Renan Barao celebrates after defeating Brad Pickett. UFC 138 event at LG Arena on November 5, 2011 in Birmingham, England. via UFC.com
The UFC Bantamweight division is in trouble. Dominick Cruz is a dominant champion who has come close to cleaning out the division, but his style and personality have not clicked with fans. Urijah Faber is the only semi-name in the division, leaving casual fans almost no one to grab their attention. The result? A severe lack of fan interest in the fledgling division. With nearly every top Bantamweight already holding a loss to Cruz, it looked like the division might have to wait some time before catching on with the casual fans.
Enter Renan Barao.
At UFC 138, the Brazilian fighter turned in a star-making performance, crushing Brad Pickett in the first round and establishing himself as one of the top new names at 135. And with this win, Barao may have just proved himself as the man to bring life to the division. Barao's win is sure to draw comparisons to his Nova Uniao teammate Jose Aldo, and with good reason. Like the UFC Featherweight champion, Barao is the kind of dynamic, explosive fighter that fans were promised when these lighter division came to the UFC. He's exactly what the division needs - a fighter that fans can rally behind.
So the big question is - now that the UFC has a potential Bantamweight star on their hands, what do they do with him?
There is an obvious temptation to fast track Barao into a title shot. With champion Cruz on the sidelines, we may have some time before the next defense. An option would be for Barao to face the winner of UFC 139's Urijah Faber vs. Brian Bowles fight in two weeks, with the winner moving on to a title shot. But I don't believe that is the move to make.
The UFC should send Barao down the same path Aldo traveled in the WEC. Right now, Barao is in the same position Aldo was after defeating Rolando Perez at WEC 38. He's scored his first televised win, and immediately turned heads in the process. But with Aldo, the WEC did not rush the title shot, giving him two more high profile fights and wins before setting up the Aldo vs. Mike Brown title clash. By the time that fight rolled around at WEC 44, Aldo had tremendous momentum and fan interest on his side - both of which have carried over to his current run as the UFC champion and his status among many as a top five pound for pound fighter.
Barao can reach those same levels. And the UFC 138 win over Pickett was a great first step to getting there. But it was just that - a step. The UFC has a potential star on their hands, but to get the most out of this star, they need to introduce him to a wider range of fans first. Put his next fight on the PPV portion of a strong card and let the casual fanbase get excited about this new Bantamweight phenom. After that? Put him against Cruz and cross your fingers.
If all goes well, Bantamweight could have their own Jose Aldo, and a new champion to put in the pound for pound rankings.