At UFC on Fuel TV 7, which will take place later this afternoon (Feb. 16, 2013) at Wembley Arena in London, England, mixed martial arts (MMA) fans will be treated to a terrific match up between two highly skilled fighters, as Renan Barao defends his interim bantamweight title against Michael McDonald.
Barao recently won the 135-pound interim strap in his dominant win over Urijah Faber at UFC 149, adding his nineteenth straight win (he hasn't lost in 28 consecutive bouts) in his nearly eight-year professional career. McDonald, who steps into this fight on an impressive eight-fight win streak of his own, staked his claim for the title shot with some brutal knockouts, which tend to be rarities within the weight class.
In a time of undeserved title shots and stylistic mismatches, it is refreshing to see a title fight of this caliber, especially on free television. Even with the label "interim," this fight might as well be for the real bantamweight title because current champion Dominick Cruz will not be fighting for much of the foreseeable future thanks to his shredded knee.
Both Barao and McDonald are highly skilled in all areas, and while their styles differ, they are fairly even in the end. Barao may be a slightly more dynamic fighter, but McDonald sacrifices finesse for hardy offense and tricky defense.
The thing that makes this fight so interesting to me is that this will be the first time either man has fought someone of similar caliber. The closest I can equate would be Faber in Barao's aforementioned interim title fight, but both of these men have been largely unchallenged.
One could say that Barao beat Chris Cariaso much more convincingly than McDonald did, but conversely, "Mayday" was much more impressive in beating Cole Escovedo. Both of their strength of schedules have improved greatly with time, and it is interesting to compare their results against the same opponents, as it shows that each man can excel in different areas than the other.
Renan Barao's style focuses heavily on finesse, while still being fairly reliable in cases where more clinical approaches might be preferred. One area, however, that Barao has yet to be truly tested in is his reactions to pressure ... real pressure.
His performances under the pressuring blitzes of Brad Pickett and Faber have shown that he isn't always able to remain cool in the pocket, but he has yet to face someone who will continually fight with him for cage position. Not simply straight line offense, but constant pressure and movement, something that could throw him off or even tire him.
If McDonald wants to have any success on the feet, he'll have to do exactly that -- press forward continually, throwing strikes often. His main flaw standing is that his defense is his offense, as he gets hit a lot, but gets away with it because he usually lands cleaner.
Therefore, he'll need to move forward to avoid getting torn apart by Barao's long range arsenal.
For Barao to have success standing, he'll have to be a little more reserved in his approach. Substituting spinning kicks and flying knees for his hard leg kicks and sharp one-two combinations to get back into the center of the cage will benefit him greatly, and it will cause both men to fight in ways they aren't necessarily comfortable. McDonald needs to constantly cut off the cage, either to keep Barao on edge or to tire him towards the later rounds, if he is to find success in the standup.
If and when this fight hits the ground, I must say, I favor Barao greatly. His Brazilian jiu-jitsu is brutally effective. And with his sound positional abilities and offensive disposition, he makes good ground fighters wither under his constant attacks. He is able to capitalize on the smallest of mistakes, and with that, he shuts down any big risks opponents want to take.
McDonald is a very respectable grappler, with some decent submissions and ground work to his name, but he is nowhere near the level of Barao. If he wants to win this fight, he'd be well advised to avoid ground exchanges at all costs, and when he finds himself in troubling spots, to stay calm and careful when finding a way out.
Otherwise, it's probably tap or nap for this young man.
Ultimately, if this fight is to go to the ground, I would expect Barao to be the one taking it there. His wrestling is excellent, as should be expected from a Nova Unaio-trained fighter, and his athleticism aids him greatly here. Should he find difficulty standing, this is a reliable go-to for him.
This fight comes down to how both men will react to a high-quality opponent. While Barao is probably more battle tested, he has yet to fight someone who will be in his face like McDonald will, and McDonald has yet to face anyone with the rangy and diverse striking game Barao presents.
This fight, whether on the ground or on the feet, is primed for excitement. Be it McDonald backing up Barao with constant attacks, Barao finding his range and going to town, or Barao taking control of the mat work, there are few positions I can imagine where offense will not be ever-present from at least one participant.
Expect these two fighters to put forth a back-and-forth affair, with a very high likelihood of taking home UFC on FUEL TV 7 "Fight of the Night' honors when the lights go down in London.