It's not often that recently dethroned champions get paired up with relatively unknown opponents, much less one ranked outside the Top 10 rankings; however, that is exactly what has happened with former Bantamweight champion Renan Barao, who will take on Canada's Mitch Gagnon this evening in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 58 in Barueri, Brazil.
For Barao, this match up seems all too easy, even on the heels of his comprehensive defeat to new champion T.J. Dillashaw and subsequent failure to make it to the cage for a scheduled rematch for the title. Barao has fought a plethora of highly-rated opponents, sporting a wide array of skills with which he has beaten many foes.
For many, this seems like a simple fight for Barao to get his legs back under him, to get a win under his belt and get back on the title hunt. To be quite honest, that's probably what the UFC was going for here, but as we know all too well, no opponent should be overlooked in UFC.
Enter Mitch Gagnon. The submission-savvy bantamweight hails from Ontario, where he trains at the unheralded Team Shredder. His 5'6" frame is packed with muscle, making him an imposing physical presence, and he boasts an aggressive style which has seen him finish all but one of his wins by way of submission. Impressive as some of his wins may be, a simple look over his record would give any educated fight fan an inclination to determine that this is a fight he will most definitely lose.
Gagnon's level of experience pales in comparison to that of Barao, who is also three years the younger of his opponent. That said, along through his fighting career, Gagnon has shown a proclivity to impose himself on opponents, and essentially give them hell until he has them where he wants them. This has worked for him on twelve out of fourteen occasions, and I do not expect him to deviate from this consistent gameplan he's become accustomed to for this fight.
Does his skillset necessarily stack up well against that of Barao? No, certainly not. However, Gagnon has the type of fighting mentality I'd expect to carry him to an at least somewhat impressive performance in a high-pressure situation.
Fighting a former champion in their own country is never an easy task, much less a Brazilian one in Brazil. The pressure of that alone is enough to weigh down the spirits of any fighter, but when you're also being overlooked as a simple stepping stone for this former champion to get back into title contention, it can't be a huge confidence booster. However, there is a certain breed of fighter that seems to feed on this kind of situation, a fighter that thrives as an underdog, someone who can rise to the occasion and give his big name opponent no respect in the cage, and that's the attitude I expect Gagnon to have in this fight.
The holes Gagnon can take advantage of in this fight are fairly small, but they are present in Barao's game. His focus should be primarily to settle in as fast as possible, so as to put Barao on the back foot from the get go. Barao is a notoriously slow starter, and often fails to impress in the opening sequences of his fights, but once he establishes a rhythm, his effectiveness increases tenfold.
Though Gagnon is obviously a fighter who prefers grappling exchanges, he isn't hopeless on the feet. His striking is rudimentary, sure, but it isn't raw. He throws combinations with poise, he moves his head relatively well, and he has solid footwork. His key feature on the feet is his solid clinchwork, as he gets the most out of his stocky, muscular build to pull and push opponents while peppering them with strikes and knees. This will be a key area in the fight, as Barao is also very adept in the clinch, and is also very skilled at swiftly disengaging from it.
On the ground, Gagnon has a very solid game. He's clearly more comfortable in top control, but his work from his back is solid, initiating scrambles to either get back to his feet or reverse positions. Again, his stocky frame helps him here, as he rarely leaves a limb or his neck exposed, and he is very explosive from these positions. On top, he is capable of unleashing threatening ground and pound, and from bottom, he'll put forward a tireless effort to get back into a winning position.
Ultimately, this fight still is one I'd expect Barao to shine in. Gagnon is a good fighter in his own right, and will probably look to employ a gameplan similar to the one Dillashaw used to such great effect against the Brazilian. That said, Barao is at that elite level you just don't see every fight.
The key point here is that while Gagnon will probably lose this fight, he has a very big opportunity to impress a fanbase that expects nothing from him. Barao is far and away the most well-known fighter he will have ever faced, and he has the potential to give him fits in some areas.
UFC is known to reward noble efforts, even if they aren't winning ones, and that's what you can expect to see from Gagnon tonight. He'll give Barao everything he possibly can, regardless of what people are expecting from this bout. I expect Gagnon to get a little more recognition after this fight, and maybe yet another Top 10-ranked opponent even if he doesn't come out on top.