9-0 under the Zuffa banner. 33 straight fights without a defeat. A 22-fight winning streak. Not a single loss since 2005. The sheer enormity of Renan Barao's dominance in the last nine years is difficult to comprehend, and yet the idea of the current bantamweight champion as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport has met with resistance from those who favor the body of work compiled by Jon Jones and his Nova Uniao teammate, Jose Aldo.
Despite the fact that Barao's been fighting in Zuffa organizations for almost four years, I feel like he's still underappreciated, and that his game as a whole is a bit of a mystery. To rectify this, we'll examine the evolution of Barao's style and track his progress from his debut as an 18 year-old BJJ novice to the complete mixed martial artist he's become today.
In order to fully understand his development, I watched every minute of Barao's fights for which I could find video in order from earliest to most recent, often several times, and my analysis reflects that process. We'll start by following his progression from fight to fight, highlighting improvements made along the way, before a final comprehensive scouting report of Barao as he stands today.
Before we get into the video and GIFs, let's start with the preliminary findings of this research process. Of all the fighters currently inhabiting the upper echelons of the sport, I'd argue that none come as close to approaching the total mastery of the breadth and depth of MMA's component skills as Renan Barao. Simply put, there's nothing he can't do inside the cage. He can throw combinations with the fluidity of a high-level kickboxer, shoot and stuff takedowns like an All-American wrestler, and jump on one of his deep arsenal of submissions with the practiced certainty of an ADCC competitor. He does all of those things with incredible speed and athleticism, but perhaps most important for all of us connoisseurs of delectable violence, Barao combines the vicious killer instinct of a no-holds-barred brawler with the technical mastery of a life-long mixed martial artist.
When Barao steps into the cage against TJ Dillashaw this Saturday, then, we should appreciate the fact that we're watching something truly special. Let's try to understand how he got there.
Finding video of a young Barao isn't easy, and the earliest fight I could find was his bout against future TUF Brazil winner Rony Jason. Barao was 19 at the time, with about a year and a half of professional experience. The video quality is terrible, it isn't the whole fight, and what's there isn't particularly entertaining, but we can still glean some interesting information. Take a look:
The first thing to note is that Barao's grappling was already rock-solid. He easily defended Rony's submission attempts and nearly locks up a few of his own, and we can see flashes of the incredible ability to take the opponent's back that he would demonstrate in his Zuffa career against Chris Cariaso and Brad Pickett. His wrestling looked decent, but given Rony's willingness to fight off his back it's hard to say much. On the feet, it's obvious that Barao was very much a work in progress - he was tentative and had enormous trouble finding the range - though again, the flush flying knee he landed on Rony was a harbinger of things to come.
Let's fast-forward eight months and check out Barao's fight against Erinaldo dos Santos. It's a short fight (it starts at the 2:00 mark), and it's worth watching in its entirety to get a sense for how ridiculously fast he improved.
The moment that best encapsulates the leaps in Barao's striking is this one:
The tentative, unsure Barao we saw against Jason disappeared, replaced by a guy who was willing to exchange and possessed a modicum of counterfighting ability: his opponent tried to wing a straight right-left hook combination, and Barao came over the top of his strikes with his own left hook-straight right combination to drop dos Santos like a sack of potatoes. The killer instinct we've seen in his UFC career was there, too, as evidenced by the vicious soccer kick he lands on his opponent after dropping him. His submission game was still present, too: due to Shooto's bizarre standing eight-count rule, Barao actually had to beat him again after this sequence, and did so the second time with a vicious leg lock.
In short, we can see drastic, rapid improvement in Barao's game. Let's check in with him two years later, against the solid journeyman Paulo Dantas:
Apologies for the three-parter here, but that's the downside of looking for regional MMA on YouTube. Leaving that aside, that two-year gap obviously did wonders for Barao's development: the flashes of ability to counter that he showed earlier have turned into the strength of his striking game, with powerful punching combinations flying back at his opponent after nearly every strike. Here's an excellent example of that counter game in action:
Interestingly enough, he threw very few kicks in this fight: that's a facet of his game that only really blossomed later. On the negative side, the tendency to get drawn into brawling mode - another thing that has shown up in his UFC career -was likewise present.
While Barao's striking is clearly better in this fight, his wrestling also showed drastic improvement. In addition to the standard body-lock trips he used earlier in his career, he demonstrated excellent shots, even chain-wrestling his way from doubles to singles and back again. Barao's takedown defense was still only solid, not yet reaching the preternatural level he'd later show during his stint under the Zuffa banner.
By this point, we should have a pretty good idea of what Barao had to offer before the WEC signed him in early 2010. He was, by prospect standards, quite polished and well rounded: Barao possessed an excellent boxing game punctuated by the occasional kick and well-timed flying knee, a more-than-adequate wrestling repertoire, and vicious, silky-smooth grappling, all of which was accentuated by his outstanding speed and athleticism.
Given Zuffa's stranglehold on fight video, it's remarkable that we have three bouts from Barao's UFC career on YouTube. Here they are:
(Fight starts at 6:15 mark)
It's clear that Barao was trying some new things against Escovedo, most notably his shiny new low-kicking game. He threw a few against Anthony Leone in his WEC debut, for example, and had used them sporadically during his regional career, but this was the first fight in which Barao systematically committed to a technical, methodical kicking game rather than sprinkling them haphazardly amid his punches. This was also the first notable appearance of Barao's spinning kicks. Whenever Escovedo had any measure of success on the feet, however, Barao wrestled him to the mat and worked patiently from top position. It wasn't the world's most exciting performance, but it was a good barometer for Barao's improvement and a window onto the full range of skills he possessed at this point.
Next up was Barao's breakout performance against Brad Pickett. It's short and sweet:
Whew. That was a hell of a fight, and it told us a great deal about Barao. First, his pace and volume improved dramatically from his previous performances. He threw nearly a hundred strikes in just over four minutes, which is an absurd workrate. Second, it highlighted a potential weakness - Barao's only weakness, really - dating back to his time on the regional circuit, which is his willingness to get into exchanges early. Even this isn't necessarily a huge negative: he does a good job of throwing shots from the very edge of his effective range, which is usually longer than his opponent's, and in general it isn't easy to land a clean shot on him. Finally, he followed a filthy combination that dropped Pickett with perhaps the most disgustingly cool back-take I've seen in MMA (check out the GIF, via Zombie Prophet). It was even faster than the slick kimura/sweep/back-take transition he hit against Chris Cariaso in his second WEC fight (GIF via Caposa).
Fast forward almost two years, and here's Barao defending his interim title against Eddie Wineland. I'm pretty sure you all remember how this one turned out.
This finish (GIF via Zombie Prophet) should be a staple in every MMA highlight reel. So should the celebration.
So, with all of this film study under our belts, what can we say about Barao's game? Let's start with his striking. Comparisons to his Nova Uniao stablemate Jose Aldo are instructive, but not as telling as the commentators would have us believe. Barao sets a much quicker pace (even in five-round fights), strings together longer combinations, and is much more likely to throw his kicks without punches or feints as a setup. Additionally, he's more likely to throw his kicks at all levels - low, middle, and high - than Aldo, who throws low kicks almost exclusively these days. That's without mentioning the array of spinning strikes that are now a staple of Barao's game. On the downside, Barao's technique isn't quite as picture perfect. He doesn't transfer weight into his punches as effectively as Aldo, he doesn't step into his kicks with the same kind of aplomb, and in general he doesn't possess the crushing power of the featherweight champion.
Barao is just as willing to exchange in the pocket as Aldo; though his head movement isn't as effective at boxing distance, he's still an outstanding counterpuncher. In terms of countering more broadly, however, the bantamweight champion has one shining skill that Aldo doesn't possess: he's outstanding on the retreat, and gets effective weight transfer and hip turn into his backstep punches. This isn't the same thing as exchanging, and it's a skill that almost nobody in MMA today possesses to any significant degree.
In sum, Barao has the clean, technical process necessary to sustain a consistent workrate over five rounds while still maintaining the constant threat of the knockout. That's a rare balance to achieve.
Barao has developed into an outstanding wrestler. He was solid even at the beginning of his career and consistently showed the ability to get his opponents to the mat with trips and throws from the body lock, but his game has improved to the point where he now fluidly shoots a variety of singles and doubles (which he often disguises with strikes). He chains his attempts together beautifully, shows excellent explosiveness and drives all the way onto the hips, and gets great lift to finish his takedowns. In a likely transfer of competence from his BJJ repertoire, he also does a fantastic job of wrestling from his knees, which is a pretty rare skill in MMA. It took a long time, but Barao's takedown defense developed from good balance in the clinch and an ultra-quick sprawl to the full range of defensive techniques, all of which he executes with skill. To give some sense for just how good his takedown defense has been over his last nine fights, he's conceded exactly one unwanted trip to the mat in twenty attempts in his combined WEC/UFC career.
To top it all off, while Barao might not be the world's most dangerous clinch fighter, he's nevertheless quite skilled at digging for underhooks, turning, and utilizing head pressure. He's occasionally shown dangerous knees and elbows at close range, and his consistent use of stepping/counter knees and uppercuts accentuates his already-outstanding takedown defense.
Barao's grappling was his strong suit when he started, and it's still gorgeous now. His athleticism contributes greatly to his dangerous transitional game on the ground, his base is rock-solid from top position, and he's a crafty topside submission artist who's always hunting for the tap. The sheer variety of submissions that he can hit is bewildering: he has six by rear-naked choke, two by triangle, two by armbar, and one each by arm triangle, kimura, kneebar, and ankle lock. He maintains a delicate balance between stifling top control and the consistent threat of the finish, as capable of finishing the fight in a flash as he is grinding out a tough decision.
That last bit is, I think, the key to understanding Barao's greatness. He can finish his opponent at any time, in any phase of the fight, and at any range, from infighting to kicking distance, on the feet. He can fight at any pace, whether it's a grinding affair in the clinch and on the ground or a quick-paced striking match at range. He's perhaps the only fighter in MMA about whom we can say that.
Barao is a special fighter on a great run. These things don't come along very often, and we should appreciate them when they do.