Renan Barao was a great fighter at 135 pounds. That’s written in the past tense, and justifiably so considering the former bantamweight champion’s been battered in two of his last three outings.
Even leaving the Octagon a victorious man last December, Barao didn’t look quite the same as he did during his dominant six-fight run entering Zuffa’s biggest show. He certainly didn’t look a bit like the man who’d won 26 consecutive fights prior, either.
That guy was a forward-moving juggernaut. Boasting world-class Muay Thai and a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Barao was unafraid of taking the fight anywhere. He struck with the best, and out-grappled MMA’s elite.
But then he met T.J. Dillashaw: the Kryptonite to his Superman, the Twitter to his Dana White, the Chris Weidman to his Anderson Silva.
Non-believers often pointed to one swift first-round blow from Dillashaw as the opening chapter to Barao’s ultimate, but avoidable demise. Without that haymaker, many argued, Barao wouldn’t have looked so off in the remaining four rounds.
And that was, contextually speaking, a fair argument at the time. Because so many people were quick to forget just how dominant Barao was in the previous 10 years, with two of those years coming against elite-level fighters at 135 pounds.
So we ventured into a too-soon rematch with the hope that the 28-year-old Nova Uniao star would remind us that he was just that: a young elite talent from one of the best fight camps on the planet.
But after three-and-a-half rounds of UFC 173: Part II, we saw that he wasn’t.
And it’s not just that he lost both title fights, but how different he looked against Dillashaw. He looked slow. He looked tired.
It’s those two qualities—paired with the idea that nothing short of evolving into an entirely different fighter 10 years into his professional career—would give Barao a chance to dethrone Dillashaw and take hold of what he once claimed as his own.
In just a matter of 14 months, Barao went from being the UFC president’s pound-for-pound best, to a man without direction. White shared his thoughts on where Barao should go next.
“It’s obviously [Barao’s] decision but I think it would be a good idea to go up in weight,” White said at the post-fight press conference. “You know, he’s been having problems with the weight. He didn’t have problems yesterday—he made the weight easy—but he looks really drawn out and dry when he cuts weight. So he should probably move up.”
White wasn’t alone in his sentiments—lots of people were calling for Barao to move up to featherweight.
Truth of the matter is, though, putting on 10 pounds won’t solve all of Barao’s problems as a prize fighter. Surely he’d have a bit more energy, but that wouldn’t necessarily increase his speed.
Rarely do we see fighters be encouraged to move up a weight class when struggling in a certain division, though. We typically see fighters move down in weight, taking on smaller fighters they could potentially handle after being used to opponents of equal size for so long.
Think Robbie Lawler, Frankie Edgar, Demetrious Johnson, Lyoto Machida, Vitor Belfort, Rashad Evans, Demian Maia, Dan Henderson and Urijah Faber.
The same can’t be said for those who’ve moved up. With names like Anthony Johnson being one of the very few exceptions to the rule.
He’d have some success against the guys at 145, sure. But even the quickest of glances at the top five fighters in the weight class should give Barao plenty of reason to stick around 135.
Fighters like Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas would force Barao against the cage or onto the mat, smothering him much like a smaller Dillashaw was able to do at will Saturday night. Edgar’s constant movement and endless battery would expose Barao’s straight-line fighting and drag Barao through a lengthy fight. The Baron’s head-first style of attack would certainly not work against an elite counter-striker in interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor.
And there’s no way he’d ever fight training partner Jose Aldo, so we can stop right there.
It’s unlikely Barao ever wears UFC gold ever again. Not as long as Dillashaw, McGregor or Aldo stand atop either of the two divisions Barao could viably compete in.