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Breaking down the two divisional mess TJ Dillashaw's failed drug test created

Sporting News logo Sporting News 3/20/2019
T.J. Dillashaw holding his hands up: TJ Dillashaw © Getty Images TJ Dillashaw

Wednesday morning began with the news that UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw was relinquishing his title after being informed by USADA and the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) of an “adverse finding” from a drug test taken around his flyweight championship fight against Henry Cejudo in Brooklyn back in January.

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Dillashaw broke the news himself on Instagram, acknowledging that he would vacate the belt “out of fairness and respect for the rest of (his) division” while also stating he and his team are working to get to understand what has occurred and how to resolve the issue.

Soon after, the NYSAC announced that Dillashaw has been fined $10,000 and suspended for one year, retroactive to January 19. USADA also issued the following statement:

Reactions from within the MMA community were varied, as expected, with Dillashaw’s long-time rival and former teammate Cody Garbrandt opting for the emoji version of the Kermit the Frog, “But that’s none of my business” meme and numerous others voicing their lack of surprise, while some members of the 135-pound weight class used the news as an opportunity to immediately start lobbying for the opportunity to fight for the now-vacant title.

While there is never a good time for a reigning champion — or any fighter, honestly — to be flagged for an “adverse finding” or any type of anti-doping violation, the new vacancy atop the bantamweight ranks presents a unique opportunity for the UFC, one that could go in any number of directions.

Prior to Wednesday’s news, the consensus opinion was that Dillashaw would rematch Cejudo later this year, with the flyweight champion moving up to challenge for the bantamweight title. Given the way Cejudo dominated Dillashaw in January, running it back with the bantamweight title hanging in the balance seemed like an easy sell for the UFC and delivered another “Champion vs. Champion” clash the company could heavily market and position atop a future pay-per-view.

Going that direction meant that contenders like Marlon Moraes, Pedro Munhoz and Aljamain Sterling — a trio of talents who have each registered massive victories in 2019 — would have to sit tight for things to play out between Dillashaw and Cejudo.

With the immediate rematch off the table and the belt up for grabs, there are now multiple directions the UFC could go to crown a new bantamweight champion and some of it hinges on what the promotion has planned for the flyweight division.

As outlined earlier this week, the future of the 125-pound weight class remains in limbo following Cejudo’s successful title defense against Dillashaw in January and the assumed rematch between the two being targeted for bantamweight.

Very few flyweights remain on the roster, yet there are tremendous bouts between those scant remaining elite competitors on the books, including a Top 5 pairing that is set to take place this weekend. With Cejudo’s hopes of a bantamweight title clash against Dillashaw dashed, the opening is there for the UFC to keep him at flyweight and have him defend the belt against the few remaining contenders who are available.

Joseph Benavidez earned a second straight win the same night Cejudo starched Dillashaw and already holds a split decision victory over the champion, so he’s the obvious first choice to challenge for the flyweight title if such a fight comes together. The winner of this weekend’s All-Brazilian barnburner between Jussier Formiga and Deivison Figueiredo would be next in line, with whoever emerges from the April clash between Wilson Reis and Alexandre Pantoja hanging around the fringes.

That would leave Moraes to battle one of the other established contenders at bantamweight for the vacant strap, with Munhoz standing as the frontrunner after finishing former champ Cody Garbrandt in the first round of their UFC 235 showdown earlier this month.

But if the UFC wants to continue with allowing Cejudo to challenge for the bantamweight title, pitting the flyweight titleholder against Moraes is the only fight that makes sense, as the Brazilian has cemented his place as the No. 1 contender with consecutive first-round stoppage wins over Sterling, Jimmie Rivera and Raphael Assuncao in his last three fights.

Heading down that road would effectively signal the end of the flyweight division, as going another six months to a year without Cejudo defending the belt against one of the established contenders while having little else for those remaining athletes to do would be callous and unnecessary.

It would also maintain the logjam at the top of the 135-pound weight class, one that seemingly gets worse with each passing card.

While having a wealth of talented, entertaining fighters working their way into contention is a good problem to have, it becomes less positive when those athletes start stacking up the way they are now at bantamweight.

Moraes has said it’s “title or bust” for him at this point and that shouldn’t change. Munhoz has won three straight, just iced a former champion and is 7-1 over his last eight fights, while Sterling has also posted three straight wins, including earning a unanimous decision victory over Jimmie Rivera last time out.

A second tier of contenders consisting of Garbrandt, Rivera and Assuncao is already in place and guys like John Lineker and Cody Stamann are not far behind, while Russian rising star Petr Yan picked up his fourth UFC victory in nine months by defeating John Dodson last month in Prague to push his way into the Top 10.

There are others who aren’t too far behind Yan either, like Cory Sandhagen, Rob Font and Ricky Simon, followed by a host of talented young fighters who have already started making moves within the division like Nathaniel Wood, Sean O’Malley and Said Nurmagomedov.

Forcing Cejudo into the bantamweight championship picture now that his obvious (albeit still somewhat forced) rematch with Dillashaw has disintegrated only adds to the congestion and requires guys like Munhoz and Sterling to win at least one more tough fight — perhaps against one another — in order to maintain their place the pecking order, which causes a ripple effect down throughout the rest of the division.

If ever there was a time for the UFC to simply go back to having champions defend their titles against the next available contender in their respective division, it’s now.

There are easy-to-make fights available at both bantamweight and flyweight that get things moving again in those two uncertain weight classes and gives the organization two championship fights to promote rather than eliminating one by moving Cejudo challenge for the belt in the 135-pound weight division.

It will be interesting to see which tact the UFC opts to take, though early money has to be on having Cejudo face Moraes for the bantamweight title because shuttering the flyweight division still seems like an inevitability and the promotion is currently infatuated with the idea of having a champion from one division challenge for a second title, even though it historically does more harm than good.

The other interesting wait-and-see in all this is what becomes of Dillashaw.

As of this writing, all that is known for sure is that he won’t be fighting again before January 19, 2019, but as more information becomes available, that could certainly shift.

No one currently knows what he tested positive for during the in-competition test that resulted in this “adverse finding,” nor what kind of punishment USADA will mete out for the violation.

Regardless of how this case plays out, Dillashaw has now been classified as a cheater by many — or proven to be a cheater if you believe the accusations levied against him by Garbrandt and others over the years — and that stain is difficult to remove. Additionally, this news creates a cloud of suspicion and doubt over his career accomplishments, prompting many to call into question his two bantamweight title wins and overall success in the Octagon.

Even if he is cleared of any and all wrongdoing in this matter and serves his time, there will be some who never look at Dillashaw the same way and others still would be hesitant to believe in him in the future.

Considering he started the year with the opportunity to claim a second UFC title and talking about establishing himself as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters, this is a pretty sharp and painful fall for the 33-year-old to endure.

Continue to follow Sporting News here and on social media at @SN_Fights for more on this story as it develops

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