LAS VEGAS — Years ago when Renan Barao lost in his first professional fight, he considered the possibility that he was not meant to compete in mixed martial arts. Perhaps, he thought, he was destined only to study jiu-jitsu.
"I was very, very close to quitting MMA," he told FOX Sports through an interpreter. "If it wasn’t for my head coach and some of my teammates, I would have stopped."
It was their constant pleading that finally wore him down, and eventually he returned to the gym. It is a good thing he reconsidered. Over nine years later, he has yet to feel the bitter sting of defeat, embarking on an unbeaten streak that places him in rarified air.
As best we can tell given the spotty record-keeping on the international MMA circuit, Barao’s 33-fight undefeated stretch is the third-longest in the sport’s history, trailing only Travis Fulton (40 fights) and Igor Vovchancyn (37 fights). Yet despite that record of achievement, Barao has yet to attract mainstream attention in any real meaningful way.
His UFC 173 matchup against T.J. Dillashaw will mark his fourth UFC main event, and Barao is an overwhelming 8-1 favorite to retain the UFC bantamweight championship, but if you are paying attention to the run-up to this event, you might be led to believe that the light-heavyweight pairing of Daniel Cormier and Dan Henderson was the most significant fight on the card. That fight, a matchup of two former Olympians, is so far receiving most of the buzz.
Why? Despite all that winning, Barao has struggled to connect with an audience that is constantly tasked with learning new names and faces. UFC president Dana White has heard all kinds of theories on why. Some say it’s because the Brazilian doesn’t speak any English. Some say it’s because he fights in one of the UFC’s smallest weight classes, 135 pounds. Someone even suggested to White that it’s because Barao’s not quite handsome enough.
It’s nuts. It’s absolutely nuts.
Daniel Cormier on Renan Barao's win streak.
Whatever the reason, it’s not something that can be addressed and resolved in a weekend. The production of "Renan Barao, Superstar" remains a slow boil.
But Renan Barao, Athlete? Now we’re cooking with gas. The 27-year-old is about as good as it gets in the Octagon right now. This week, White has been banging the drum for Barao as the pound-for-pound best in the sport, but that could easily be dismissed as promoter talk. Go back a month ago and he was saying the same thing about Jon Jones. Go back before that and it was Chris Weidman’s turn. You get the picture.
But the streak? That’s its own truth. It doesn’t need to be dolled up, packaged and sold. Nope. The number slaps you in the face. In MMA, 33-fight unbeaten streaks just don’t happen. The sport is too layered, too complex. And unlike boxing where promoters hand pick cupcakes to pad records, in MMA, a good record gets thrown into the deep ocean quickly. It’s sink or swim, baby.
From the moment he moved into the big leagues, Barao was the shark. Apex predator.
"I think it’s very incredible," said Dan Henderson, the Hall of Famer with the cinder block hands. "I don’t know who the next closest guy’s streak is. I don’t know all the competition he’s faced in the streak, but the last couple years, he’s definitely been the tops in his weight class and kept the streak going. It’s very impressive. I doubt it’s a streak somebody would be able to compete with."
At 14-0, Daniel Cormier is one of the few guys who can boast a better winning percentage than Barao, but his streak doesn’t even have him half of the way to Barao’s. And when he talks about the dynamo, Cormier shakes his head with a smile of wonderment. The kid is something, he’s saying without words.
"It’s nuts," he finally says. "It’s absolutely nuts."
Cormier has an analytical mind, and judges champions by their divisional dominance. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 will often tell you what you need to know. Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has a measurable edge on Junior dos Santos, and JDS has an edge on the rest of the heavyweight field. But Barao might have separated himself even further from the pack than Velasquez has.
"If you look at Renan Barao, Urijah Faber kills everybody [in the division], and Renan Barao just smashes him, so Renan Barao may be the most dominant champion we have in any weight class in the UFC," Cormier said.
Remember, Cormier is Velasquez’s teammate. That admission is the highest of praise.
But this is how fellow fighters talk about what he’s done. What he’s still doing.
Dillashaw thinks he’s the man to end the streak, but the odds are stacked against him.
"It’s hard to put in words," Jake Ellenberger said of the streak. "This is the toughest sport in the world and the toughest sport to be consistent at. To build a win streak of five or six is tough to do. To win as much as he’s done, it’s unheard of. It stands alone, absolutely. He could go down as one of the best all time in the sport, no doubt."
Even Dillashaw had to admit the obvious: Barao’s record is ridiculous. His current achievements are without peer. He just wins.
"But," Dillashaw interjected, "every champion loses. Every great story comes to an end. I’ve seen a lot of great champions lose, and I really believe it’s his time. I believe I’m the athlete that can do it."
So many before him have thought the same thing. Thirty-three of them, at last check. A number so high that the people who know the sport can only shake their heads and smile. The rest of the world? They don’t understand how special it is. Not quite yet anyway. Maybe one day, stardom will end up coming to Barao. But until then, he’ll settle for winning. After all, if name recognition is his biggest problem, he’s doing alright. There was a time where he was ready to quit, and think about what a tragedy that would have been if all of that potential had been thrown away.
"I don’t know where I would be now," he said, a smile crossing his face.
Thirty-three fights later, some people still don’t know quite where he is. It’s easy enough to find him. Just look up.