Having finished his last three title challengers in emphatic fashion, it's no surprise that Renan Barao is heavily favored over TJ Dillashaw. Add to that the fact that Dillashaw fights out of the same camp as Urijah Faber (whom Barao has already beaten twice), a camp seemingly cursed to produce runners-up, and the 8-to-1 odds don't seem so crazy after all.
As a dominant champion riding a 33-fight unbeaten streak, Barao has begun to cultivate a certain aura. With each new win, he loses a little bit more of his mortality. If his dominance continues, this trend will persist to the point that Barao's presence alone will be enough to defeat the average challenger. Indeed, fans and foes alike have already started to see Barao as unbeatable.
As an analyst, I firmly believe it is my job to resist that idea. No fighter is immortal; every man can fall to the right opponent. When Chris Weidman first fought Anderson Silva, he faced a legend to which Barao's pales in comparison. Nobody could beat Anderson Silva--and yet Weidman did. The right combination of confidence, style, and skill will topple even the greatest of champions, and Barao is not and never will be an exception.
That's why, today, we look not at the things that make Barao great, but the openings and weaknesses that remind us that he is just flesh and blood. These are the gaps in the armor. This is how to beat Renan Barao.
JAB & TURN
This might seem like inane advice--everyone and their brother knows that a jab is a useful tool--but the thing is, nobody's really been using their jabs against Barao, at least not with any consistency, which is a shame considering how susceptible he has proven to be to this very punch.
Barao's weakness to the jab stems from a fundamental aspect of his style: he is too comfortable standing square in his stance, rather than more side-on. On the one hand, this facilitates his use of round attacks from either hand or leg. With his hips more square to his opponent, he is able to throw eiher the left hook or the right round kick, his two go-to attacks with equal ease.The problem is that Barao, in opening up his hips this way, exposes the center of his body, meaning that a crafty opponent with a quick left hand can put a great deal of pressure on him with a jab and some basic footwork.
1. Barao stands in front of Brad Pickett. Note the position of his feet.
2. Pickett steps in with a jab, placing his left foot to the inside of Barao's left foot.
3. Barao tries for a left hook.
This may seem like a very small opening, but it is a real vulnerability of Barao's. Pickett's feet move throughout the sequence, while Barao is rooted firmly in place. This is just how he fights. There is no urgency to recover position--rather, Barao will let you come in at the angle you want and try to punish you for it. Watch Pickett capitalize on this knowledge:
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1. Once again, note the position of Barao's feet, particularly the left one.
2. Pickett steps in with another jab, which Barao parries.
3. The jab has allowed Pickett to move to an angle, however, and he connects with a short right hand while Barao tries to counter.
4. The two swing away for a moment longer--note how square both fighters now are. Nobody here is in an advantageous position.
It's been pointed out many times before, by many different analysts, that Barao has a tendency to get reckless and brawl. Normally, the assumption is that this indicates a lack of discipline on the champion's part, however it doesn't actually appear that Barao slugs it out for lack of self control. Rather, Barao brawls to prove to his opponent that he can.With power and speed in both hands and feet, a frenzied burst of offense is usually more than enough to convince an opponent to back off. Case in point: Pickett's work rate in the fight referenced above slowed with every Barao counter, until the Englishman ended up waiting around in front of his opponent, where Barao was able to time him and set him up for a knee that led to the finish.
The Climb: TJ Dillashaw technical retrospective
Few fighters have experienced as much improvement in the space of two years as TJ Dillashaw has under Duane Ludwig. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down Dillashaw's technical progression.
Barao can be very technical and clean when he wants to be, but he's won dozens of mental battles over the years thanks to this willingness to stand his ground and trade blows. The downside to this ability, however, is that it's allowed Barao to skate by with lackluster technique. Take a look again at that final frame in the last example above. Both Barao and Pickett are all but completely square to one another, swinging away with reckless abandon. Neither man has an advantage in that position, and that's the problem. The champion should never be conceding equal ground to his opponent. Had Pickett pivoted a little more after that right hand, he would have seized a dominant inside angle, from which Barao would have been incapable of hitting him back.
The moment that Barao faces an opponent who not only works in behind a jab but continues to move his feet and improve his position after the punches start to fly, we will see him seriously tested. It's an admirable trait to be willing to plant one's feet and throw, but neglecting to adjust to your opponent's movements in favor of throwing more punches will only get one so far.
If top control wasn't valued as highly as it usually is, Barao's incredible win streak may have ended with his UFC debut against Cole Escovedo, an underrated journeyman with a penchant for submission finishes and losing streaks to top bantamweights. Escovedo was shockingly competitive against Barao--I myself could easily see him winning the fight--and he kept Barao on his toes with something the Brazilian hasn't encountered much of since claiming the belt: kicks.
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1. Escovedo circles to the left.
2. Suddenly he stops, and switches his feet for a kick.
3. Barao loads up on his favorite counter, a long left hook, but Escovedo's kick lands perfectly, his full shin smashing into Barao's liver.
4. Barao's hook clips Escovedo on the tip of the chin.
This exchange highlights both the reason that Barao is vulnerable to kicks, and yet difficult to kick. The bantamweight champion is, like stablemate Jose Aldo, known for powerful kicks of his own, but when he wants to counter, he only ever does so with his hands. This means that he is often out of reach to land a clean counter. However, Barao doesn't balk at the idea of reaching and overextending himself if it means hitting his opponent, and he does succeed in catching Escovedo above. Ill-suited to the range or not, Barao's punches still make a convincing argument for not exposing oneself by throwing a kick.
Still, if an opponent is willing to accept the fact that they might get hit with a counter, Barao is wide open for the kicks. Sometimes he swings back and tries to intercept, but he almost never checks a kick.
There is no doubt that this hole still exists in Barao's style, because he hasn't been pressured enough in this area recently to invest time in fixing it. It's been some time since anyone really relied a kicking game against him, but the rare instances where opponents have tried, they have found success. Eddie Wineland threw a handful of kicks, and capitalized on another of Barao's vulnerabilities.
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1. Wineland feints a jab, forcing Barao to retreat.
2. A body shot keeps Barao moving toward the fence.
3. Wineland plants his left foot forward, checking Barao's hands with his own as he winds up for a low kick...
4. ...which thuds into Barao's thigh as he tries to move away (damnit ref!)
Given a power punch, Barao will often plant his feet and throw back. Shown a convincing feint, however, and he will retreat. Barao doesn't like letting his opponent close the distance with feints--he prefers to either counter an opponent's power punches, or create space to reassess the situation.
When Barao does retreat, he is incapable of defending kicks. We've already seen that Barao simply does not check kicks, but it is impossible for him to do so while moving backwards. Better still, his feet are not planted to throw counter punches, so an opponent who manages to force Barao onto the back foot with an active feinting game should be able to land with kicks consistently.
Obviously Barao is not an easy opponent, and he never will be. The holes in his style are made up for by a true fighter's spirit, as well as an ability to adapt and find new openings throughout the fight. Eddie Wineland's feints had Barao guessing for a round before he found the opening for his signature spinning back kick. Michael MacDonald landed his powerful right hand several times in the early rounds before Barao submitted him. Urijah Faber even troubled Barao with some shots in their rematch, and yet it took Barao less than four minutes to adapt, adjust, and put Faber away.
It's a tall order, but an opponent who refuses to give Barao the kind of fight he wants can exploit these holes and take Barao's belt. Remember, Chris Weidman became the middleweight champion because he wasn't fighting Anderson Silva, he was fighting just another opponent who happened to be Anderson Silva. The mental game is more than half the battle, and if TJ Dillashaw wants to win tomorrow night, he will have to remember that Renan Barao is mortal.
For more analysis, as well as fighter and trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. This week's episode features an interview with BE writer and professional fight scout Pat Wyman (yes, it's still coming, along with a slew of other exciting changes to the site and podcast format).