It’s probably not fair to say that May 24 of this year was the worst day of Renan Barao’s life. Some things are bigger than fighting or titles, wins or losses. In terms of his professional career, however, Barao will never, ever forget that fateful night three months ago.
The Brazilian champion strutted to the cage after weeks of UFC president Dana White adorning him with labels such as ‘best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport’ and making it sound like he was the biggest discovery the company made since figuring out locking two men in an Octagon for a fight and filming it was a good idea.
Barao was a massive favorite. One of the largest in UFC history.
His opponent, T.J. Dillashaw, to quote a famous Kevin Smith film, wasn’t even supposed to be there that day. He was technically a replacement for Raphael Assuncao, who was unable to take the fight due to injury and even more so the only reason the title fight was happening at the time was because Chris Weidman was injured and UFC 173 needed a new main event.
What happened in that fight for me, I entered inside the Octagon on kind of a low mode and not focused
— Renan Barao
Barao was confident he would run roughshod over Dillashaw, and maybe he didn’t take the threat standing in front of him as seriously as he should have that night. Then the first round happened and it was all downhill from there.
"What happened in that fight for me, I entered inside the Octagon on kind of a low mode and not focused," Barao told FOX Sports. "I got that punch (in the first round) and after that punch, I was fighting on automatic mode, I was not there. This time I’ll try to be more focused, more quick, starting on the first second of the fight."
Dillashaw dropped a bomb on Barao in the opening moments of the fight and then proceeded to do much the same for the next three rounds until finally putting the Brazilian away in the fifth and final round. It was almost like a mercy killing at that point as if Barao was an injured animal and the only humane thing to do was to put him away.
In the back after the loss, Barao finally figured out what happened because his memory was virtually non-existent following the first round where Dillashaw dropped him with a punch. The emotion washed over him like a tidal wave and he realized at that moment he was no longer the UFC bantamweight champion.
It didn’t take long for Barao’s utter sadness to fade into a steely resolve when the UFC came calling with the idea of giving him an immediate rematch against Dillashaw at UFC 177 in Sacramento. It took Barao mere seconds to accept the fight and while he was certainly happy at the time, the real joy will come when he takes back the title he believes he should have never lost in the first place.
"I was really sad when I lost my belt. I’m really, really happy and thanking the UFC that I have the opportunity to fight back as soon as possible. I didn’t have to wait and once I got that news, I was happy and focused on the fight," Barao said.
"Dillashaw did a great job and for sure that was his night. It was for sure not my night. This time will be different. It will be completely different."
It would be very easy to question Barao’s mental state going into this rematch because before his first fight with Dillashaw he was the belle of the ball. He was the bantamweight champion who hadn’t lost a fight in nearly a decade and that accounted for more than 30 bouts with many of those taking place in the UFC or WEC. On Saturday night, Barao will walk into the arena as the challenger and someone fans and media alike might be wondering if he has even had time to recover from the drubbing he received from Dillashaw three months ago.
My main goal is to get back the belt. My belt. To be there as champion and everybody looks at me and says he deserves to be champion. That’s my goal
— Renan Barao
He insists none of the accolades showered upon him before the last fight mattered, and he promises none of the bad things that happened in his bout with Dillashaw will linger into this rematch. It all came down to a bad first round that eventually snowballed into him losing the UFC bantamweight title.
"I didn’t feel any pressure because people were talking about my record or how many years I was undefeated. For me it doesn’t make any difference in the Octagon. T.J. Dillashaw had his day and it was a good night for him. He got that one punch that caught me in the beginning of the fight and that was it," Barao said. "This time will be different."
Dillashaw did manage to do what no fighter since Barao’s professional debut had done by beating him, and since the first fight the champion’s confidence has blossomed. The Team Alpha Male fighter is predicting an equal if not better performance this time around.
Nothing Dillashaw says is going to rattle Barao going into Saturday night. This rematch isn’t about revenge — it’s about redemption and reclaiming the title Barao wants so desperately to wrap back around his waist.
"My main goal is to get back the belt. My belt," Barao said. "To be there as champion and everybody looks at me and says he deserves to be champion. That’s my goal."