TJ Dillashaw began 2019 as UFC men's bantamweight champion and one of the highest-ranked pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The year quickly took an unforeseen turn.
Dillashaw challenged flyweight champion Henry Cejudo that January, in an effort to become the first UFC champion to go down in weight to capture a second title. What happened next can safely be described as one of the biggest falls from grace in UFC history.
Dillashaw lost to Cejudo via knockout in just 32 seconds, and two months later Dillashaw revealed he had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO) prior to the bout. He was handed a two-year suspension by the US Anti-Doping Agency, and the UFC forced him to surrender his bantamweight championship.
Dillashaw confirmed he'd taken the banned substance, saying he'd done so because his body had started to fail as he made the transition to a lighter weight class. Then he dropped out of the public eye.
This weekend, in the main event of a UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas, Dillashaw (16-4) returns to the Octagon for the first time in 2½ years, meeting ESPN's No. 3-ranked bantamweight Cory Sandhagen (14-2). Should the 35-year-old Dillashaw win, he could very well earn a shot at reclaiming his 135-pound title in his next bout.
Going into one of the biggest fights of his career, Dillashaw spoke to ESPN about his nerves and expectations.
Editor's note: Some comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
On how he feels as his return approaches
You get the jitters. You'll never not get those, no matter what. Even when you're fighting seven times a year, you still get the fight-camp jitters. That's the fun part. You've got to learn to enjoy those. So, it's an exciting time for me -- to hit the road, focus on my fight, be the main event, go out there and show off.
On his time away from fighting
I've said it's kind of been a blessing to have those two years off, to figure out what I'm gonna do after fighting -- rather than figure it out when I'm done. I now know that I'll be OK, and fighting is not what I have to do the rest of my life to pay my bills. So, it was nice to get myself set up the last two years. I didn't miss the attention. I didn't miss the jitters.
On the pressure he feels
Is there pressure to prove myself after what happened? I mean, that's a question for other people. I know the truth and I don't really care. I'm not gonna add that pressure to myself.
Even before any of the bulls---, I had pressure on myself. Having that "scared pressure" is what makes you the best. I have that pressure going into every practice, every round. I don't want to lose a round, a scramble, a sprint. All of that is driven from that scared pressure I put on myself. As long as you can hone that pressure in the right way -- some people get scared and freeze up and not perform -- I'll get scared and turn into an animal, see red and go for a finish. It's all about controlling it.
Dillashaw on EPO: I made a deal with the devil
TJ Dillashaw says he has no excuses and explains the factors that led to his positive drug test for EPO.
On what he expects to hear from fans
I'm sure there are fans still mad at me. I've learned throughout my career that no matter what, I'll be the villain. Especially that narrative of me going against my old team, Team Alpha Male, years ago, and now the failed drug test. I'm gonna have it, but that's just the reality of being in the limelight. Look at Conor McGregor. Everybody hated him until he became the man; now everyone wants to hate on him again. It's just the name of the game. I'm going to go out and win this fight and everyone is gonna f---ing forget about what happened.
On handling the negativity
It'll probably always follow, but that's another reason it was important to be upfront about it. I've been upfront about it since Day 1, because I'm putting it behind me. And not only putting it behind me so I don't have to answer about it anymore, but also because it's like therapy, you know? You go to a therapist to talk about what's bothering you and what's weighing you down, so that you don't have that anymore. I've gotten past it. It's not weighing me down anymore, because I've been so open about it. You can say that was the right thing to do, but it was the best thing to do for myself.
Some things get overlooked, because it's easy to point to the negative. Some things I've said in interviews get overlooked, because people only want to see the negative. Like, that pressure of, "Was I only who I was because of what I did?" But everybody needs to know the United States Anti-Doping Agency did its job and put me under a microscope. They went back and tested every sample I had on record because they wanted to make sure I wasn't cheating in the past. You can go back, and all of that is very public. But I wouldn't say it bothers me.
On returning against a highly ranked opponent
I turned down tune-up fights to take this fight. I didn't want them. Waste of time. Maybe a tune-up fight helps out your wallet -- you can make some quick cash -- but you can't think of any fight as a tune-up fight. I don't care if I'm facing a guy making his debut, you've gotta treat it like a title fight. I have to treat every fight like it's the biggest fight in the world.
On Cory Sandhagen
Sandhagen is athletic and he's got some good tricks up his sleeve. I have to be aware of that. But just like everyone, he has things he does great that you can counter, and he has things he doesn't do as well that you can take advantage of. I think that's how you become the best, is being so well-rounded you can be a different fighter every round and a different fighter every fight. Just like Georges St-Pierre was able to be a different fighter fight-to-fight, I'm not a one-trick pony, where I only have stand-up or only grappling or only wrestling.
Being able to do everything, your game plan can switch. These guys who only have one super strong background can't set up game plans, because they have to go off what they're best at. I don't have to worry about Cory taking me down and submitting me. I have to worry about him being flashy, moving well, throwing spinning kicks. It's scary when you have to go against a guy who can do everything. I can do all of it.
On his road toward reclaiming the championship
I'd like to get my belt back as soon as possible, but if [current champion] Aljamain Sterling has to take more time off because of his neck injury, I might be fighting someone else after this. I don't want to sit too long. I definitely want that title fight next, but I think this is the real title fight anyway. I'm gonna treat it like, "I'll fight the best." Just like when I thought I beat Dominick Cruz and should have still been the champion in 2016, I was fighting the No. 1 contenders while he was fighting the Nos. 5 and 8 guys in the division. I'll do the same thing: Continue to prove myself, build my name and collect checks.