If UFC Vegas 13 was your first time seeing Raoni Barcelos, then hopefully you got your money’s worth. Sure, it was one-sided. Opponent Khalid Taha didn’t have much to offer in response other than being able to take whatever punishment Barcelos dished out. And sure, maybe the lack of finish leaves a little to be desired. But why are we just now reaching the point at which Barcelos is getting an ounce of respect?
Well, you know why. I do too. So does everyone who considers themselves a discerning MMA fan. And it’s because MMA has never taken itself seriously as a professional sport. It obviously counts as one. The fighters are professional athletes, and the sport itself functions under professional rules and regulations. But professionalism is just not something the UFC has ever thought critically about.
I’m not talking about all the extracurricular nonsense outside the cage. I’m talking about the in-cage infrastructure or lack thereof. The NHL, for example, will have an entire team of scouts spend the professional season looking for the next big thing, as they cross the globe and figure out seven rounds of potential picks to see who can contribute at the professional level. They take notes, watch video, and then argue against one another to see what makes sense for the franchise.
Then the prospects undergo physical tests. The interviews of the players themselves is critical too. Some teams have military personnel on hand to see how players respond on a much more formal atmosphere. Some teams might get a little frisky, and ask players if they prefer beer or alcohol. Of course, “professionalism” isn’t guaranteed anywhere. One NHL once team asked a draft pick straight up, “I heard you’re a pussy?”
By contrast, the UFC openly asks this question of its fighters in indirect ways, all the time — even of its champions. Yes, MMA organizations do scout. But there’s no real system in place. The UFC uses its reality TV vehicle: a process that has traditionally required fighters to reach out instead of the promotions. For local promotions, it’s even harder. Local promotions are under more stress to make money, so they want name fighters, and in the absence of that, they want local fighters with a local following.
I know. That was a whole lot of non-Raoni Barcelos talk. I apologize. But I can’t help myself. This lack of process is why Charles Oliveira gets three months to prepare for a top-10 contender in Jim Miller, but Barcelos gets two years without a fight against a top 15-ranked opponent.
This isn’t a hype piece, though. Barcelos has a lot of great tools to work with. He’s certified on the ground, having medaled at the IBJJF and the CBJJO. There are times when he looks like one of the most dynamic strikers at bantamweight. There’s a wonderful pop to his left hook-right hand combination (such as the one he detonated on Kurt Holobaugh). He absolutely slices up the middle with dedicated uppercuts, and crackerjack timing (sorry Mr. Holobaugh, but here again, you were a prime example). There’s a bloodthirsty anxiousness to his variety of attacks. The knees he landed on Taha were fantastic midrange counters to Taha’s otherwise unsophisticated punch entries. And he has a giddy, almost supernatural intuition for what opponents want to throw at him.
Despite this, please do yourself a favor (if this applies): don’t compare him to Jose Aldo. I know. There’s a vague resemblance if you’re the type to think all Brazilians live in favelas, I guess. But he’s not. And that’s fine. I realize comparisons are meant to be metaphorical rather than literal, and they are often meant in a positive light, but I still think it deprives us of what makes every fighter unique — because they are. Many fighters are well-rounded but not many are well-rounded threats. That’s Barcelos. It’s both a blessing, and a curse. He doesn’t calibrate his aggression well, selling out on exchanges and getting punch tunnel vision. His power is thudding more than fulminating, he’s older despite his young man approach, and while his quality of competition is left wanting, it’s less the names, and more the styles that haven’t demanded much from him that raise questions.
Needless to say, there’s a lot left to learn. That’s the joy in watching the draft from other sports. You know you’re getting an unfinished product. But the raw elements are there for something either great, good, average, or awful. We’re not talking about Raoni Barcelos because it’s not our fault. Because after all these years, we still don’t have a system for knowing what to expect. And we should. If we did, we wouldn’t just know to temper those expectations, but we might know a little something about how to help them manifest. Whatever to expect from Barcelos, he’s in a sport as crude as his violence. Maybe against top competition, he’ll fit right in.