Renan Barao may be competing in his native Brazil, but the Octagon will probably feel like nothing resembling friendly confines at UFC Fight Night 58.
Earlier this year, Barao was viewed as one of the most untouchable fighters on the UFC’s roster. He hadn’t lost a fight since his professional MMA debut in 2005 and had just defeated WEC posterboy and future UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber for a second time. It was Barao’s third finish in as many title defenses. Barao and teammate Jose Aldo seemed destined to rule the 135-pound and 145-pound divisions, respectively, for the remainder of their time in the UFC. Nova Uniao had cemented its place as one of the top gyms across the MMA landscape.
Then UFC 173 happened.
Despite nobody outside of close family members and training partners giving T.J. Dillashaw much of a chance, the Team Alpha Male product proceeded to put on a hellacious beatdown of the Brazilian. The loss not only took the title away from Barao, it shattered every bit of the invincible aura that surrounded him. It’s not very often we see a fighter who seemed so unbeatable get taken out in such dominant fashion. That raised questions of whether a) Barao didn’t take Dillashaw seriously; b) Dillashaw had the night of his career while Barao was having an off night; or c) if Dillashaw was just that much better than Barao.
Unfortunately for MMA fans, we still don’t have the answers to those questions.
A rematch was quickly scheduled, but Barao ended up having to be taken to the hospital the day of weigh-ins due to issues with his weight cut. Barao’s botched weight cut of course drew the ire of UFC President Dana White, who refused to pay Barao a dime for UFC 177 and immediately removed him from the title picture for his next bout. The Brazilian has since changed his nutrition and seems to have a renewed sense of dedication to his craft, which should produce the results we’re accustomed to from Barao at UFC Fight Night 58.
For Barao’s sake, he better hope that whatever changes he’s made provide him with the tools to make a statement at the expense of his UFC Fight Night 58 opponent, Mitch Gagnon. Barao is coming off the loss to Dillashaw at UFC 173. Gagnon, meanwhile, is currently riding a four-fight winning streak. Gagnon has proven himself to be worthy of the label “UFC fighter,” but nobody is putting him in the same league as Barao. Gagnon is currently ranked at No. 14 according to the UFC rankings, but nothing Gagnon has done in his career would make anyone believe Barao should have any problem dispatching him easily.
Although it may sound like an envious position to be in — to face an opponent most expect you to crush with ease — it makes it so Barao must win and win decisively at UFC Fight Night 58. It’s been a rough year for the Brazilian, and a clear win to close out 2014 would give him some positive momentum moving into 2015 and show the UFC that he is ready to take on the responsibility of headlining a card for the UFC title once more. Luckily, Barao is just as adept at finishing a fight via submission as he is at finishing a fight by way of knockout, so it’s not as if he needs to cling to the home run of a punch or look for desperation takedowns.
Barao faces a must-win situation against an opponent who is not expected to provide much resistance, which only adds to the pressure of fighting in front of his fellow countrymen. It appears that the UFC is content on moving forward with a Dominick Cruz challenge to Dillashaw’s reign, but Barao can erase the memories of UFC 173/177 with a decisive win against Gagnon. With all the factors in play, it would be safe to assume the words “no pressure” don’t apply to Barao’s situation at UFC Fight Night 58. When the bright lights come on this Saturday, Barao needs to show that he’s rededicated to becoming a champion, or else he could find himself in the limbo of being a top-ranked fighter with no chance at UFC gold.