. He's skilled. He's a good competitor. He doesn't like to lose either. That's what's great about this rivalry."