A title fight on Fuel TV? After rarely putting title fights on free broadcasts prior to signing with the Fox networks, the UFC is now starting to make it common practice. When Brazilian Renan Barão defends his interim bantamweight title for the first time against Michael McDonald on Feb. 16, it will mark the fourth free championship bout in the last 18 months.

And don’t let the interim tag fool you, this is one hell of a match-up. With champion Dominick Cruz still sidelined due to a second ACL surgery, the bantamweight division has been taken over by the new guard.

Barão captured the belt with a lopsided decision win over former WEC champion Urijah Faber in July. Since dropping his MMA debut in 2005, the 25-year-old Brazilian hasn’t tasted defeat in 30 straight fights.

Across the cage will be 22-year-old knockout artist Michael McDonald. Like Barão, McDonald took the division by storm, dismantling another former WEC title holder, Miguel Torres, in this last outing.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up. And as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills matchup against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Barão – 9, McDonald – 10

McDonald (R) (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)

To be honest, it’s hard to say that Barão will be at a disadvantage standing. The Brazilian has a diverse arsenal on the feet, with the ability to explode into any strike. He does not possess the same type of power that his teammate—and fellow champion—Jose Aldo does, but if Barão’s fight with Brad Pickett is any indication, he can put guys down with his knees. Pickett is one of the most durable fighters in the division, yet Barão unleashed a vicious flying knee that dropped the Brit, before eventually submitting him. But don’t expect Barão to stand on the outside against McDonald, as his technique may not hold up.

Technique is exactly why McDonald gets the edge on the feet. Although both fighters have similar frames, McDonald is the more technical striker. His kickboxing background is evident in his combinations and his use of angles. With nine of his 15 career wins coming by way of knockout, there’s no question that the Californian packs pop in his hands. He’s demonstrated that with back-to-back finishes of the aforementioned Torres and Alex Soto. The one hole in McDonald’s stand-up is his aggression, which can leave him open to counters. His lone defeat came by way of strikes, but he later avenged the loss.

Ground Game: Barão – 10, McDonald – 9

Barao (James Law/Heavy MMA)

While the edge standing tips slightly toward the American, the edge on the mat sways heavily toward Barão. Unlike his teammate and fellow Nova Uniao black belt Jose Aldo, Barão puts his world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to use with regularity. Three of his six wins under the Zuffa umbrella have come by way of tapout, and if Barão gets a dominant position in a fight, there’s little chance of escape. His resume is filled with nearly every form of submission in the sport, scoring with chokes, leg locks and arm attacks on his way to 13 career finishes on the mat. While Barão is willing to stand and trade with anyone, his easiest path to victory against McDonald will be on the ground.

McDonald isn’t a bad grappler by any means. The fighter holds a brown belt in BJJ and has four submission wins to his credit. But other than Torres—who opted to stand with McDonald—he hasn’t faced an elite ground fighter in his young career. Although he has had some entertaining battles on the mat with Chris Cariaso and Edwin Figueroa in his UFC career, playing that game with Barão will quickly put an end to McDonald’s title hopes.

Wrestling: Barão – 10, McDonald – 9

Barao (R) throws a kick (James Law/Heavy MMA)

Don’t get confused: yes, a Brazilian has a wrestling advantage over an American. It’s not that Barão is a dominant wrestler, but he has shown the ability to get takedowns and, more importantly, stuff them. Neither Faber nor Scott Jorgensen were able to utilize their wrestling prowess against Barão, and McDonald does not possess anything close to their credentials.

What is a concerning for McDonald is how often his fights with Cariaso and Figueroa hit the ground. While McDonald did initiate some of the grappling, he did not showcase a strong wrestling game. Couple that with the fact that he’s never faced an elite grappler or wrestler on his way up the 135-pound ladder and there is cause for concern. Barão won’t put McDonald on his back and control him for five rounds, but unless McDonald can keep the fight upright, he could be in trouble.

Strategy: Barão – 10, McDonald – 9

McDonald (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)

This comes down to experience and fight camp. Barão trains with one of the top teams in the world and has nearly twice as many fights as his younger opponent. Barão has shown in his last three fights (Faber, Jorgensen, Pickett) that he can exploit the holes in his opponents’ attacks. His fight with Faber, where he captured the belt, was a masterful display of movement and timing. He never let Faber find a rhythm over the course of the five rounds and cruised to a clear-cut decision win. Being that McDonald has gone the distance just twice in his career and never five rounds, expect Barão to try to survive the early storm and take the fight to deep waters.

Having witnessed all but one of McDonald’s UFC fights in person, it’s his willingness to engage in fights where his opponent wants them that stands out as a huge concern. He should have dismantled Figueroa based on his skill set and the fact that Figueroa came in on extremely short notice, but the fight was much closer than that. And the Cariaso fight is even more concerning. Despite a significant height and reach advantage, McDonald found himself in bad spots standing and on the ground. McDonald’s best asset is his ability to finish fights, but against someone like Barão that has never been finished, the 22-year-old may be forced to rethink that approach.

Killer Instinct: Barão – 9, McDonald – 10

McDonald (top) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

There’s irony to the fact that despite 19 finishes in 29 wins, Barão doesn’t get the edge in this department. But, as evidenced in the Faber and Jorgensen fights, the Brazilian is willing to fight smart and win on the scorecards. He certainly has the tools to end fights (ask Pickett), but compared to McDonald, he’s the fighter more likely to let the fight go the distance.

As mentioned above, McDonald hasn’t had a propensity for letting fights go the distance. Twelve of his 13 finishes have come inside the first round. Even when he doesn’t smell blood, he is looking to stop his opponents. With true knockout power, there’s little doubt that McDonald is looking to connect with a fight-ending blow from the moment the bell rings.

X-Factor

The biggest unknown in this fight has to be McDonald’s conditioning. Sure, he went the distance with Cariaso and Figueroa, but those were three-round affairs. Barão handled his first five-round battle with Faber with relative ease, so there’s little doubt he won’t be able to do it once more. Can McDonald compete for a full 25 minutes or will he fade as the fight progresses?

Total: Barão – 48, McDonald – 47

Verdict: At just 22 years of age, McDonald has a bright future in the sport, but he’s facing a well-rounded monster in Barão. McDonald’s knockout power has gotten him this far, but it will be the ground game that spells his doom against the Brazilian. Barão retains his interim strap with a fourth-round rear-naked choke win.

Top Photo: Renan Barao (L) delivers a punch (James Law/Heavy MMA)