T.J. Dillashaw recently said he believed his scheduled Saturday opponent and former Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight champion Renan Barao had outgrown the division.
Friday, that opinion became reality far sooner than new champion Dillashaw or anyone else expected. Barao (32-2) fell ill as he tried to lose weight for his 135-pound title-fight rematch in Sacramento and was scratched from the card.
Joe Soto (15-2) — a Porterville, Calif., product whose six-fight winning streak outside the UFC won him a contract with the organization this month — was elevated from a debut undercard bout on the card to a pay-per-view title shot.
"This is something you have to step up for, something you can't pass up," said Soto, 27, who in 2009 stood as Bellator featherweight champion and has fought his last four bouts at the Tachi Palace Casino in Lemoore.
"When you have opportunities like this, you jump at them. When the matchmakers asked me if I wanted the fight, I said yes immediately."
UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said he learned of Barao's problems about 2:30 p.m. Pacific time.
"We're always going to err on the side of the health of the fighter," Fertitta said. "He was having a hard time.… But we had to keep moving on, had to keep the show intact. Dillashaw is fine. We made a switch. We'll keep going.
"This is quite a chance for [Soto] to make some history. Dillashaw and his camp know this is a tough fight. You've got a little bit of a 'Rocky' story here too, with him getting a call three hours before the weigh-in with, 'Do you want a shot at the title?' "
Dillashaw (10-2) is forced to quickly adjust from the imposing rematch against heavy punching, jujitsu black belt Barao to being the prohibitive favorite over the nothing-to-lose wild-card opponent.
"I'm the champion," Dillashaw said. "I'm going to fight anyone they put in front of me."
UFC President Dana White said Barao passed out Friday and was physically ill during his weight cut. Doctors examined Barao, and the conclusion was drawn "he physically couldn't compete in the bout," said a UFC spokesman.
While Barao was always an oversized 135-pounder, he had no documented problems in past weight cuts.
"He might have to move up to 145 [pounds]," said White, who anointed Barao the organization's top pound-for-pound fighter before the May bout.
Barao was an 8-1 underdog in Nevada sports books in May when Dillashaw surprised him with his hand and foot speed, knocking down the Brazilian with a crushing right-handed punch to the jaw in the first round, and proceeding to finish him in the fifth round with a head kick and punches.
Dillashaw said despite Barao being scratched, he's "excited to still get the opportunity to defend my title in front of my fans in Sacramento."
The former Cal State Fullerton wrestler was raised in the small Northern California town of Angels Camp, a 90-minute car ride from Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena.
"Three stoplights, about 4,000 people, there were 100 kids in my high school graduating class," Dillashaw said. "Everyone knows everyone. The whole town is coming to the fight."
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