In an athlete’s life span, two and a half years is a long time. In MMA, people talk about “ring rust” when a fighter’s been on the bench for a year. But after 28 months, a warrior’s body takes several steps back.

Former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz last fought in October 2011. To put things into perspective, that fight was against Demetrious Johnson, who, since then, has gone on to not only win the UFC flyweight belt, but to defend it three times. About eight months after his match with Johnson, during the filming of The Ultimate Fighter: Live, Cruz sustained a knee injury, sidelining him for his next bout against fellow TUF coach “The California Kid” Urijah Faber. By December 2012, he was scheduled to undergo a second surgery on the same injury, making his return unknown.

While Cruz was on the bench, the bantamweight division started to reshape itself organically. Brazilian Renan Barao, a Kimura Nova Uniao fighter who had been undefeated in 29 fights over seven years, stepped up to the plate, captured the interim belt by defeating fan-favorite Faber via unanimous decision and has since defended that title twice. Barao has established himself as a force to be reckoned with, bringing his Zuffa winning streak to eight with notable stoppages of Michael McDonald, Eddie Wineland and Brad Pickett.

“The California Kid” has been right on his tail. Following the loss to Barao, Faber went through an amazing career revival in 2013 with stoppages of Scott Jorgensen, Ivan Menjivar and Michael McDonald. Including his August decision win over Yuri Alcantara, Sacramento’s favorite went 4-0 for the year, establishing himself as the No. 1 title contender.

UFC 169, set for this Saturday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., was shaping up to be an amazing title card. Not only is Jose Aldo lined up to defend his UFC featherweight title for the eighth time, but the bantamweight belt was finally scheduled to be unified with the return of Cruz, who would finally face Barao. Well, the clichéd injury bug has struck again.

On Jan. 6, only a few weeks out from the fight, it was announced that Cruz was out with a groin injury, he was being stripped of his title and Barao is now the undisputed UFC bantamweight champ. It was also announced that Faber stepped up on three weeks’ notice to face the Brazilian for the second time in an attempt to earn his first title since joining the UFC.

This Saturday, the night before Super Bowl XLVIII, UFC 169 takes place only 10 miles across town from the biggest sporting event on the planet. Headlining the show is the highly anticipated rematch between Barao and Faber as they both seek to earn the title of undisputed UFC bantamweight champion, and neither of these guys is showing a bit of rust. 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 match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Barao – 10, Faber – 9

In their last battle, Barao landed 85 significant strikes to Faber’s 60. The interesting thing about Barao’s stand-up attack is that his volume of follow-up strikes typically outweighs his volume of first-in strikes. Between his counterattacks and his post-damage barrages, the Brazilian is most effective when his opponents are either on their heels or moving backward. He sets up this positioning using a variety of knees and kicks. His best kicks are his head kicks, outside leg kicks and his crazy-accurate spinning side kick, which he used to set up his win over Wineland. Faber is not nearly dynamic with his striking.

“The California Kid’s” stand-up game is really tough, but also really straightforward. To his credit, with the addition of Muay Thai expert Duane Ludwig as the new Team Alpha Male head coach, Faber’s striking game has gotten much better. In the past, Faber was always a wild, unpredictable striker, in a good way. But as he moved into UFC competition, it became less and less effective. Another drawback is that he is known for keeping his hands low, which allowed him to get tagged a lot in his last bouts with both Cruz and Barao.

Since the addition of Ludwig, Faber’s striking has gotten much better. He still bounces around unpredictably with his footwork, but between his fight with Jorgensen and his fight with McDonald, there have been significant improvements in his stand-up. Faber throws big lead left hooks and overhand rights, throws in the occasional head kick and inside leg kick, and has no problem landing a flying knee to the body in close range. He keeps his hands up better than in the past, but they still reside kind of low by traditional standards.

Faber may be getting better with the striking and may have looked better than ever against McDonald in December, but Barao’s stand-up game is possibly the best in the bantamweight division. Should this one stay standing, Barao could easily see victory again.

Wrestling: Barao – 10, Faber – 10

There’s no secret that Team Alpha Male is a stable for top-level wrestlers, and Faber is the patriarch. A NCAA Division I wrestler out of University of California-Davis, he is very technically proficient, and his 59 percent takedown defense speaks for itself. He is powerful in the clinch, and his strong build makes him difficult to deal with on the mat.

Barao is not a classically trained wrestler, but his MMA-centric wrestling is phenomenal. In his eight Zuffa fights, he has only been taken down once, by Anthony Leone at WEC 49, three and a half years ago. His wrestling-style takedowns are fantastic. Against McDonald, Barao used body-clenching takedowns to not only get his opponent to the mat, but to hold him there using effective leverage and calculated pressure. On the mat, Barao is very sticky, which frustrates his opponents and causes them to burn a lot of energy.

Both Faber and Barao bring top-notch wrestling skills to the MMA ring, making this an exciting match-up from that standpoint.

Submission Grappling: Barao – 10, Faber – 10

Between the champ and the contender, these guys combine for 31 submissions in 61 total wins. Needless to say, it’s no surprise that neither one wanted to go to the ground in their first meeting.

Faber is a typical wrestler-turned-BJJ brown belt who has two major weapons in his submission arsenal—the rear-naked and guillotine chokes—both of which can be easily set up with striking and superior wrestling skills. Barao may not be classically trained in wrestling like Faber, but he is a classic BJJ black belt who has finished his opponents by a wide array of chokes and joint locks throughout his MMA career.

In a pure submission grappling match, the edge would go to the Brazilian, but in MMA action, this is the most closely matched aspect of the fight.

Speed: Barao – 10, Faber – 10

Neither Barao nor Faber is considered lightning fast on the cage, but, in all reality, they are.

As mentioned previously, Barao’s follow-up attack is insane. The very moment he senses blood in the water, he pounces like a cheetah. The most impressive thing is that even with tremendous flurries, his attacks remain calculated and focused. Also, Barao throws multiple spinning side kicks in every fight, yet his opponents never see them coming and almost always get tagged.

Faber’s speed may not lie as much in the counterattacks, but he is very quick with transitioning from striking to grappling. In his bout with McDonald, he was peppering the youngster with a flurry of strikes before quickly dropping to his patented guillotine to end the fight.

Speed is not as much of a factor in this one, because both of these men are at the same level.

Stamina: Barao – 10, Faber – 10

Last time, Faber and Barao went the distance, and both men looked as fresh in the fifth as they did in the first. Considering their respective backgrounds in combat sports and the fact that they are both at the championship level, it’s no surprise that they both have deep gas tanks.

Faber and Barao combine for 20 decisions, but Barao has only been into the championship rounds twice—once against Faber and once against McDonald. Faber has been five rounds on five occasions, but that is not really an edge.

Both of these guys can go the distance in a championship fight, and this is not an unlikely outcome for their rematch.

X-factor

Faber is looking better than ever, and the addition of Ludwig has only helped improve his striking game, which he will definitely need in this fight. However, more than anything else, “The California Kid” needs this win, and that is the X-factor in this battle. He hasn’t tasted gold in five years, and if he doesn’t get it now, he may not ever get it again. That’s not to say Barao wants to lose, but the Brazilian has yet to taste defeat in the UFC, so every passing day, he loses that hunger. Anderson Silva lost the hunger and look what happened to him. This weekend’s Faber will be the most dangerous the world has ever seen, and that will make this fight even more exciting than the one originally slated with Cruz.

Total: Barao – 50, Faber – 49

Verdict: At the end of the day, this may be a rematch of a lopsided fight, but the improvements made by Faber over the last year will make him a much tougher opponent for Barao. Barao never had an upper hand on the mat in their previous meeting, because he never let the fight get there. He knew he was the superior striker, and that’s where he kept the fight. Faber will most likely come out showcasing his renewed striking attack, but look for the American to get this one to the mat at various points throughout the fight, only to be stood back up. Neither man has been submitted, and Barao has never been stopped at all, so unless Faber can get a freak knockout, chances are this one will go the distance once again. Although Faber may earn more points than last time, the most likely outcome is that Barao will take this one by unanimous decision with Faber possibly capturing a round or two on the scorecards.