If you're wondering whether former two-time UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw is worried about his reputation entering Saturday's return from a two-year USADA suspension, the answer couldn't be further from the truth.
Dillashaw (16-4) was stripped of his 135-pound title in 2019 shortly after owning up to a failed drug test for EPO that he used to help cut weight for his flyweight title loss in a 32-second knockout loss against Henry Cejudo.
Now 35, Dillashaw will enter the Octagon for the first time in 30 months when he faces Cory Sandhagen (14-2) in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas. The five-round bantamweight bout is expected to produce a No. 1 contender for the winner of a proposed rematch between current titleholder Aljamain Sterling and former champion Petr Yan.
"I have already been the villain for a long time now," Dillashaw told "Morning Kombat" on Thursday. "Thanks to Conor McGregor, I have already been the bad guy since about 2016 [when the two argued during filming of "The Ultimate Fighter"]. So maybe this kind of prepared me for it.
"The bad guy gets attention too. The bad guy gets big checks so hate me but fill my wallet."
Considering Dillashaw's previous experience of being labeled a bad teammate during a heated two-fight series against Cody Garbrandt in which the public seemed to turn against him, it has been a long time since the native of Sonora, California, has looked to social media for any kind of validation.
"I definitely learned in this sport being in front of the public eye very quickly not to read the comments or give a shit what people say about you because it's not going to be nice," Dillashaw said. "If you get involved in that, you learn real quick that people don't have lives."
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Should anyone call into question the merits of his entire career based upon one failed drug test from two years ago, Dillashaw is prepared to back up his response with documented facts. And should that not be enough to remove any kind of asterisk in the court of public opinion from a 10-year UFC run that has seen Dillashaw put himself in the conversation among the greatest bantamweights in the sport's history, the former champion still has his default villain smirk ready to remind just how little he cares.
"They are just jealous of who I am because it's all public. Everyone can search on the USADA database of who has been tested and who failed," Dillashaw said. "After I failed that drug test, USADA put me under a microscope and they retested all of my drug samples from when they started testing with the UFC. Not only did I pass them the first time, I re-passed them again.
"So let's think about this as a logical, common sense human being. Did I just forget how to cheat? I just forgot how to do it and decided to be caught? What the f--- are you thinking? Have some common sense. I can say this until I am blue in the face, but it ain't going to matter because that's what happens."
Always one to seek out the positives from every life experience, even those that seem negative on the surface, Dillashaw never lingered during his layoff about whether he made a poor decision to cut down 10 pounds in hopes of becoming a two-division champion. He has even less remorse regarding his decision to use EPO and the test he eventually failed, mostly because of the good that has come from it.
Not only did Dillashaw use the two-year break to rest his body and mind, including surgeries on both shoulders, he figured out who he actually was as a person once he was forced to temporarily shelf his identity as a star fighter.
"Every bad situation that happens to you, you have to take positives from it so you can bounce back from it," Dillashaw said. "Do I regret [fighting Cejudo at flyweight]? 100 percent. But I was chasing the ultimate want to be pound-for-pound and baddest man on the planet. I wanted that goal, I trained to be the best. But ultimately, when I became anemic and knew I was f---ed, I should have just not taken the fight.
"But it was a big payday and a change-your-life forever kind of situation. People can say whatever the f--- they want but when that's in front of you, it is what it is."
Ballooning to 168 pounds during his time away by focusing on eating healthy fats, Dillashaw worked on shifting his focus from fighting to being more present for his wife and son while also starting his own organic juice bar and food truck business.
"It was quite awesome to be a civilian and lead a normal life," Dillashaw said. "I learned that I'm going to be good outside of fighting. I'm going to be just fine. I feel like that word retirement is a scary word for fighters. What the f--- are you going to do now that you are done fighting? Now I know. I know that I will be OK. I'm not just TJ Dillashaw the fighter, I'm TJ Dillashaw the great father and successful entrepreneur."
Thanks to his newfound financial freedom separate from fighting, Dillashaw said he was in a position of leverage where he didn't need to accept the first fight offered to him upon his UFC return. He admits to turning down multiple offers to face fighters outside of the top five until the call came in for Sandhagen.
In a perfect world, Dillashaw said he was prepared to come back and fight directly for the title he was stripped of and never lost, but Yan's disqualification title loss to Sterling made that difficult. In his mind, Dillashaw was hoping fight fans would make a stink about him going right from a suspension to a title shot and imagined himself exclaiming, "Daddy's back! Got my belt," upon regaining his title.
But the chance to fight Sandhagen turned out to be the next best thing. A 29-year-old native of Colorado, Sandhagen is 7-1 since making his UFC debut in 2018 and is fresh off stoppage wins against Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar.
Dillashaw also previously sparred at length against Sandhagen and believes he got the better of it in ways that will help him on Saturday.
"[The fight] is going to look like me being victorious," Dillashaw said. "[I'm 35 but] I never fought someone who said TJ is slow or said TJ doesn't have power. I'm well rounded, I'm going to work hard and push the pace. I'm mean as shit and I'm going to win this fight."