UFC on Fuel 7 Breakdown: Renan Barao vs. Michael McDonald
This Saturday will mark the fourth bantamweight title fight in UFC history, and for the second time it will be defended on the least available UFC platform (Dominick Cruz defended against Demetrious Johnson on Versus in October 2011). As far as notoriety goes, the bantamweight title likely ranks lowest on the totem pole of UFC belts, even including the newly minted women’s bantamweight championship. This fight in particular has received almost no publicity. While I understand that officially this is an interim title fight, it really should not be considered as such with Cruz’s return still so uncertain.
Part of the reason this fight has been overlooked is that neither fighter has a particularly large amount of hype around them, despite being deserving of the accolades. Renan Barao is on a 29-fight winning streak (with a No Contest mixed in as well), and hasn’t lost since his first professional MMA bout. That marks the longest active winning streak in MMA today. McDonald has won eight fights in a row since his lone career loss, finishing five of them within the opening round. He also has the opportunity to smash Jon Jones’ record as the youngest ever UFC champion by over a year and a half, as he will be 22 years, 1 month and 1 day old come Saturday night.
The fight itself should play out as an interesting striking battle, as neither fighter uses takedowns as a primary weapon. Barao has not attempted a takedown in his last three fights, and has only been taken down once in his entire Zuffa career (in his first WEC bout against Anthony Leone). McDonald uses his takedowns more than his opponent, but given his preference to strike, his recent success standing, and the takedown defence of Barao, I see this bout taking place almost entirely on the feet.
On the feet their styles are quite divergent. McDonald relies almost exclusively on his ability to counter his opponent with big power punches, while Barao prefers to control range and be the fighter leading the exchanges. Both are very effective in their preferred fighting styles, although Barao has unquestionably faced a higher quality of striker than McDonald. The challenger has the better one shot knockout power, but Barao has excellent finishing instincts of his own when he has an opponent hurt, so either fighter is capable of finishing this fight. Despite their history of putting opponents away, I see a finish being unlikely here with the way the styles play out.
I envision both fighters settling into their typical patterns very early, and that will make it hard for McDonald to win rounds. Although both fighters having the same measured reach, Barao has a slim torso and long limbs which should keep him out of range for counter shots unless McDonald really leaps in to commit to them.
Even against a smaller and lesser striker in Chris Cariaso, McDonald was finding a great deal of difficulty in landing those counter shots regularly, and was lucky to escape the fight with a split decision victory. The possibility of McDonald landing a knockout blow like he landed on Miguel Torres and Alex Soto always exists. However, against Barao who almost always has his shoulders high and chin tucked, I believe the youngster will once again have difficulty landing those counters.
This could become especially problematic later in the fight if McDonald does nothing to curb the leg kicks of Barao. Urijah Faber did an admirable job of limiting the effectiveness of the Brazilian’s leg kicks by switching stances, keeping his distance and trying to get off first. However, fighting from the less natural stance limited Faber’s own offence. Were McDonald to use the same strategy, I feel he would sacrifice his offensive power punches, specifically his right hand, which is his best asset.
In my opinion, if McDonald wants to find success in this fight, he’ll need to lead the action rather than playing the role of counterstriker. The most success we’ve seen striking against Barao has been in the Faber fight when Urijah was able to be the first to make a move. Also, when Scott Jorgensen was able to push forward against Barao for the better part of three rounds despite the punches he was eating; he landed quite a few hard punches and had Barao slowing down in the third round.
The problem with that idea is that fighters have habits and tendencies. McDonald’s simply do not align with the strategy that is likely to find success against Barao. The other factor working against McDonald is that if he starts to find success early, Barao has shown a solid chin, and also possesses a greater ability to get the fight to the ground than McDonald. While the challenger does have a well-rounded game and an active guard, I don’t see him having much success from the bottom if Barao mixes it up and takes the fight there.
In the end though, I don’t see the champion needing to take that extra measure of caution, as his length and varied striking attack will keep McDonald off-balance for the better part of 25 minutes. Neither fighter tends to distance themselves too much from their opponents even in victory, so McDonald will get his licks in, but it should be obvious that the belt will be not changing hands after the fifth round ends.