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UFC’s next great rivalry gets center stage treatment

Cody Garbrandt speaks with the media during a media day for UFC 207, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, in Las Vegas. Garbrandt is scheduled to fight Dominick Cruz in a mixed martial arts bout Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

If there’s one thing the sports world loves, it’s rivalries and the narratives they bring along with them.

Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, North Carolina-Duke, Yankees-Red Sox — they’ve all stood the test of time as some of the greatest rivalries the sports world has ever known.

It’s a proven formula that doesn’t exclude the world of mixed martial arts. We look back at Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate, Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz, Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier and now Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz as some of the more memorable narratives the sport has ever provided us.

Over the course of the next three months, we’ll watch MMA’s latest great rivalry unfold on a weekly basis: Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw. The two are coaching opposite teams on the latest edition of The Ultimate Fighter, which debuted April 19.

A bout between two of the best three bantamweight fighters on the planet should already be more than enough for a reason to tune in. Add in the notion that these two are former training partners turned bitter rivals and we’ve got all the ingredients for a fun season of the otherwise underwhelming reality series.

The story between these two starts long before they started training at separate gyms.

Team Alpha Male, a haven for lighter-weight fighters in Sacramento, Calif., was home to both Dillashaw and Garbrandt as recently as two years ago. Led by former WEC bantamweight champion and multi-time UFC bantamweight title contender Urijah Faber, Team Alpha Male housed some of the best fighters on the planet. So many elite fighters, in fact, that it would almost inevitably cause friction within the team.

While MMA requires the effort of dozens of people to ensure winning, the spoils of the victory can really only be relished by one person. Teammates, coaches, trainers and family can all be recognized to some degree, but only one person can be called champion of a certain division in the UFC.

Once a fighter becomes champion, all of his teammates in the same division must either wait their turn or break the unwritten rule of fighting a member of the proverbial family.

That’s exactly what happened when Dillashaw pulled off a stunning upset over then-champion Renan Barao to become the undisputed titleholder at 135 pounds in 2014. Suddenly the gold was off limits to teammate Faber, who never spent so much as a waking moment outside of the bantamweight title scene in all of his years with the UFC. It would be off limits to Garbrandt, too, who made his promotional debut about seven months after Dillashaw’s big win.

Fortunately for both Dillashaw and his then-TAM teammates, the champion decided to part ways with the team heading into his third title defense against Dominick Cruz in January 2016. What immediately resulted was bad blood between Dillashaw and his former teammates, who felt abandoned after he jumped ship with their former estranged coach Duane Ludwig.

That initially paved the way for Faber to face his protege. Little did we know how much would change in making this ex-teammates battle happen.

As it turned out, Dillashaw lost his title to Cruz. “The Dominator” defended his crown against Faber, but wound up losing it to Garbrandt last December.

And thus the sport’s next great rivalry was born.

“I think the redemption theme for me is redemption against my old team, the guys that have kind of burned me, the guys that stabbed me in the back a little bit,” Dillashaw told UFC.com. “My redemption is proving them all wrong, showing that I did make the right choice in my life and telling my story.

“Everything’s been in the public eye so much about me moving and following (coach) Duane (Ludwig) out to Colorado. But, I don’t feel like the true story has ever been told.”

With Dillashaw just 31 and Garbrandt 25, and both fighters at or near their primes, we’re bound to see these two square off at least twice in their lifetimes. Even if Garbrandt blasts his way to victory early in Round 1 or Dillashaw dances his way toward a one-sided decision after 25 minutes, the MMA world will want more.

Whether the general population feels the same way, however, will likely be determined by the popularity of their run on The Ultimate Fighter this spring. But with how capable these two are at getting at each other’s throats on camera, perhaps that won’t be as big of an issue as it typically is.

We can only hope for as much, anyway. Both men have the talent to warrant attention, but if pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson’s latest underwhelming ratings are any indication, brilliance inside the cage isn’t always the answer. Sometimes we need the stories to go along with it.

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