What we know of sports and athletics is largely built upon the ever-evolving philosophies and methods of physical practicality. We have the power to increase the size of our muscle fibers, the ability to flexion and strengthen our joints. We can expand our lungs to hold more oxygen and increase the velocity of our body’s trajectory. These same principals of adaptation and modification hold true of fighting arts.
You can say the stress of defeat is the spark of change that helped ignite the evolutionary process. Since those humble MMA beginnings—when competitors rarely had more than one discipline mastered—fighters have been vessels of change, whittling down inapplicable elements and keeping the crucial ones. It’s caged Darwinism. A natural selection process compressed in a vacuum airing live on national television and pay-per-view for the audience’s enjoyment.
What we now have is a new generation of fighters schooled in MMA as a whole entity and not MMA by way of staggered, pedagogical stages. Renan Barao is one of these new disciples. Trained in boxing by his father, a regional champ, Barao didn’t commit his life to fighting until he was 14, when he joined the Nova Uniao camp, a legendary BJJ sect. Shortly after his 18th birthday, Barao competed in his first MMA contest. It would be Barao’s first loss…and also his last.
The young Brazilian has since been incredible with a 28-fight win streak over a seven-year period. After he destroyed his competition in Brazil, WEC, and now the UFC, he’s in serious contention to not only win the bantamweight title this summer, but also rule the 135-lb. roost in a Jon Jones-esq kind of way. Who is this Barao? Where did he come from? And, is he really the next bantamweight king?
Barao joined the famed Kimura Academy in his hometown under the guidance of Jair Lourenço, one of the most revered BJJ instructors and practitioners in the world. In the 90’s, Lourenço led the small, Kimura BJJ camp to great success, so much so that Nova Uniao, one of the biggest BJJ camps in the world, absorbed the camp and made it an affiliate. Since then, the Kimura/Nova Unaio camp has been pumping out BJJ and MMA superstars like Jose Aldo and now most notably, Renan Barao.
He’s the epitome of what is mixed about the martial arts. Barao’s offensive output—strikes, submissions, takedowns—are almost evenly split, with takedowns being his least used weapon at 26%. Even so, he has 78% takedown accuracy which means that while it’s not his primary device, he’s still able to take fighters down three out of four times.
Out of his 28 victories, 42% have come via submission, 21% via T/KO, and 35% judges’ decision (fightmetrics). He may have not finished anyone via strikes since 2009, but he doesn’t need to. He’s dangerous in any setting. In the Brad Pickett fight, the rear-naked choke submission was opened up by a Barao barrage of strikes that floored the title contender. Barao could have continued to reign down blows on Pickett, but why hurt your hands when a choke is just as effective? Barao stuck to Pickett’s back like a magnet, and put him away quickly. That’s the advantage Renan has. He’s comfortable anywhere and can attack from any position, his options are open.
With Dominick Cruz out for most likely up to a year with a blown knee, Urijah Faber and Barao will fight for the interim belt at UFC 148. When you look at FightWriting’s bantamweight rankings, there’s lies a strong case for a fruitful Barao title run. Top five contender, Brian Bowles’ championship hopes were dashed by Faber, for now, back in November; it’s hard to see him being a threat to Barao. The new number four seed, Michael McDonald, is a 21-year old phenom and would make an interesting opponent for Barao. Actually, he would make the only interesting opponent for him. Scott Jorgenson and Brad Pickett were next in rank after McDonald, and Barao already defeated them. Who’s left? Eddie Wineland is back in the mix and Miguel Torres is still trying to scratch his way back to the top, but his brutal KO at the hands of McDonald showed everyone the writing might be on the wall for the former champ.
If Barao wins the interim title this July against Faber, he’ll likely face Cruz next should he be healthy. Then, it seems like McDonald would be next in line just for the sake of having an opponent for the champ (which might be a rush given McDonald’s age; he has plenty of time to be a huge star). Whatever the case, Barao has a tough road ahead of him if he hopes to capture the interim and then official bantamweight title. Is it possible? Very much so. Should Barao win the official strap, you might see the 135-lb throne occupied by the native of Natal, Brazil for a very long time.