LAS VEGAS - Everything fell perfectly into place for T.J. Dillashaw on Saturday night. The Sacramento-based bantamweight executed an impeccable game plan at UFC 173 to unseat Renan Barao as the promotion's top 135 pounder, ending the Brazilian's nine-year unbeaten streak.
Dillashaw, a heavy underdog heading into the contest at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, started fast and never looked back, earning the TKO stoppage at 2:26 of the fifth round.
Touted by some as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter heading into UFC 173, Barao was unable catch Dillashaw, who stayed light on his feet, evading the Brazilian's offense, doing damage early and often.
While the finish came after Dillashaw landed a head kick to phase the Brazilian, following up with a flurry of punches and subsequent ground-and-pound, the pivotal moment of the fight came midway through the first round, when the American landed a picturesque overhand right that floored Barao.
With Dillashaw rushing in for the ground-and-pound finish following the knockdown, the contest was nearly halted; however, Barao covered up and protected himself, surviving until the bell. But he was never the same after that.
"You can't go into a competition scared, or you're not gonna be to your fullest," offered Dillashaw, who outstruck Barao 169 to 68. "I went in there with one hundred percent belief, even though I knew how great [Barao] was. I just had to believe in myself."
The victory was immediately heralded as one of the greatest upsets in promotional history, and no one appeared more impressed than UFC President Dana White.
"As a fight fan, I'm lucky to see one of these every two years," commented White. "What an unbelievable night. Everybody on this card performed."
In the evening's co-main event, light heavyweight Daniel Cormier upped his perfect record to 15-0, topping fellow two-time-Olympian Dan Henderson at 3:53 of the third round via rear naked choke.
Cormier put on a dominant performance against Henderson, taking the fight to the ground; completing all three of his takedown attempts, Cormier sent Henderson flying vertically through the air in the third round and slamming to the canvas.
Smothering and stifling any chance of an offensive threat from Henderson, Cormier sunk in the rear naked choke late in the final frame. But rather than tapping out, Henderson went unconscious before referee Yves Lavigne ended the contest.
"I know no one can wrestle me," remarked Cormier, goading current 205-pound champion Jon Jones into a future match. "This is my octagon. I'm the man."
Prior to Cormier's victory, Robbie Lawler and Jake Ellenberger hooked up in a featured bout of top-five welterweights, with Lawler earning the TKO-victory at 3:06 of the third round.
Lawler, who entered the Octagon just 10 weeks after narrowly losing out on the UFC title, looked impressive in the performance, pushing forward throughout, nullifying Ellenberger's offense with a bevy of head kicks.
Known for the power in his hands, Lawler started his final assault with a knee to Ellenberger's head, which sent the Nebraska native to the mat. From there Lawler pounced on Ellenberger, who attempted to cover up, before referee Herb Dean waived it off.
"I wanted to get in there and really push him to get the stoppage," added Lawler. "I hit him with that one-two and followed it up when he went down."
While the story of the main card was late-round stoppages, Takeya Mizugaki and Francisco Rivera went the distance in their bantamweight matchup, with Mizugaki earning the unanimous decision victory, 29-28, 30-27, 30-27, his fifth straight.
Both fighters traded punches throughout, regularly standing in the pocket and exchanging wildly. Mizugaki knocked Rivera down early in the first round, and immediately jumping into guard for a ground-and-pound onslaught.
And while Rivera survived until the last bell, Mizugaki progressively gained confidence throughout the fight, outstriking the California native 67-61.
"We have the same game so I was very excited to get into the Octagon and compete against him," commented Mizugaki. "I definitely landed some good shots but it could've been better."
Kicking off the main card, lightweights James Krause and Jamie Varner fought a short-lived affair, halted after the first round when referee Jason Herzog determined Varner was unable to continue due to a leg break.
Krause looked sharp early on, landing crisp and consistent punches, even attempting a failed guillotine choke when the contest shifted to the floor. But it was a low kick to the calf that seemed to do the most damage, as Varner hobbled, unable to stand and apply pressure.
Despite the break, Varner continued to stand and swing. And while it was apparent there was some serious damage, Herzog allowed the fight to continue until the bell rang.
"One of the things we worked on was kicking the calfs. I threw one and Jamie lifted his knee to check it. I felt the contact with his ankle and when he stepped back I saw that he had injured it," added Krause. "After that I started to target the ankle and unfortunately he wasn't able to answer the second round."
With UFC 173 a wrap, the promotion now packs its bags for a Saturday doubleheader, with events in both Berlin and Sao Paolo, Brazil on May 31.