The UFC’s media day is something of an impromptu popularity contest. Multiple fighters occupy the same room at the same time, and reporters are forced to choose their targets. Naturally, most microphones and cameras head straight towards the biggest name. So on Thursday, from the beginning, there was a sea of humanity around UFC 165 headliner Jon Jones, all angling to hear his words. The second-largest scrum was around challenger Alexander Gustafsson. Eddie Wineland was on stage doing video interviews. Even the loquacious Matt Mitrione was surrounded by a healthy crowd.
But UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao? Around him was his interpreter, his shiny gold belt, and a handful of reporters. This for the man who has what is believed to be the third-longest unbeaten streak in the history of the sport.
"I don’t really care about that. It doesn’t bother me," Barao said about the lack of attention. "I’m very happy and comfortable with the situation. I don’t really care what others think or do."
How can that be, you wonder, that someone worthy of the highest acclaim can be so content with such minimal attention? That answer begins to emerge when he speaks about his first and only loss. The subjects overlap unknowingly until you put them together.
"The defeat I had in the beginning of my career was very important, but what motivates me is my whole background, my whole life, everything which I’ve been through even before I reached this stage," he said.
There it is. Everything he’s been through during his life, and well, that’s a doozy of a recap that has somehow gotten lost through the translation gap.
Like many Brazilians that have gone on to success in mixed martial arts and other athletic endeavors, Barao was born to extreme poverty, although his case was a little different. His mother was young when she had him, and so he grew up raised mostly by his aunt and grandparents. As a child, he often worked on a farm to help make extra money for his family.
He fell in love with fighting largely through his father, who was a boxing instructor, and he started training with serious intentions when he was 13 years old. Life didn’t get any easier anytime soon. He eventually moved to Rio and was so poor that he took to sleeping on the roof of a building, on a piece of wood held up by bricks. On the first night he tried it, a rainstorm filled the place with water and he had no place to put his head down. Still, he persevered through the hard times, even when he had such little money that he would wake up as late as possible and go to bed as early as possible so he would only have to buy one meal to make it through the day.
These are the struggles that made Barao (30-1, 1 no contest) strong. Overcoming it all is why he can’t be bothered by others’ disinterest in him. Sitting in a conference room in one of the city’s swankiest hotels, he’s already made it further than most who came from the same beginnings.
At some point you have to think that the pendulum will swing his way, as long as he keeps winning. But what number will be enough? Thirty-five? Forty? Or maybe it will be if and when champion Dominick Cruz returns and Barao has a chance to get rid of the “interim” tag that makes many shrug their shoulders. What is an interim champion, anyway? It’s almost announcing that you’re not quite No. 1, but almost.
That streak, though? That’s real. That’s tangible. To opponents, it has to be a little bit intimidating. It has to give off a bit of an aura. For men who realize how thin the line between winning and losing in MMA is, the streak is beyond reproach. Earlier this week, Barao’s UFC 165 opponent Eddie Wineland tried to poke a few holes in it, but ultimately acknowledged how remarkable it is.
Barao? He doesn’t care about how it’s received or revered, or even if it’s recognized at all. After charting his path, he’s simply happy with the opportunity to keep lifting himself up from his challenging beginnings. When you sleep on rooftops, under the stars, your perspective can’t help but change.
"I know that I’m not superior to anyone. I’m not invincible," he said. "What makes me very confident is I know I work very hard. I probably work harder than anyone else. That’s what gives me the confidence to keep on fighting, and the confidence in my fights."