With a dominant unanimous decision over former WEC featherweight champion “The California Kid” Urijah Faber, Brazilian bantamweight phenom Renan Barao earned the UFC interim bantamweight championship and is slated to face current undisputed titleholder Dominick Cruz when the champ returns from injury. Many have watched as Barao has taken the division by quiet storm and defeated some of the best that the division has to offer. What is most impressive about Barao’s streak is not so much that he is now 29-1 (1 NC), so much as the way in which he has achieved this plateau.
Those who have not seen Barao fight are missing out on one of MMA’s most underrated bantamweights to date. When people say he’s a beast inside the Octagon, they’re not just saying it because somebody made the statement on commentary or at a press conference. Barao is a monster with great high-volume Muay Thai striking, a solid jiu-jitsu game, nearly impenetrable defense, and the natural ability to put it all together while bringing the aggression to his opponents in the process. These in-cage talents help Barao to win on a consistently impressive basis, and they are reasons why Barao is a favorite to take home the undisputed 135-pound title against Cruz, even if Cruz proves to have not lost a step when he returns.
Now, it’s no secret that the interim champion is the top choice for a favorite, but he is not the only choice for a favorite in the discussion of who matches up well enough with Cruz to the point of being able to beat him. Though Cruz has been a dominant champion thus far—thanks to his elusive striking, footwork and takedowns—the division is far from cleared out, as there lies two fighters who match up masterfully with the champion. It sounds difficult to believe, but a look at these fighters and what they bring to the table may make it easier to understand what Cruz may easily have in store for him in the future.
First off, there’s Mike “The Hulk” Easton, who just came off a win against Ivan Menjivar at UFC 148. Easton is a training partner of the champion, who trains with Team Lloyd Irvin and Alliance MMA, but he has not shied away from the possibility of fighting his teammate if given the chance. Cruz provides a tough test for Easton—a test not unlike what Menjivar provided—in the form of his elusive style, which sees Cruz on the outside more often than not. However, as Easton puts it, he and Cruz are known to go all out in the gym anyways, and there’s also a bit of honor in creating fireworks in the cage with your training partner.
It’s nothing we haven’t seen before with fighters such as Cole Miller and Matt Wiman or TUF 4 alumni Scott Smith and Pete Sell. Friends and teammates can create the same fireworks in the cage that two enemies can produce through simple trash talk, and while the worst we’d hear in the pre-fight interviews on both sides would be, “I like him but I’m going to beat him,” there’s no question that Cruz and Easton both can create fireworks when the cage door shuts.
As much as Easton can match Cruz just by being Cruz’s training partner, another man knows how to bring the aggression to the current champ. This other man also knows how to land a clean shot to put a bantamweight out. This man is young, but he’s already put away the likes of Miguel Torres and Alex Soto with complete conviction.
As you probably have guessed by now, that man is Michael “Mayday” McDonald. He came out of nowhere, but turned heads when he and Edwin Figueroa took home “Fight of The Night” honors at UFC Fight Night 24.
The 21-year-old McDonald is a young man with everything going for him right now. He’s 15-1 as a pro fighter; he’s unbeaten in the UFC; and he’s already poised to one day meet Barao inside the Octagon, even if not for the bantamweight crown or the interim bantamweight crown. It’s tough to know if Cruz could employ his hit-and-run tactics or try to take down and keep down the Oakdale MMA prospect without taking one on the jaw in the process. As was evidenced by his outing against Torres, McDonald can land in a half a moment’s notice. Cruz can definitely count on having to dig deep if he ever were in a fight with the young Californian.
Now, we know Easton is a beast, as is McDonald, but let’s revisit Barao. He is a technical striker like Cruz, but he’s tough to handle in just about every realm of the game. He’s been able to find a way to make his opponents’ strengths seem almost non-existent—again, like Cruz. However, there are some things Cruz does that we haven’t seen Barao do just yet.
What are those things?
Specifically, it’s Cruz’s elusive style and his footwork that must be mentioned in regards to Barao. Barao moves in and makes it difficult for fighters to get outside. As good as his competition has been, he’s never had to move in on a fighter like Cruz, and he’s never had the task of making Cruz look like he has no footwork.
Barao made Scott Jorgensen look like he was an amateur wrestler—that’s the takedown defense of the Brazilian phenom. He made a notably well-rounded fighter like Brad Pickett look anything but well-rounded. As good as Pickett is—and Pickett is good—he could not deal with Barao’s ability to execute his game plan.
Of course, let’s also recall what Barao was able to do to Faber this past weekend in Calgary. He executed his game plan to where Faber was unable to establish anything in the wrestling department or the striking department, and he made it difficult for Faber to do very much, if anything, on the outside. Fast forward to Barao’s eventual date with Cruz, however, and the game changes.
Cruz knows what it’s like to make Jorgensen and Faber look the way Barao made them both look. Although Faber is responsible for Cruz’s only pro loss, Cruz also handed Faber his first UFC loss by fighting his fight for the majority of their championship affair. Despite Jorgensen’s wrestling credentials, Cruz was able to outstrike him as well as take him down. Let’s also not forget how Cruz handled Demetrious Johnson at the UFC’s last-ever event on Versus, in which the undersized former WEC standout had a difficult time in implementing his own wrestling game against Cruz.
Barao has never had that problem with anyone he has faced in the Octagon, but again, he’s never had to use his striking or his ground game to neutralize Cruz’s striking or top game. Thus, it is understandable why many feel that Barao may lose his streak if he should bring the same fight to Cruz that he brought to Faber. However, on the other side of the spectrum, when did Cruz have to try and work on the outside against a fighter like Barao?
Cruz may do a better job of getting in and out on Barao, but never has he had the task of trying to outstrike a fighter who lands the way Barao lands on opponents. To put it in perspective, Barao’s WEC 53 undercard tilt with Chris Cariaso is the closest that anyone’s gotten to actually outstriking Barao, and that’s primarily because both men hardly threw anything before Barao submitted Cariaso. Before that, Barao outstruck Anthony Leone by only six significant strikes.
No UFC fighter has come close to outstriking Barao ever since the man debuted in the UFC, and for Cruz—who was outstruck by Johnson, albeit by only three significant strikes—that is a potential dilemma. Then again, it’s easy to suggest that even a healthy Cruz will have problems outstriking, outlanding and outdoing Barao in a title fight. Obviously, the fight on paper paints a different picture from what the real deal will show when it goes down, provided Barao is still the interim titleholder when Cruz returns.
Either way, there’s no denying that for Cruz, a return to action opposite Barao will mean that Cruz is in for a fight—one akin to the likes of which Cruz last saw when he entered WEC 50 for a title tilt against Joseph Benavidez. For Cruz, that could either result well for him, or Barao could serve Cruz the level of intensity that Benavidez never could.
If Barao is the man to welcome Cruz back to the Octagon, we’ll get our answer. If it should be McDonald or Easton, though, that could be a whole other story. The simple reality, however, is that we will not know for sure until Cruz is back to full health.
Photo: Renan Barao (R) looks for a head kick (James Law/Heavy MMA)