Recently-named Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) undisputed Bantamweight champion, Renan Barao looks to defend that honor against the contender he first challenged for the 135-pound belt, Urijah Faber, this Saturday (Feb. 1, 2014) in the UFC 169 main event from Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Barao's mixed martial arts (MMA) debut did not go particularly well, losing via unanimous decision way back in 2005. However, the Brazilian is clearly doing something right, since he's accumulated 31 victories without tasting defeat ever since.
In July 2012, Barao challenged for UFC's interim Bantamweight belt against Faber, winning convincingly via decision.
Since then, Barao has taken on a pair of Top 5-ranked challengers and finished them both, including a spectacular spinning kick knockout. Despite this success, he was not named the undisputed champion; however, he looked to change that at UFC 169 this weekend against returning division kingpin Dominick Cruz.
Unfortunately, a torn groin once again sidelined the Alliance MMA-trained product. Now, as a full champion, Barao will look to defend his belt for the first time.
Can Barao continue his unprecedented unbeaten streak at "The Rock?"
Let's find out:
Barao, like so many of his team mates at Nova Uniao, is a lanky and dangerous Muay Thai striker. Despite his grappling prowess, it's his striking that led him the championship and has earned him a number of highlights.
Barao's overall boxing is quite sound, but it's his jab that brings it the the next level. Capitalizing on his long reach, Barao spears his opponent with frequent jabs that land with a solid snap. The Brazilian uses his jab well, as it sets up his combinations, keeps his opponent at a distance, and does damage. In addition, Barao very often relies on the 1-2.
Another punch Barao frequently relies on is his left hook, which he primarily uses to counter. Although it can be a little wide, Barao's left hook lands with serious power. If Barao hurts his opponent, expect a quick flurry of hooks followed by a hard kick or knee.
To control the range, Barao mainly relies on his kicks. As an extremely large bantamweight, Barao kicks his opponents very hard, often causing them to stumble or be pushed back. He uses a wide array of kicks, like teeps, leg and head kicks, switch kicks, and his favorite, the spinning back kick.
Barao's low kick set ups can be hit or miss. When he uses his jab to push his opponent backwards then lands a hard kick, it works well, as his opponent will have a tough time catching or checking it. However, he'll also step into leg kicks with no set up at all, which is much easier to counter. Although it has yet to really cost him, even the much shorter Scott Jorgensen was able to land his right hand off a couple of Barao's leg kicks.
It's becoming more and more clear how valuable Barao's spinning back kick is to his game. Unless his opponent ducks into it, it's generally not a knockout blow, as he aims at his opponent's upper chest. Instead, it's a very useful tool to keep his opponent far out of range, which is vital to Barao's strategy of picking apart his foe from the outside.
Barao also utilizes a variety of knee strikes, such as flying and stepping knees. After the Nova Uniao-trained fighter lands a spinning kick, it's very common for him to burst forward with a flying knee or combination of punches. On one such occasion, Barao pushed back Faber into the cage. As "The California Kid" bounced off of the fence, Barao stopped his momentum with a knee to the body. This strike broke one of Faber's ribs, which severely affected his performance according to the Team Alpha Male product.
When he isn't attempting to wrestle his opponent, Barao's chance at victory depends upon his ability to maintain his range and control the distance. Using his jab and kicks, Barao does an excellent job keeping his opponents far away from him, where they can't really shoot for effective takedowns. This also forces his opponent to trade kicks with him, and few fighters in any division have his kicking abilities.
Although Barao's defense is, for the most part, rather sturdy, he has showed a few flaws. The biggest is his tendency to retreat backwards in a straight line, which makes it easier for his opponent to hit him at the end of a combination. The Brazilian can also be sucked into a brawl, something Pickett showed in their fight. Although Barao eventually rocked and choked "One Punch," the Brit was landing more clean punches than most of Barao's opponents. Finally, it's not uncommon for Barao to lose his balance if he aggressively chases his opponent with a long combination.
For a long time, the two Nova Uniao champions were known for their incredible defensive wrestling but rarely attempted to bring the fight to the mat. Recently, both men proved that when they need a takedown, they'll get it.
In his UFC debut, Barao took on a similarly lanky fighter in Cole Escovedo. Even though Barao was still winning the stand up, Escovedo's ranginess was making him uncomfortable, so he repeatedly took it to the mat. Using the cage to his advantage, Barao got in deep on "The Apache Kid's" hips with double legs, overpowering him and forcing him down.
Barao had to turn to his wrestling talents a second time in his first interim title defense in order to survive youthful power puncher Michael McDonald's big right hand. This time, Barao used the clinch to throw "Mayday" around. Not to say his technique was bad, but it was more of a brutal manhandling than series of subtle maneuvers.
The champ has more than proven his takedown defense. This was first visible when he fought Scott Jorgensen, as "Young Guns" actually managed to do more than most, such as securing a body lock and getting in deep on a double leg. Despite these advantageous positions, Barao was still able to remain on his feet without much difficult
Barao's takedown defense largely boils down to three things: size, good hips/balance, and his excellent range control. Size and balance are fairly self-explanatory, so let's look again at his range control.
Before shooting on an opponent with half-way decent takedown defense, it's important for the wrestler to get in fairly close before shooting. To do that, most either feint, causing their opponent to cover up, or move forward with punches. As Barao's opponent attempts to do either of these things, the Brazilian will meet them with a stiff jab or chopping kick. Both of these attacks normally stop his opponent's forward movement and often cause them to hesitate next time.
An Andre Pederneiras black belt, Barao has a legitimate claim to the best jiu-jitsu in the division. Though we rarely get to see Barao's guard game, he's finished fourteen of his opponent's via submission with his aggressive top game.
Back in the days of the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) promotion, Anthony Leone became the only man, at least in a major American promotion, to takedown Barao when he hit a double leg against the fence. From half guard, Barao quickly reached under his opponent's leg and rolled up underneath him. Next, he transitioned to a heel hook, allowing him to sweep and eventually submit Leone with an armbar counter to the kimura. In the approximately fifteen seconds Barao spent on his back, he successfully swept a fairly accomplished grappler.
That's pretty promising.
The best aspect of Barao's submission game is his back attacks. From back mount, the Brazilian grappler managed to choke out two skilled grapplers in Brad Pickett and Chris Cariaso. Against both men, Barao controlled one of their wrists from an underhook with one hand. Then, pushing that hand either down or away, Barao attacked the neck with his free hand, let go, and connected his rear naked choke grip.
It's rare that a transition can be described as explosive, but that's the perfect word for Barao's back take on Pickett. After rocking "One Punch" with a stepping knee and flurry of hooks, Barao followed him to the mat. It seemed that Pickett recovered, so he tried to spin away back to his feet. Barao reached out and secured a seat belt grip, then jumped forward, hanging off Pickett's shoulder. From there, he quickly managed to secure both hooks and pull Pickett on top off him.
The second attack in Barao's arsenal is the arm triangle. While catching an arm triangle on an opponent trying to escape the back mount is not a complex technique, the speed with which Barao locked it up on McDonald was incredibly impressive. Though the the actual squeeze took a fairly long time, Barao was only on his back for a few seconds before trapping McDonald in the submission.
Another aspect of Barao's jiu-jitsu that's worth mentioning is his impressive guard passing. Both Cariaso and McDonald have very good guards, but neither could contain Barao for very long. Barao likes to work towards the half guard then execute a cut pass from there, meaning he drives his trapped knee across his opponent's thigh, which creates enough space for him to slip to side control.
Best Chance For Success
Barao's usual game plan of keeping his opponents at the end of his range should work well against Faber, especially if he puts an extra emphasis on leg kicks. Aldo proved that it's possible to completely destroy Faber's base with low kicks, and there's no reason that Barao shouldn't try to copy that performance.
It will also be important for Barao to successfully utilize his jab. Barao doesn't want to exchange wild hooks with Faber, as that would mean the Californian is close enough to shoot for a takedown. Instead, he has to be wary of Faber's jab counters and work straight punches from the outside.
Finally, Barao should use more teep and spinning back kicks. Both kicks serve the purpose of keeping Faber far out of range and are difficult to counter or catch. Even if neither does as much damage as his low kick, they'll push Faber back and force him to fight into range once again. Plus, there's always the chance that Faber slips into one like Wineland.
Will Barao defend his title or will Faber finally bring UFC gold to Sacramento?
Be sure to check out our complete fighter breakdown of Faber right here.