The curious case of Renan Barao

BY foxsports • September 25, 2013

Renan Barao should be a rockstar.

Looking at the raw data, it’s impossible to argue otherwise.

At 26-years-old, Barao owns a 31-1 record, with that solitary defeat coming in the first bout of his professional career. Over the last eight years, the only blemish on his resume is a December 2007 “No Contest.” Unbeaten in 31 consecutive fights, he will carry a 21-fight winning streak into the Octagon the next time he competes, along with 12 pounds of gold and leather, and the distinction of being the best bantamweight competing in the sport today.

Saturday night at UFC 165 in Toronto, he notched his second consecutive successful defense of the interim bantamweight title with a stunning second-round knockout win over Eddie Wineland. After a close first round – one that many scored for the challenger – the champion planted a spinning back kick on the Indiana native’s forehead, and pounded out a finish, erupting into what is becoming a signature exuberant celebration.

For all his accomplishments and attributes, Barao remains underappreciated and a difficult fighter to sell to an audience that seems hesitant to embrace the interim UFC bantamweight champion.

Why is that?

Obviously, that isn’t a simple question to answer. There are many layers, many reasons, and many explanations, some easier to accept, understand, and acknowledge than others.

As the predicament with Barao illustrates, however, rising to the championship level and delivering impressive performances isn’t enough in and of itself either.

One of the simplest explanations is that fans are fickle, and what they look for in a fighter to support changes from competitor to competitor.

Being charismatic is enough to carry the day for some. Irish featherweight Conor McGregor used a boisterous personality and a first-round win over Marcus Brimage to rocket to stardom in advance of just his second UFC appearance in Boston this summer. Others, however, can be tremendous personalities, but come up short with the audience because the results aren’t necessarily there.

In some cases, the reverse is true.

A fighter like Mike Pierce has earned four consecutive victories, but his success in the cage isn’t enough to trump his perceived lack of personality and the “boring” tag that follows him wherever he goes. Meanwhile, no amount of poor results will ever dull the popularity of iconic veterans Wanderlei Silva or Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

Part of the reason is that the lighter weight classes are still fighting an uphill battle with some fans, despite a litany of outstanding fights and performances that debunk the myths and pre-conceived ideas those fans hold about the fighters that compete south of the 170-pound weight limit.

The vast majority of heavyweight fights find their way into main card openings, and are often met with a baseline level of excitement simply on the potential violence that comes from two 230-plus-pound athletes stand toe-to-toe slinging leather. Even though the lighter weight fighters have proven time-and-again that they too are finishers, their accomplishments and abilities continue to carry less weight than those of their heavier counterparts with segments of the audience.

Barao boasts a greater winning streak than light heavyweight contender Glover Teixeira, with a more impressive collection of vanquished foes since arriving in the UFC, and yet the Nova Uniao bantamweight has garnered less buzz and generated less interest than his significantly larger countryman to this point.

At the UFC 165 post-fight press conference, president Dana White elaborated further on the perceived lack of respect for Barao’s finishing prowess stating, “Do you know how hard it is to go undefeated? Seriously, think about that. He [Barao] doesn’t get enough credit for the record he has and what this guy’s capable of doing.”

Tied into that is the fact that overall, the lighter weight classes have yet to receive the same kind of promotional push from the UFC as the heavier weight classes tend to receive.

It’s a vicious cycle, really – the fighters aren’t as established with fans, so they aren’t promoted as heavily or given as much prime real estate on fight cards, which in turn leads to it being harder to promote them to fans.

To date, Barao has headlined two shows – as a replacement at UFC 149 opposite Urijah Faber when he won the interim bantamweight title, and this past February on Fuel TV when he defeated Michael McDonald in London, England. He was scheduled to headline UFC 161 with Wineland in this summer, but the bout was pushed back when Barao suffered an injury during his preparation for the contest.

What’s telling about his main event assignments to date is that each was scheduled for a location where which fighters were headlining wasn’t integral to ticket sales.

Both UFC 149 and UFC 161 were debut events in new markets (Calgary and Winnipeg, respectively), and the rabid Canadian fans in each city were scooping up tickets no matter which names sat atop the marquee. The same goes with his bout against McDonald, as it was the first event held in London since October 2010.

When the bout was pushed back and place in a major market like Toronto, it was slotted into the co-main event position, behind a more bankable pay-per-view and box office draw, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.

(NOTE: Barao portion begins at 18:20)

Until the UFC puts fighters like Barao or flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson in a position where established, big name fighters are hitting the cage before them, the message will always be the same – these guys are good enough to headline television events, but not as good as the champions in the heavier weight classes that close out the show on pay-per-view, which only serves to perpetuate the cycle.

Being billed as the “interim” bantamweight champion certainly doesn’t help things either. Fair or not, that handle establishes him as a placeholder at the top of the 135-pound ranks for the time being, despite the fact that he’s won three championship fights in the last 14 months while Dominick Cruz has remained sidelined.

While a victory over Cruz may not immediately transform him into a megastar, becoming the linear champion would certainly add further credibility to his standing as the best bantamweight in the sport and a pound-for-pound standout.

The fact that he’s Brazilian certainly plays into it as well, as much as some might prefer to dismiss such an assertion.

If he didn’t speak with a translator, was more telegenic, and hailed from No Place Specific, USA instead of Natal, Brazil, he would already be a much bigger star. But because Barao’s post-fight celebrations are more futbol than football, he takes a back seat in terms of promotional push compared to the likes of Anthony Pettis or Urijah Faber, despite having defeated the latter for the interim bantamweight title and having a more impressive resume inside the Octagon than the former.

What makes this all the more curious is that if you looked at the sport as only that – a sporting competition where wins, losses, and overall performance are the greatest determining factors in an athlete’s level of stardom – Barao would a be in an elite class alongside fellow dominant champions like Jones, Georges St-Pierre, and Jose Aldo, who shares many of the same characteristics as his teammate and training partner, but receives far more fan support.

Ironically, Barao has more wins and more finishes under the UFC banner than Aldo, and yet it’s his teammate and training partner that is universally recognized as a pound-for-pound great and considered a “can’t miss” attraction whenever he steps into the Octagon.

Dana White commented on Barao’s ability to finish fights saying, “It’s not like he {Barao] goes undefeated and he goes to decision and out-points you. This dude f****** destroys you.”

Maybe it’s only a matter of time until the fight-watching public opens their collective arms to Barao and embraces the dynamic finisher as the superstar he is. Maybe that’s wishful thinking.

For now, Barao is stuck being a dominant force deserving a greater share of the spotlight. Only time will tell if that will ever change.

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