Yes, T.J. Dillashaw cheated, but there’s more to his story | Opinion

Yes, T.J. Dillashaw cheated, but there’s more to his story | Opinion
·5 min read

T.J. Dillashaw is a cheater.

It’s a harsh statement, but one that is factual in nature – and one that Dillashaw, himself, won’t deny. The former two-time UFC bantamweight champion used a banned substance to aid his preparation for a title fight, and he was caught. In the simplest of terms, he cheated.

This much, we already know, and because he violated the UFC’s anti-doping policy, Dillashaw was suspended from competing for two years by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He also “voluntarily” relinquished his title at the time, though he certainly would have been stripped of the belt had he not given it up on his own.

So was Dillashaw always a cheater?

The truth is, we don’t know – and that’s an absolute shame.

One of MMA’s most prolific bantamweights, the 35-year-old veteran holds UFC records for most victories, most finishes and most performance bonuses awarded in the history of the promotion’s 135-pound division. But was it all earned through nefarious means?

Dillashaw insists it wasn’t – that he only turned to the banned substance EPO in desperation as he looked to trim down to 125 pounds and unseat then-flyweight champ Henry Cejudo. Cody Garbrandt has long insisted his former Team Alpha Male stablemate was cheating well before that, but that’s a claim that simply can’t be proven, especially considering Dillashaw passed nearly 40 tests from USADA before his failure.

Still, it’s only fair that Dillashaw’s entire career be viewed with a hint of skepticism – at least for the time being.

To Dillashaw’s credit, once he was caught, he made little effort to hide the infraction. In fact, he came out and announced the failure before USADA. Shortly after his suspension was made official, Dillashaw opened about his regrets and accepted full responsibility for his actions, saying he “messed up” and was “going to have a hard time trying to forgive” himself for the error.

While it hardly justified his decision to seek an unfair advantage over his opponent in a battle of hand-to-hand combat – an activity that sees athletes putting their health and safety on the line for a paycheck – it’s a welcome manner of dealing with a drug failure.

Dillashaw didn’t blame an unmarked blue vial of sexual enhancer for the violation. He didn’t suggest he was simply unaware of illegal substances being mistakenly injected into his body. There was no claim of tainted supplements, the standard defense we’ve seen countless times before.

Dillashaw simply admitted his error and served his time.

So what happens now?

Well, on Saturday, Dillashaw (16-4 MMA, 12-4 UFC) will return to action for the first time since January 2019, taking on top contender Cory Sandhagen in the headlining bout of UFC on ESPN 27 in Las Vegas. With Sandhagen (14-2 MMA, 7-1 UFC) checking in at No. 3 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMA Junkie bantamweight rankings, a spectacular win for Dillashaw could potentially catapult him directly into a title shot – an opportunity that he welcomes with open arms.

But should we? I say yes.

Dillashaw’s sentence has been served. He lost two years of his athletic prime, as well as the substantial revenue that would have been collected during that time. Sure, he came up short in a bid for champ-champ status, but he still had the UFC’s bantamweight title around his waist and was ready to face a number of hungry contenders lining up to challenge him in a division that has become one of the promotion’s deepest during Dillashaw’s time away.

He did the crime. He served the time.

And it’s not as though we’re simply taking Dillashaw’s word that he’s now a clean fighter. USADA has already tested him 11 times in 2021, and he will unquestionably remain one of the most closely monitored athletes on the UFC roster for as long as he continues to compete. If he fails again, then yes, throw the book at him. But if he doesn’t, then why should he face some type of glass ceiling in the bantamweight pecking order?

If Dillashaw beats Sandhagen, he deserves to face the winner of the Aljamain Sterling-Petr Yan rematch scheduled to take place later this year. It’s that simple.

What isn’t quite as black-and-white at the moment is how we look at Dillashaw’s complete body of work. Was he using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his two UFC title runs? There’s just no way to be sure.

We might get an initial idea of that answer on Saturday, though. If there is a considerable slip in Dillashaw’s performance, you can bet that “ring rust” won’t be the first factor most observers will cite. But if Dillashaw can show he’s still in vintage form, complete with crafty footwork, a relentless pace, and a scintillating variety of attack angles, then with each performance, he can put a little more space between his darkest days and the current one.

Dillashaw closed his infamous 2016 mea culpa with a simple statement: “I want to be better, and I will.”

Time will tell if he delivers on that promise, and perhaps only in retrospect will we be able to properly tell the full story of Tyler Jeffrey Dillashaw.

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