In May of last year, one of the most dominant fighters in all of MMA — Renan Barao — lost his UFC bantamweight championship to TJ Dillashaw after taking a bad beating. In the following weeks, Barao ignored his body and mind’s need to heal and attempted to rush into an immediate rematch against Dillashaw.
Instead of getting his hands on Dillashaw for a second time, however, Barao fainted while cutting weight, hit his head and injured himself. He was out of the rematch, and had to go home without his belt or a fighting purse of any kind.
Since then, Barao has gotten another win — a submission over Mitch Gagnon in December — and is set once more to challenge Dillashaw for the title he once himself held. The two 135-pound greats will face off Saturday in Chicago, in a UFC on FOX main event.
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The 28-year-old former champion told FOX Sports that he’s been walking around lighter than he used to in preparation for his weight cut this week. Barao also tells us that a great deal else has also changed in his training.
"Everything has changed," he told us last week, through a translator.
"I’m coming in lighter, but I feel very strong. I’ve had the chance to work and prepare with a lot of new people. I have a lot of people working me, some of whom I don’t even know, who are helping me with nutrition issues. I’ve got doctors following my training and my health. It is very advanced and professional."
With all his changed and intense training, Barao insists that he hasn’t had time to pay attention to any of the negativity — much of it spurred on by UFC president Dana White — directed at his Nova Uniao team recently.
First, Barao had to pull out against Dillashaw after the weigh-cutting health scare. More recently, of course, teammate and featherweight champion Jose Aldo received no small amount of passive-aggressive grief for doing the smart thing and pulling out of his UFC 189 bout with Conor McGregor because of serious rib injuries. Barao has been blasted, his teammate has, their team’s training methods have been knocked — all by people who aren’t qualified to make such judgments.
Barao may secretly be using all of those slights as extra motivation heading into the fight, but he assured us that he’s keeping cool and collected. "I’m focused," he said.
"I’ve been training and so do not pay attention to any of it. I’m ready for the fight, that’s it."
Ready, perhaps, but certainly eager. Whatever external pressure he may have received to initially accept the dangerously-quick turnaround for his originally scheduled rematch with Dillashaw last year, Barao himself wanted badly to get back his belt.
"I was eager to have the belt by my side again," he said.
That is still what drives him.
"My main goal is to be the best. So, I’m prepared to fight any time, anywhere. This is going to continue to be my goal."
Accordingly, despite an impressive array of stand-up striking and ground submission skills, Barao lists something intangible as his biggest asset against Dillashaw the second time around. "The will to win [is what will make the difference for me]," he said.
"My will to win and my heart are my biggest advantages."