Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight warriors Jeremy Stephens and Renan Barao will throw down this Sunday (May 29, 2016) at UFC Fight Night 88 inside Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Since dropping down to Featherweight, Stephens has established himself as a Top 10 fighter. However, he's also lost three of his last four bouts to some admittedly top-shelf competition, so he could really use the win here. Similarly, Barao has fallen on some hard times thanks to the punches and kicks of T.J. Dillashaw. Now moving up a weight class, Barao is hoping to reinvigorate his career with a strong performance.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for both athletes:
Key Wins: Dennis Bermudez (UFC 189), Darren Elkins (UFC on FOX 10), Rony Jason (UFC Fight Night 32)
Key Losses: Max Holloway (UFC 194), Cub Swanson (UFC Fight Night 44), Charles Oliveira (TUF 20 Finale)
Keys to Victory: Stephens is a very powerful puncher who has refined his technique in all areas quite a bit in recent years. Though he has lost some important bouts lately, Stephens was competitive in each loss and still looks to be a top fighter.
In this bout, Stephens is faced with an interesting challenge. In some ways, Barao is much like him, a physical striker unafraid to exchange. However -- when he's on -- Barao appears to be a bit more technical on the feet.
Therefore, Stephens needs to get aggressive and make full use of his experience fighting bigger men. Stephens' durability and power cannot be question, so a straight up exchange of punches definitely favors him.
Additionally, Barao may be a bit hesitant. The Brazilian has taken a lot of damage in recent fights and suffered his first pair of losses in nearly a decade, which undoubtedly has an effect on his mindset. If Stephens can make him feel uncomfortable early on with his power, it will go a long way in ensuring that "Lil Heathen" is the one leading the exchanges.
Record: 33-3 (1)
Key Wins: Urijah Faber (UFC 169, UFC 149), Eddie Wineland (UFC 165), Michael McDonald (UFC on Fuel TV 7)
Key Losses: T.J. Dillashaw (UFC on FOX 16, UFC 173)
Keys to Victory: Prior to losing those bouts with Dillashaw, Barao was seen as one of the absolute best in the world. A powerful Muay Thai striker with a jiu-jitsu black belt and Nova Uniao counter wrestling, Barao stymied many tough opponents en route to securing and defending the title.
Now that Barao has moved to 145 pounds, he'll have to change up his approach a bit. He's not a small Featherweight, but nor can Barao simply stand his ground and trade whenever his opponent steps to him.
Against someone like Stephens, that could get him laid out.
Instead, Barao needs to capitalize on his athleticism and striking skill. In this case, that means Barao should look to maintain the distance and keep Stephens at bay with jabs and low kicks. His opponent has a habit of trying to force the knockout, so staying tight and frustrated Stephens would certainly be a smart strategy.
I'd also like to see Barao mix it up and look for the takedown on occasion. Stephens is a pretty strong defensive wrestler, but it's a dangerous element of Barao's game that he's largely been ignoring.
If he can really mix up his skill set, Barao should have an edge.
Bottom Line: Both men are in need of a win and are comfortable in a scrap.
Stephens has been in UFC for a long, long time. At Lightweight, he was never much more than an action fighter, but he's earned his position inside the rankings at his new weight class. Still, he'd love to finally take the last step into the title mix, but Stephens needs a win here to move toward that goal.
While Stephens isn't in danger of being cut with a loss, it could see him pushed out of the top 10. Even if he's a threat to just about anyone in the division, it doesn't matter if Stephens cannot consistently win fights.
Barao is also at a crossroads. If he loses this fight, his future is especially unclear. Stephens may be a tough task, but he hasn't been defeating the division's elite. If Barao is not an elite Featherweight and a return to Bantamweight is a bad idea, where does the Brazilian head from here?
On the other hand, a win could be the start of a new run for Barao. This is a fresh start for the former champion, and he could announce himself as a player in the division sooner rather than later.
At UFC Fight Night 88, Jeremy Stephens and Renan Barao will scrap. Which fighter will remain standing when the dust settles?