Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Interim Bantamweight Champion Renan Barao will scrap with one of the most promising young talents in mixed martial arts (MMA) today, Michael McDonald, in the UFC on Fuel TV 7 main event this Saturday (Feb. 16, 2013) from Wembley Arena in London, England.
After going an absurd 23-1 in Brazil, Barao made his North American debut with World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), submitting his first two opponents (Anthony Leone and Chris Cariaso). After winning three more fights in the UFC, Barao earned an interim title shot against Urijah Faber when reigning division champion Dominick Cruz tore his ACL.
Barao easily beat "The California Kid" by decision. And with "The Dominator" still on the shelf nursing his surgically-repaired knee, the Brazilian will now look to keep the 135-pound division moving and defend against "Mayday."
Does Barao have the skills to defend his interim belt for the first time ever?
Let's dig deeper:
Trained by Andre Pederneiras at Nova Uniao, Barao has developed an impressive striking game. Barao has a more diverse, if less powerful, game than his teammate, UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, and is arguably the best striker in the 135-pound division.
Barao's boxing is based almost entirely on the jab. The lengthy Brazilian skillfully keeps his opponents at the edge of his range, constantly pricking them with the jab. He is proficient with the right cross as well, giving him a solid one-two combination with which he constantly connects.
Outside of this one-two combination, his boxing is fairly powerful, but average.
Where the Nova Uniao-trained product really shines is with his kicks. Barao boasts a wide array of them, regularly throwing front kicks, leg kicks, head kicks and spinning back kicks. While he doesn't always set them up, Barao's kicks land with a nasty thud and seriously hurt his opponents.
One of his most utilized kicking techniques is his spinning back kick. Barao throws the kick high, aiming at his opponent's head, and while it isn't really a knockout strike, it will push him backward. After he lands his spinning back kick, Barao will explode forward with punches or a flying knee.
Barao has some particularly nasty knee attacks. He regularly throws flying knees, mixing in stepping knees, too. From the clinch, Barao throws hard knees to the body. Faber claims that a Barao knee broke one of his ribs and severely affected his performance, which is quite impressive.
Barao is not afraid to throw unorthodox strikes. Flying knees and spinning attacks are high-risk, but the Brazilian routinely throws them with reckless abandon and lands them most of the time. This unpredictability also throws off his opponents' timing, making it easier to land his straight punches.
One of the most important aspects of striking is the ability to control distance. Barao is an expert at keeping the fight where he wants, utilizing his long jab and kicks to ward off his opponent. Against Scott Jorgensen and Faber, Barao picked them apart from the outside, never letting them get close enough to land their power punches.
Perhaps because of an overconfidence in his boxing, Barao's defense gets worse as his combinations get longer. Brad Pickett was able to land cleanly by sucking the Brazilian into a brawl and then trading hooks, which is a "One Punch" specialty. Although Barao was eventually able to overwhelm Pickett, that fight showed some pretty big holes in his defense.
As with every top Nova Uniao-trained fighter, Barao's takedown defense is spectacular. He also has some solid takedowns, which he has really only used on Cole Escovedo.
Against Escovedo, Barao seemed to have a bit of trouble striking with someone who had also had a long reach. Instead of continuing to stand with the "Apache Kid," he took the fight to ground repeatedly. Barao secured deep double leg takedowns, drove Escovedo toward the cage, and then lifted him into the air to finish with a slam. While Barao showed that he can do double leg takedowns, this doesn't tell us much about Barao's takedown game because Escovedo is not a very good wrestler.
One thing that is obvious about Barao's wrestling is that his takedown defense is elite. Faber and Scott Jorgensen are some of the best wrestlers in MMA, yet Barao effortlessly stuffed everyone of their shots.
Barao's takedown defense is so good because he controls range so well. Since his opponents have to start their shots from far out, he has plenty of time to respond and get his hips out of the way. Since he is routinely feeding his opponents' jabs and leg kicks, they are constantly off balance and sore, so their takedowns aren't their best.
Barao earned his black belt under Andre Pederneiras and has finished 13 fights via submission. Since he is nearly impossible to takedown, we haven't gotten to see much of his guard, but we have seen his aggressive top game.
Against Anthony Leone, Barao demonstrated his elite jiu-jitsu. Leone actually manage to get Barao down in the third round, but Barao rolled into a heel hook and swept Leone. From the top, he quickly countered a Leone kimura attempt, turning it into an armbar, similar to Matt Hughes' victory over Georges St. Pierre.
Barao has an extremely dangerous back mount, which is the mark of almost every great jiu-jitsu practitioner. He managed to choke out Pickett and Cariaso with rear naked chokes, both of whom have showed solid jiu-jitsu in their pasts.
The back take Barao hit on Pickett is one of the most spectacular in MMA history. After getting dropped by a flurry of strikes, "One Punch" tried to scramble back to his feet. When he did, he exposed his back and Barao jumped on it.
Barao grabbed an over-under grip around Pickett's shoulders, also known as the seat-belt grip, and then threw his leg under the Pickett's hip. It wasn't necessary, but Barao's impressive flexibility allowed him to secure his other hook before pulling Pickett on top of him.
From there, it was only a matter of time until he sunk the choke in.
Barao is exceptional at controlling just where the fight takes place. If the fight is taking place on the feet, it's because Barao wants it there. More specifically, the fight will take place at the exact range where Barao can land his long distance strikes, but his opponent can't land anything significant.
Barao's sublime takedown defense is also vital to his ability to keep the fight where he wants it. Since he can shut down his opponents takedown attempts, he takes away a huge part of their game that they have been working on for years, forcing them to fight in his comfort zone, an area he has spent years perfecting.
In all of Barao's wins, except the Pickett fight, they have taken place in one of two areas. Either with Barao on top, attempting submissions and ground strikes, or with Barao controlling the distance, picking his opponents apart. Until an opponent forces Barao to fight outside his are of expertise, he won't lose.
Best chance for success
Barao needs to do what he always does: Keep McDonald at the end of his jab and kicks. Barao must focus on setting up his kicks because McDonald will counter any single leg kicks, and Barao absolutely does not want to eat "Mayday's" counter right hand. If Barao emphasizes his spinning back kick and teep kicks over his single leg kick, he'll be able to stay away from McDonald's power strikes.
Barao should not throw long combinations. If he sticks to his one-two combination, then he will land consistently and won't be sucked into a brawl. McDonald is not someone to brawl with -- he packs way too much power to risk taking a clean shot when it could have been avoided.
If Barao can take down "Mayday," he absolutely should. While McDonald has some serious jiu-jitsu, the odds of him catching Barao are quite slim. McDonald's aggressive submission attempts will make it easier for Barao to pass his guard, so it is much more likely that McDonald get his guard passed and choked from back mount.
Will Barao defend his interim title or will McDonald become the youngest champion in UFC history?
For a closer look and "Complete Fighter Breakdown" of McDonald be sure to click here.