An interim title will be defended for the first time in years tomorrow (Feb. 16, 2013) as UFC Interim Bantamweight Champion Renan Barao battles challenger Michael McDonald in the main event of UFC on FUEL TV 7 in London, England.
Barao has gone 30 fights without defeat, hands down the longest active streak in MMA today. He rose to the top of the UFC bantamweight division, stepping in place of injured champion Dominick Cruz to defeat Urijah Faber for the interim title last summer.
McDonald has some of the best punching power at 135 pounds. Already 4-0 in his UFC career and having just turned 22 years old, McDonald has the opportunity to become the youngest champion in UFC history if he can knock Barao off his pedestal tomorrow.
Will Barao retain the the interim title? Can McDonald set a record? What's the key to victory for both men tomorrow?
Record: 29-1 (1 No Contest) overall, 9-0 in the UFC
Key Losses: none
How he got here: After losing the first fight of his professional career, Barao hasn't since tasted defeat. While the Brazilian didn't exactly face top talent while competing in his native country, he fought often, as many as seven times per year.
After his 24th straight bout without a loss, he finally earned an invite to the WEC, where he would submit Anthony Leone via armbar in his promotional debut. Barao competed on the final WEC 53 event, also submitting Chris Cariaso with a slick transition from a Kimura to taking the American's back before choking him out.
In his UFC debut, Barao had a tough battle with former WEC champion Cole Escovedo but would eventually earn a unanimous decision victory. He followed it up by going into Brad Pickett's homeland at UFC 138 and completely and utterly crushing the Brit by knocking him down in the first round and then choking him out to instantly burst into contention.
He scored a huge follow-up victory over former title challenger Scott Jorgensen earlier last year to put him over the top for an interim title shot, and he would capitalize on the opportunity, handily defeating Urijah Faber over the course of five rounds to walk away with the belt.
Now, he's looking to defend the title against a very powerful and dangerous challenger in McDonald.
How he gets it done: In this fight, Renan Barao needs to either keep his distance, or get to the canvas. His striking has progressed very quickly and he's capable of scoring points with a vast array of kicking attacks and he can also explode forward with the occasional knee. If the bout is standing, he can't let McDonald get inside as "Mayday" has some very powerful short strikes.
Barao showcased much improved boxing in his last two fights and his overall game is rounding out nicely. If he feels he's got a speed and technique edge, he's going to keep this fight standing, but he should constantly keep the threat of the takedown there as he's so aggressive on the canvas that he might simply be able to overwhelm McDonald there.
If he can force a scramble, Barao is lightning quick with his ability to hop onto his opponent's back and once there, a fight-ending rear naked choke is almost inevitable. Look for the young Brazilian to perhaps try to reverse a takedown attempt or maybe even shoot for one of his own if McDonald is on his heels in the striking.
Expect anything and everything from this young star in the making as he has grown by leaps and bounds in nearly all of his skills. Something to keep in mind is that Barao was easily able to go five rounds in his last bout, while McDonald has never seen a championship round in his career and has slowed down in fights that went the distance.
Record: 15-1 overall, 4-0 in the UFC
Key Losses: Cole Escovedo (PFC 13)
How he got here: Michael McDonald got off to an incredible early start in his mixed martial arts career. He debuted professionally in 2007 at just 16 years old and crushed everyone in his path. In his first year, he went 6-0 with six first round stoppage victories. This earned him a step up in competition although it may have been too much, too fast as he suffered his first career defeat at the hands of former WEC champion Cole Escovedo.
"Mayday" bounced back by defeating former WEC title challenger Manny Tapia and then avenging his loss to Escovedo, knocking both men out while fighting for the Tachi Palace promotion.
He made his WEC debut at just 19 years old, earning a victory over Clint Godfrey via submission in the first round and the hype really starting building. He had a rough go of it in his first two UFC bouts, winning hard-fought decisions over lesser competition although he got back on track at UFC 139 with a blistering clean 56 second knockout of Alex Soto.
In his last bout, McDonald faced another former WEC champion in Miguel Torres and he dominated "Angel," finishing him via brutal knockout inside the first round to earn a shot at the belt. Now, an opportunity to become the youngest champion in UFC history is in his grasp.
How he gets it done: While McDonald is very well-rounded, it's his hands which are going to be the difference in this fight. Renan Barao is better than him in terms of submissions and sweeps on the ground so I wouldn't recommend him taking the fight there unless he hurts the Nova Uniao first, and even then he should be cautious.
McDonald has serious power in both fists and he's got a very quick first step. The biggest key for him is to find a way to get inside Barao's reach and connect solidly on the champion's jaw. Footwork is going to be incredibly important as McDonald already has speed, so it'll be all about position.
Something else to keep in mind is that time is not on McDonald's side. His best performances of his Zuffa career have all come when he scores early stoppages while the worst have all come when he's gone the distance. McDonald needs to be aggressive early in this fight because it's unlikely he'll be able to win if it goes all five rounds anyways so he should put some extra effort into knocking Barao's block off as quick as possible.