Although UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao is among the world’s best mixed martial artists, he’s still working on building a significant fan base in North America.
His biggest fan in the world just might be UFC President Dana White, and that’s just one reason Barao is the star of UFC 173.
Barao (34-1) faces T.J. Dillashaw in the main event at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas on Saturday, headlining the UFC’s traditional Memorial Day weekend card in its hometown.
“I think (Barao) is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” White said. “I love this guy.”
It’s tough to argue with White, given Barao’s 22-fight winning streak and perfect record in UFC competition. The 135-pound Brazilian dynamo excels with both jiu-jitsu and strikes, fighting with a flair that has led to stoppages in six of his last nine fights.
“I think I have a lot to improve in my game, but it’s always a pleasure to hear from your boss that you are the No. 1,” Barao said. “This is the recognition of the hard work and training.”
Barao likely faces bigger obstacles than Dillashaw (10-2), a heavy underdog, on his path to stardom.
Barao is a champion of a lighter weight class, which makes him traditionally less interesting to many fight fans. He also doesn’t speak much English, making him tough to promote in North America.
Even his Brazilian fans don’t know much about his personality outside the cage — although at least they know his last name isn’t actually Barao, the Portuguese word for Baron and a nickname given to him by his grandmother.
But with the UFC looking for new attractions in the absence of Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva, Barao is getting a chance to show off his incredible skills on another major stage, and White is confident fans will figure out what they’re seeing.
“With Anderson, it took a long time for people to catch on,” White said of his long-reigning former middleweight champion. “It doesn’t happen overnight. When you look at the numbers, it’s all there. (Barao) is a killer. He tries to go in there and finish. He’s the type of guy I like to watch fight.”
Dillashaw worked his way into position for a title shot with five wins in six fights, but his matchup with Barao is the fourth fight that has been scheduled to headline this card. The Northern California native is eager to take advantage of the chance created when Raphael Assuncao, who beat Dillashaw by split decision last October, dropped out of this title shot with a rib injury.
“He’s a great champion, but everyone has holes in their game,” Dillashaw said. “He’s sloppy in exchanges, but he makes it work because he’s a big, powerful athlete. I need to stay with what I’m good at and use my angles to disrupt his power.”
Just in case Barao’s fight against a game underdog doesn’t intrigue enough pay-per-view buyers, UFC 173 also features light heavyweight contender Daniel Cormier against veteran Dan Henderson, along with a bout between welterweights Robbie Lawler and Jake Ellenberger.
Cormier (14-0) is also a rising name in the UFC, but he’s not a tough sell. The talkative former Olympic wrestler has been a dynamic fighter in Strikeforce and the UFC at heavyweight and light heavyweight, where he’s currently closing in on a title shot against pound-for-pound contender Jon Jones.
Henderson (30-11) is a significant underdog, but any fighter is just one punch away from disaster when he’s in the cage with the 43-year-old veteran whose knockout power is no longer aided by testosterone replacement therapy.
“(Henderson’s) big right hand is the single biggest weapon in MMA, even more dangerous than Ronda Rousey’s armbar,” Cormier said. “It can come at any time from any direction. No question that’s what makes this a dangerous fight. But I’ve made a career of making those guys, who possess that something special, like they never had it. I need to stay super-focused and avoid those punches.”
Although Henderson has lost three of his last four fights, he knocked out Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in spectacular fashion just two months ago.
“I want to knock everyone out that I fight,” Henderson said. “It’s not always the easiest thing to pull off, but I’ve done pretty well with it throughout my career. And it’s definitely nice knowing you have that power going into a fight.”