Former UFC champion TJ Dillashaw anticipates midyear return following rehab from left knee surgery

Former UFC champion TJ Dillashaw's recovery from knee surgery is taking longer than expected, although he anticipates returning to the Octagon around midyear -- in a title fight.

Dillashaw, 35, underwent surgery on his left knee last August to repair a torn PCL and damaged meniscus. He suffered the injuries during the first round of a decision win over Cory Sandhagen in July.

Initially, Dillashaw had targeted a return early this year, as he suffered no damage to his ACL in the knee. That timeframe proved to be overly optimistic, however, and he is now eyeing sometime in the next six months or so.

"It's on track, I just didn't realize how much work I would have to get done," Dillashaw told ESPN. "I didn't realize how beat up my knee was. I knew what I tore but once I watched the video of what [the surgeon] did to me, I messed it up really bad. I almost have a full range of motion. Strength is there. I've just gotta make sure I'm safe about getting those full motions.

"I wouldn't say an exact timeframe, but I imagine halfway through the year. I'm able to hit mitts, strength and conditioning. I haven't done any grappling yet. That's the last thing I'll feel comfortable about again. And then I have to start thinking about getting into a camp."

The timing could actually work out well for Dillashaw (17-4). Current UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling is likely to fight interim champ Petr Yan in a unification bout in April, and Dillashaw believes he will fight the winner. He was forced to relinquish the 135-pound title in early 2019 after he tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO) and received a two-year suspension. He returned from that suspension in the fight against Sandhagen.

"Let's be honest, I left as a champion," Dillashaw said. "I came back, fought a No. 1 contender after a 2.5-year layoff. I was able to beat him. What else is there for me? Nothing is going to get me up and excited except getting my belt back. That's my goal. There's nothing else for me to really set my eyes on."

Dillashaw, who fights out of Southern California, acknowledged former featherweight champion Jose Aldo's recent callouts for a fight and said he looks forward to that someday, but only after he's reclaimed his title.