Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bantamweights Renan Barao and Mitch Gagnon collide this Saturday (Dec. 20, 2014) at UFC Fight Night 58 inside the Ginasio Jose Correa in Barueri, Brazil.
Barao may have started 2014 with a bang, but it turned south pretty quickly. After being thoroughly dominated and finished by TJ Dillashaw, Barao was unable to perform in the rematch due to a botched weight cut. Now, he'll look to get back into the win column.
The unheralded Gagnon enters this bout riding a four fight win streak. He's quietly put together a handful of solid UFC performances and will look for the biggest victory of his career against the former champion.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for each fighter.
Record: 32-2 (1)
Key Wins: Urijah Faber (UFC 169, UFC 149), Eddie Wineland (UFC 165), Michael McDonald (UFC on Fuel TV 7)
Key Losses: TJ Dillashaw (UFC 173)
Keys to Victory: Barao is an excellent kickboxer and savvy submission artist. When those two elements are combined with his largely impenetrable defensive wrestling, it's easy to see how the Brazilian rose to the title.
Barao, on paper, should have all the advantages in this bout. He's the better strikes with more proven power, more well-rounded submission grappler, and even his offensive wrestling is likely better than the Canadian's.
With that in mind, Barao really needs to secure a finish in this fight. After his last loss and the following debacle, Barao really needs a definitive victory to remind fans of his past success.
In order to finish Gagnon, Barao needs to push the pace. Gagnon folded underneath the pressure of Caraway's constant wrestling and submission attempts, while Barao has those skills in addition to a kickboxing advantage. If Barao can push Gagnon into the fence with strikes, wrestle from there, and then stay active on top, there's no doubt that Gagnon will slow down.
Once that happens, Barao has the option to either chase a submission or a knockout. That's a perfect in the cage decision, as he'll have a feeling of Gagnon's overall skill level after a couple rounds of combat.
Key Wins: Tim Gorman (TUF Nations Finale), Dustin Kimura (UFC 165)
Key Losses: Bryan Caraway (UFC 149)
Keys to Victory: In his "Fight of the Night" debut against Caraway, Gagnon demonstrated many of the skills he'd later showcase in winning performances. Namely, Gagnon's powerful clinch work, ground strikes, and wrestling talent.
Since then, Gagnon has improved his game quite a bit. His range striking has improved a ton -- simply take a look at the hard kicks he landed on Tim Gorman -- and his conditioning has also gotten better. He may not be Frankie Edgar, but the Canadian also isn't gassing out at the end of the first round anymore.
Of course, it's also important to mention Gagnon's nasty chokes. Of his 11 submission wins, all but one comes from either a guillotine or rear naked.
Obviously, Gagnon is a major underdog for a reason. However, if he catches Barao with a hard shot or the Brazilian is unsure of himself after recent events, Gagnon can take over this bout.
With that in mind, Gagnon needs to push hard early. If Gagnon throws heavy leather and successfully moves into the clinch, he'll be able to rough Barao up. When Barao feels uncomfortable on the feet, he usually shoots for a takedown.
And Gagnon loves the guillotine.
If Barao keeps it standing, Gagnon simply needs to keep pressuring and swinging. Barao is a scrapper at heart and will slug it out with Gagnon. It may not be perfect, but Gagnon's chances in a brawl are better than in a technical match in any area of the sport.
Bottom Line: This bout will determine which direction Renan Barao's career heads.
If Barao wins this bout, he's right back in the mix. Like it or not, it will be some time before the winner of TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz defends his strap, leaving Raphael Assuncao without an opponent for some time. Whether it's fair or not, Barao will likely end up fighting Assuncao around the time of that title fight, which also gives the UFC a backup (Assuncao) if Cruz falls to injury once more.
A loss would be tremendously devastating for the Brazilian. His loss to Dillashaw was unexpected by most for sure, but many fans simply thought it was too soon for Dillashaw to compete at that level. On the other hand, very few people look at Gagnon as a future title contender.
In addition, a loss here would cause many to question Barao's skills and physical ability after such a rough loss.
Meanwhile, Gagnon has the opportunity of a lifetime. He was miles away from taking on Barao nine months ago, and now he gets a shot at the former champion. If he wins this bout, Gagnon will skyrocket into the top five.
As is usually the case with such huge underdogs, no one would hold a loss against Gagnon for long. He would still be a ranked fighter and would likely match up with another top 15 fighter who was coming off a loss.
At UFC Fight Night 58, Renan Barao and Mitch Gagnon will duel in Brazil. Which fighter will walk away with a victory?