SACRAMENTO, Calif. — T.J. Dillashaw was looking forward to beating the man he won the UFC bantamweight title from in May and cementing his status as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the business.
Instead, Dillashaw will have to settle for a last-minute replacement.
Renan Barao was removed from the rematch against Dillashaw (11-2) after reportedly feeling ill during his weight cut Friday. He was replaced by Joe Soto (15-2), who was scheduled to fight the undercard against Anthony Birchak.
Dillashaw and Soto are set for a five-round bout headlining UFC 177 on Saturday night in Sacramento, a little more than 80 miles from where the current champ grew up in Angels Camp. Birchak’s new opponent was not immediately announced.
The change of plans shouldn’t derail Dillashaw’s determination.
By nearly taking Barao the distance before scoring one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, Dillashaw proved to be more than a fly-by-night power puncher and established himself as a force in the division and all of UFC. Now he’s out to prove it was no fluke against Soto, who has won six consecutive fights.
A 10-to-1 underdog for the first fight, Dillashaw became an instant celebrity following his dominant performance that began with a first-round knockdown of Barao after a hard overhand right to the head.
Barao went down again in the fifth round shortly before the fight was stopped at the 2:26 mark, ending Barao’s 22-fight win streak. Along the way, Dillashaw landed 140 significant strikes, fourth-most ever by any fighter in a UFC championship bout.
“It went a lot smoother than I expected but (I was) not shocked at all,” Dillashaw said. “I was confident going into the fight, I broke the guy down many times in my head and I visualized myself winning.”
Since winning the title from Barao at UFC 173, the 28-year-old Dillashaw’s life has changed dramatically.
He got married to his longtime girlfriend not long after the fight then went back into the gym and had been busy promoting the rematch.
Dillashaw certainly looks the part, too. During a press conference this week, the Sacramento area native wore a tan sports jacket and matching shirt that has his initials sewn into the cuffs. He sported sunglasses and smiled for pictures while alternately talking about his win over Barao in May and Saturday’s rematch.
“It’s definitely an adjustment but I’m excited to do it,” Dillashaw said. “The whole goal is to have all the eyes on you and become champion of the world and have all these problems of the media bugging you too much.”
Soto is a relative unknown who was scheduled to make his UFC debut on the undercard. Now he’s got an unexpected shot at the bantamweight title with a chance at pulling off an upset that would make Dillashaw’s win over Barao seem minor in comparison.
The 27-year-old Northern California native, who has won six consecutive fights, was mildly surprised when he received a telephone call Friday afternoon informing him of the change.
“Dillashaw’s tough but I’m going to go out there and give it my all,” Soto said in a statement on the UFC website. “I actually trained with him not too long ago, and he’s good. He’s a champion and it’s going to be a tough fight.”