The first time Renan Barao stepped in a cage, he lost. Apparently, that result sparked the spirit of war within, because since then, all he’s done is win and win and win some more. He shows up in town riding an incredible 30-fight unbeaten streak, a number seldom approached in a sport where defeat can be found in so many different ways. In all that time, no one was able to capitalize on a single deficiency in his game, nobody caught him with a perfect punch while his guard was down, or tied him into a knot on the ground? It boggles the mind.
In fact, according to FOX Sports research, Barao’s run is the third-longest undefeated stretch in MMA history, behind Travis Fulton (40) and Igor Vovchanchyn (36). Most importantly, he’s done some of his best work inside the octagon, with wins over former featherweight champ Urijah Faber, perennial contenders Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett, and young upstart Michael McDonald.
And the man he’s facing ... what does he think of all this?
“He’s won a bunch of fights. Big deal,” Eddie Wineland told FOX Sports. “He hasn’t fought me yet, basically. I guess it’s an amazing streak but we’ll see how it fares after he faces me.”
If that comes off a bit condescending, Wineland doesn’t necessarily mean it that way. In fact, he believes that given champion Dominick Cruz’s absence from the division — it will be two years on Oct. 1 — Barao has a legitimate claim as the best 135-pounder in the world. Yet for now, he can only claim the interim bantamweight crown.
That largely ceremonial title along with the first crack at Cruz when he makes his expected return in January is what’s at stake when Wineland and Barao face off in the UFC 165 co-main event.
Wineland has competed in big matches before. He was the first-ever WEC bantamweight champion, and within the last two years fought both Faber and Joseph Benavidez. While he lost both of those matchups by decision, he attributed the setbacks to over-thinking strategy and competing with too much concern for his opponent’s skills. In response, he says, he “mentally reset” himself.
That doesn’t sound easy, but apparently it worked. Since then, he knocked out Scott Jorgensen and beat the tough Brit Brad Pickett.
“It actually is very hard to do,” he said. “When you go through tough times in training you have to keep telling myself, ‘I’m not going to let this guy beat me. I’m not going to let him take me down. Whatever I don’t want him to do, he’s not going to do.’ When you put your mind to it, it starts happening.”
Under that scope, his downgrading of Barao’s streak makes more sense.
To Wineland, this marks a return to his old ways when he was a young gunslinger who went from a 3-4-1 career start to nine straight wins and the WEC title. At the time, he didn’t even understand where he was headed. Competition was just an itch worth scratching, and it put him among the best where he remains all this time later.
While Barao boasts the more impressive resume and the flashier moves, Wineland has the kind of fight-changing power that is rare among lighter weight classes. According to FightMetric stats, he averages .55 knockdowns per 15 minutes, which is nearly double the UFC average for all divisions. If he can keep the fight standing, well, then maybe he’s not so crazy with his thoughts on Barao’s streak.
“There’s one thing I know, and it’s when I get in there and I’m on point, there’s no one who’s going to beat me,” he said.
Mental strength is a big part of his platform for the fight. Wineland believes he simply wants UFC gold more than Barao, who has at least had a small taste of it.
To be honest, Wineland doesn’t see much in the way of holes in his opponent’s game. Barao fights with an unorthodox style, he’s good at wrestling and striking and submissions. His conditioning always seems to be strong, too. In other words, his stats are backed by his skills. But to Wineland, that number is finite, and inconsequential, only a tool to describe where Barao’s been, not necessarily where he’s going.
“I’ll admit, it’s amazing, but it does nothing to me,” he said. “He can’t hit me with a streak. He won 30 fights in a row. That’s awesome. Congratulations to the guy, but it does nothing to frighten me.”