If you ask what comes to mind when one uses the word “snake,” then depending on the age and background of the individual, you’ll receive a host of answers, ranging from “dishonest," “crafty,” and “untrustworthy,” to “solid,” “liquid,” and “Psycho Mantis.”
In MMA, a single line from lightweight champion #ConorMcGregor, uttered to #UrijahFaber, forever altered our collective word association. “He’s a snake,” McGregor said while filming the twenty-second season of The Ultimate Fighter. And so it was. Look up the word “snake” in an MMA lexicon and #TJDillashaw’s face will be plastered across the page. You know, figuratively speaking.
For his part, Dillashaw was always the perfect target. Word association with T.J. Dillashaw and the word “snake” is more likely to yield a reply like “predator” or “deadly” than anything relating to a judgement of character. The man who fashioned himself “The Viper” did so even in 2014, long before McGregor swore he heard the Californian hiss. It takes a certain kind of person to see grace in a serpent, to look past the bitter cold and mechanical violence to appreciate the speed, precision, and ferocity of the hunter.
It was always going to be a controversial decision, to leave Faber-led #TeamAlphaMale in order to train with Duane “Bang” Ludwig following the latter’s departure from the Sacramento team. The fraternal nature of MMA often belies the fact that, well, camps are a fiscal matter, not a personal one. The concept of a camp such as Team Alpha Male came about because individually-tailored training camps were not financially viable, as they are for so many in boxing.
It’s easy to see Dillashaw as a man who slithered away from his camp at the first sign of greener pastures, but that would be unfair. It seems more accurate to see him as a tragic character, a championship-level talent seeking only to better himself under a coach with whom he shares a singular bond. Why, then, should the Viper be punished?
Cold-blooded he may be, because he doesn’t seem to care.
Like the great Venom Snake, Dillashaw offers a home to the forgotten; "the Snake Den" may sound like a bastion for sociopaths, sure, but so did Outer Heaven, and that turned out fine in the end.
The assorted rivalries formed between Dominick Cruz and several generations of Alpha Male luminaries have largely dominated the elite end of the bantamweight division since its UFC inception. Even with Cruz's departure from the immediate title picture, the belt hangs between these same narratives.
Alpha Male phenom, and current bantamweight champion, #CodyGarbrandt seemed to take Dillashaw's departure worse than anyone. While Faber made bizarre mafioso-like claims that Dillashaw "walked away from the family," Garbrandt, who almost came to blows with McGregor on the same season of TUF on which the "snake" line was first uttered, made his feelings on the matter known.
And, it's easy to see why Garbrandt may feel scorned. A guy who has been targeting Dominick Cruz since high school may not appreciate the one-sided nature of the Cruz-Alpha Male rivalry. The most dramatic improvements in Dillashaw's game came under #DuaneLudwig. Under Ludwig, he was able to develop a skill set capable of competing on at least even footing with championship-caliber opposition, dominating most.
Loyalty can be a powerful thing, even within a space in which it is inherently unwarranted. But, from an outsider's perspective, it's easy to see the precariousness of Dillashaw's position, and the unenviable nature of the choice he was forced to make. Now, he'll serve as a coach on the twenty-fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter against his scorned, familiar brother.
Rather than dwell on any of that, Dillashaw took inspiration from the 1984 seminal martial arts classic, "the Karate Kid."
"The Karate Kid" follows protagonist and Cobra Kai karate practitioner Johnny Lawrence, a troubled youth with a heart of gold, as he prepares to face off in the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Tournament against noted sociopath Daniel LaRusso. The words "strike first, strike hard, no mercy" were first uttered by Johnny's master in the art of Cobra Kai, sensei John Kreese.
If there's one thing to be said for Dillashaw, it's that he has interesting ways of looking at things. That's part of what makes his coaching spot opposite Garbrandt so appealing; neither is a gifted trash talker, but the history and animosity are legitimate, represented by one man who seeks retribution for betrayal, and another who remains uninvested in what he views as a necessary split.
Garbrandt may not be the most eloquent of orators, but if he proved anything in the lead up to his title-winning beatdown of Dominick Cruz, it is that he is willing to sound stupid as many times as it takes, as long as his hand is raised at the end. This ate at Cruz, appealed to his ego, and caused him to make serious tactical errors. Dillashaw, he's more composed. He'll just keep taking it on the chin. Those scales don't crack.