TJ Dillashaw is determined to not feel bitter about 2016 -- regardless of how difficult that may be.
A former UFC bantamweight champion, Dillashaw (13-3) says he still loves the UFC and wouldn't want to fight anywhere else. He has a good relationship with president Dana White and recently restructured his contract, even though the promotion wasn't obligated to do so.
That said, Dillashaw's frustration with mixed martial arts is at an all-time high. In January, he surrendered the UFC title in a split decision loss to Dominick Cruz -- a fight he feels he won. When the UFC didn't book an immediate rematch, he accepted a fight against the highly ranked Raphael Assuncao at UFC 200 and won.
According to Dillashaw, the UFC had made it clear a win over Assuncao would be a fast track back to the title. Despite a convincing win, however, the UFC recently booked Cody Garbrandt as Cruz's next challenge, at UFC 207 on Dec. 30. Dillashaw will fight John Lineker on the same card.
"It's crazy, man," Dillashaw told ESPN.com. "I lose one split decision to Cruz, in a fight half the people thought I won, and all of a sudden I drop from No. 4 on the UFC's pound-for-pound list to No. 14.
"You lose one superclose fight that you think you won, and it's almost like you're forgotten. I feel like I should be on a killer win streak right now, still defending the belt."
Dillashaw, 30, admits he has wondered whether his relationship with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) has had an impact on the situation. CAA is a direct competitor of entertainment group WME-IMG, which purchased the UFC for $4 billion earlier this year.
Dillashaw says he doesn't want to think being represented by CAA would place him at a disadvantage, but he doesn't know the answer for sure.
"I know WME and CAA are rivals, and I really hope this has nothing to do with that," Dillashaw said. "Ever since WME took over, that's been in the back of my head -- that it could be a conflict of interest.
"It seemed like my management kept getting shunned. They were trying to get a hold of the UFC, and [chief operating officer] Lawrence Epstein actually told my management the best way to get through was for me to approach Dana myself. I was my own manager for all this. If there is a conflict of interest, that needs to be brought up."
Ultimately, Dillashaw believes the most likely reason he's not fighting for a title is that Cruz "hand-selected" Garbrandt.
Before that fight was announced, Dillashaw publicly said he'd bet his $100,000 fight purse with Cruz should the champion agree to fight him next. Cruz never responded to the callout, which was probably the closest thing Dillashaw has come to trash talk in his career.
"I just don't understand what I did wrong," Dillashaw said. "I don't talk enough s--- is what it really comes down to? Guys like myself and [featherweight] Frankie Edgar are going to get passed up because we're too professional.
"It's unfortunate this is turning into more of an entertainment business than a sport. It's tough to decide -- what side of that fine line do you want? Be a complete a------ and play the heel, or be yourself? To me, it's easier in my life to not have to worry about being an actor."
Renegotiating his contract and a high-profile fight against Lineker (29-7) isn't a bad consolation for Dillashaw, but he's somewhat sick of consolations in general.
Dillashaw feels he's done everything in his power to be at the absolute top of the sport. But right now, for reasons that are mysterious to him, he's not.
"Dana could have given me the middle finger on that contract renegotiation, but he respected me and was willing to listen to my point of view," Dillashaw said. "Even after all this, I still love the UFC. If you're the champion of the UFC, you're the champion of the world in my eyes. It's the best organization out there.
"Face-to-face, I feel like the UFC treats me well, but no, I don't feel like I'm getting pushed to the fullest of my abilities. The UFC is a hype machine. They can put that behind anybody they want. I'm not a boring, lay-and-pray fighter. When it comes to getting pushed and marketed, I feel I get passed up because I'm too professional."