The first time UFC 138 co-main eventer Renan Barao (who fights Brad Pickett this weekend in the UK) shared his thoughts with us, he made it clear that he wanted to be part of the UFC. And even though he was a bantamweight competitor and the UFC still hadn’t added this weight division to the organization, Barao wondered aloud about gaining some weight and going up to the lightweight division to make it.
Well, the Brazilian-born Barao didn't need to enter into an extreme heavy diet routine to get a place inside the Octagon, as the UFC absorbed the divisions of the WEC in late-2010 and made the dreams of all those who aspired to fight in the most prestigious MMA organization on the planet come true.
Barao made his debut in May, decisioning former WEC featherweight champion Cole Escovedo with a display of solid groundwork, excellent takedowns and a surprising standup game which featured an array of spinning back fists. Mission accomplished for the 24-year old? Not yet, as Barao still has a few goals to reach.
"My goal now is to bring the respect to the 135-pound division," Barao says. "Of course the fans still prefer the heavier divisions, but bantamweight has more speed, more technique, and don't get me wrong, the heavy guys do it too, but 135 combines some aspects that are nearly impossible for the higher weight categories."
More attention seems to be a winnable war for the smaller UFC fighters, and if you have any doubt, take a second look inside the last bantamweight championship bout involving Dominick Cruz and challenger Demetrious Johnson. Both kept a high pace for 25 minutes inside the Octagon, a tough thing to do in a five round fight. Barao agrees that we’ve reached the point for the bantamweights to be considered the most frenetic and energetic division, it's just a question of time.
"I do understand that the division is still new if you compare it to the other five UFC has [considering featherweight to be a new division too]," he said. "But I think more fighters will appear, guys who are in small organizations now, and while the weight classes is packed with talent now, within one or two years this will be the most prestigious here."
Considering what we have seen so far, Barao may be right. Besides him, there are a bunch
of quality guys such as Miguel Angel Torres, Joseph Benavidez, Michael McDonald, Urijah Faber, Brian Bowles, Johnson, and Cruz, just to name a few, and this list will get bigger as the UFC expands and small, tough guys show up more frequently.
"I have the intention [of making it], and unconsciously the others have been doing it too with their performances in their fights," Barao says. "Everybody delivers in all classes, but 135ers prove the worth of the division after every fight. And this is still new, so more Brazilians, Americans, Japanese, and British fighters will arise to prove that."
It’s a bit surreal hearing a 24-year old talking about young talents that will show up soon, but despite his youth, Barao has more experience than many older fighters. He has 30 fights, 28 triumphs, one defeat and one NC. He also has 12 submissions, which is common for a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu fighter, but not too common if the fighter in question - Barao - only got his black belt at the end of September, adding to the impressive nature of his previous performances.
"A lot of people thought I was a black belt already, so they didn't understand when my graduation was reported on the internet," Barao smiles. "It is even more motivation for my training in order to face Pickett in England."
The ground game will be ultra-important to take out a guy with the nickname "One Punch." And the moniker wasn’t given because he's a one trick pony; Pickett has it because of his power, so if one punch connects, it is game over. Barao says he's not afraid of the standup, but he understands that his lethal weapon is the ground game.
"I have been training with some of the best strikers in MMA like Jose Aldo, Eduardo Dantas, Johnny Eduardo, Zeilton Rodrigues, Felipe Olivieri, plus Davi Souza of state of Pará boxing team, and I feel good on the feet," he reveals. "But I am aware of my quality on the ground - if his plans of knocking me out don't work and he needs to fight on the ground, I know I'm better and I can sub him from the bottom or on the top."
Fighting in his foe’s home country of England, Barao knows that boos will be a constant during the match. And though the support Pickett will have can be a fuel for the Brit, for the Brazilian, the crowd will make the show look better, not intimidating.
"I can't deny that I got a bit nervous in my first UFC fight, but I was well-trained and I listened to my corner, so I could handle the adrenaline and let my game flow," he says. "Pickett posted on his Twitter account that it's time to see if I'm for real, and he wanted to provoke me. But I read it, stayed calm and focused, and I’m ready to show what I trained and to unfold the strategy we worked on."
From the preliminary card to the co-main event, Barao already achieved a lot of what he wanted to, to give the 135-pounders more attention. However, he says that it was the combination of exposure and his performance in the Octagon that did the tough job, because without it, words are only words.
"In the old times, the focus was on the main card, and you had to pray that the diehard fans and your family inside the arena for the whole card got some buzz out about you, because they were the only ones who watched these first fights on the card [laughs]. But now the UFC puts fights on Facebook, and they became more accessible, so the jump from the bottom to the top of the card will be more natural from now on. And now, I belong to this co-main event."
Barao Representing Himself, Brazil, and The Bantamweights
"My goal now is to bring the respect to the 135-pound division." - Renan Barao