Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bantamweight gold will be on the line tonight (May 24, 2014) when dominant champion Renan Barao faces TJ Dillashaw in the main event of UFC 173, airing live at 10 p.m. EST on pay-per-view (PPV) from MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Former interim champ Barao is unbeaten in his last 33 mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts. He was last seen demolishing Urijah Faber in the main event of February's UFC 169, his first bout as the official UFC bantamweight champ after Dominick Cruz was finally stripped of the title due to injury.
The decisive win marked three straight title fight finishes for "Baron," shooting him up the pound-for-pound rankings and leaving him with little competition left at bantamweight.
Having won five out of six, the No. 4-ranked contender has looked very impressive in his rapid ascent towards top contender status. However, he's a bit green heading into by far the biggest bout of his life.
With only 11 fights under his belt, Dillashaw received his title shot when Chris Weidman was forced out of his originally scheduled UFC 173 headliner against Lyoto Machida with knee surgery.
Last seen defeating a skidding Mike Easton at UFC Fight Night 35 in January, Dillashaw is tasked with defeating one of the most dangerous men on the planet.
Can the Team Alpha Team product somehow shock the world? Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Barao vs. Dillashaw:
Record: 32-1(1) overall, 7-0 UFC
Key Wins: Urijah Faber (UFC 169, UFC 149), Michael McDonald (UFC on FUEL TV 7), Eddie Wineland (UFC 165), Brad Pickett (UFC 138)
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: Barao brings an insane all-around game to the Octagon each and every time out. Training with UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo at Rio de Janeiro's vaunted Nova Uniao gym, Barao's striking is some of the best in the sport. He mixes it up with a pinpoint arsenal of leg kicks and crisp punches, and his knockout power is second to none at 135 pounds.
But his skills don't stop there. He's also a dangerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under famed coach Andre Pederneiras. Dillashaw has never been submitted, but that shouldn't prevent Barao from trying to lock on a fight-ending choke or armbar if and when this fight hits the mat.
"Baron's" takedown defense is basically flawless as well, something that will pay massive dividends against a wrestler like Dillashaw. Barao will be more than confident wherever this fight goes, but first and foremost, he'll most likely be looking to finish the fight standing.
He possesses uncanny knockout ability for a man who fights at 135 pounds. Even though Dillashaw is extremely tough to finish off, Barao is on an absolute rampage.
The flashy titleholder is simply on another level than his competition,; the onus is on Dillashaw to prove otherwise.
Record: 9-2 overall, 5-2 UFC
Key Wins: Mike Easton (UFC Fight Night 35), Hugo Viana (UFC on FOX 7), Vaughan Lee (UFC on Fuel TV 4)
Key Losses: John Dodson (TUF 14 Finale), Raphael Assuncao (UFC Fight Night 29)
Keys to Victory: A former NCAA wrestler at Cal State Fullerton, Dillashaw's stand-up game has been rapidly approaching his mat skills under the tutelage of departing head coach Duane "Bang" Ludwig.
Against Easton, he mixed up his striking with a relentless pace of varied combinations. He also dialed back some of the impatience that may have spelled his doom against Assuncao at UFC Fight Night 29.
Against Barao, however, a more patient style probably won't do anything but get him knocked out. Dillashaw has to use his excellent cardio and conditioning to get in Barao's face while still remaining cautious. "Viper" has a solid chin, but all bets are face when facing a champion of Barao's caliber.
Dillashaw maintains a solid set of ground skills. However, engaging in a grappling war with a submission wiz like Barao is another recipe for disaster. Still, Dillashaw won't be anything less than confident wherever this fight goes, and that may be the best attribute he has working for him.
He also has the added dynamic of wanting to bring home a belt for his departing Coach Ludwig. That could help or hinder him depending on how he deals with the emotions, so he has to be nothing less than focused and calm against Barao.
The deck is stacked against Dillashaw. He's a huge underdog, and for good reason. But if he can get past Barao's aura of invincibility and turn this into a dogfight, there's a small window of opportunity to score a surprising win.
Bottom Line from Las Vegas: The bottom line for this fight is that Barao has a chance to get one step closer to cleaning out the UFC 135-pound division.
Assuncao will likely be Barao's next challenger should he get past Dillashaw, but if "Baron" wins both of those fights, he'll have decimated the Top 5 altogether.
Another big finish is going to have Barao nipping on the heels of Jon Jones as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter.
Dillashaw can throw a huge wrench in those plans by scoring one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
With Dillashaw being a sort of poster boy for "Bang's" coaching system, the stage is set for a Cinderella story. It just isn't all that likely to transpire given Barao's track record. Dillashaw is talented, intelligent, skilled, driven, and focused; that much is certain.
Yet all of those positive aspects may not add up to what it takes to defeat Barao.
He's just that good, and he has an absolutely massive experience advantage over "Viper."
Similar to Chad Mendes' UFC 142 loss to Jose Aldo, it may be a bit early for Dillashaw's title shot. Win or lose, this will be a hugely beneficial experience for him.
UFC 173's main event can play out two ways. We could see one of the top fighters in the world extend his brilliance, and there's a small chance we may even witness an unexpected changing of the guard. Either way the fans win, so enjoy the fight.
Renan Barao is one the most dominant forces in all of MMA. Can rising prospect TJ Dillashaw somehow put an end to his storied run at UFC 173?