Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland will compete for the interim bantamweight title at UFC 165. Hopefully, the winner will meet long-injured champion Dominick Cruz early in 2014.
While Barao has been dominant in the 135-pound class, defeating Urijah Faber to become the interim titleholder and submitting Michael McDonald to defend his belt, the Brazilian's performances have been somewhat overshadowed by the absence of fellow champion Cruz.
Battling setbacks from a knee injury, Cruz has not fought since his October 2011 win over now-flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
Even with Cruz's lengthy absence from competition, a title-merging fight between Barao and Cruz is highly intriguing. Barao must first get past Wineland, though, so here is a look at how he matches up against his 29-year-old challenger.
Renan Barao is not the most accurate striker, landing only 35 percent of his strikes attempted, but the interim champion has outlanded every opponent he's faced inside the Octagon.
While he misses frequently, Barao works at a fast pace in his fights. He has attempted fewer than 100 significant strikes only twice in his UFC career, and one of those bouts saw him throw 98 strikes before finishing Brad Pickett in the first round.
Although he carries his hands low, Eddie Wineland's striking defense is nearly impervious. Wineland gets touched by only 26 percent of strikes thrown at him, making him tougher to hit than any of Barao's past UFC opponents.
In order to make Wineland a more available target, Barao will need to work the leg kicks that have become a trademark of his team, Nova Uniao.
Barao methodically slowed Urijah Faber with leg kicks at UFC 149. Whenever Faber circled toward his right leg (top), Barao would meet "The California Kid" with a damaging outside leg kick. He didn't destroy Faber's thigh as much as teammate Jose Aldo, but Barao visibly hampered the former WEC champion's movement and power.
If he can't bring Wineland down, Barao will need to implement a heavy leg kick strategy. Should he allow Wineland to remain mobile for five rounds, Barao might run into an opponent capable of outstriking him.
Eddie Wineland's striking has carried him to his first UFC title shot, as the 29-year-old knocked out Scott Jorgensen and outboxed Brad Pickett in his past two appearances.
Although it's slight, Wineland will be at a reach disadvantage against Barao. Since joining the UFC roster, the 5'7" Wineland has not faced an opponent with a longer reach than his own.
Like Barao, Wineland works constantly when standing, but he too lands on a mere 29 percent of his strikes thrown. In order to dethrone Barao, who has never been knocked out, Wineland will need to be much more accurate, as a knockdown in a third straight fight seems unlikely in this matchup.
Renan Barao has averaged two takedowns per fight since joining the UFC roster.
However, the Brazilian's 10 UFC takedowns all occurred in two of his five bouts inside the Octagon. Barao did not attempt a takedown against Urijah Faber and Scott Jorgensen, and he was shut down on his only takedown attempt on Brad Pickett prior to submitting the Englishman.
That should not lead opponents to believe Barao can be overconfident in his striking at times. Rather, it illustrates Barao's desire to stand with grapplers and roll with strikers, like Michael McDonald.
Barao did take McDonald down four times and eventually submitted the 22-year-old. However, the interim champion was also shut down on six of his takedown attempts at UFC on Fuel TV 7.
Multiple times, Barao shot straight in on McDonald without setting up his takedown attempts. That may have worked for Barao as he was climbing the ranks, but top-10 strikers like McDonald and Wineland have developed sufficient defensive wrestling to deny those attempts.
Without getting Wineland to focus on his hands, Pickett came up empty on a takedown attempt in the first round at UFC 155.
Pickett stood directly in front of Wineland and shot in on a double-leg attempt that nearly led to him being hit by an uppercut counter (top right). Even though he was throwing a punch while Pickett shot in, Wineland was able to defend the takedown, knowing he could keep his left hand low without threat of any strikes coming at him. That allowed Wineland to halt Pickett's momentum with a whizzer (bottom left), which led to the fight remaining standing.
Wineland has stopped 80 percent of takedown attempts he's seen. Only Faber has taken him down inside the Octagon, so Barao will need to learn from his past opponent's success against Wineland.
Excellent at fading hooks, Wineland also leaves himself open for single-leg takedowns when he gets caught swaying to avoid incoming jabs and straights.
With his upper body leaned away from his opponents, Wineland's sway leaves his lead leg for the taking (top left). When Faber feinted a jab at UFC 128, it allowed him to naturally lunge into a takedown attempt on Wineland (top right). Before Wineland had his hands back in position to defend the takedown, his left leg was already elevated (bottom left). From there, Faber simply swept Wineland's right leg out from under him (bottom right) and took the top position.
Though Wineland is not easy to take down, Barao did not show any signs of frustration when stopped by McDonald. As long as he remains relentless and mixes feints into his takedown attempts, Barao should be able to drag Wineland down a few times.
While Eddie Wineland prefers to stand, he does have some underrated offensive wrestling.
The former WEC champion has taken down both Urijah Faber and Scott Jorgensen, who are regarded as two of the better wrestlers in the bantamweight division. At the same time, Wineland has only attempted seven takedowns inside the Octagon, so he's not going to go out of his way to try to take Barao to the canvas.
Against Faber, Wineland looked strong along the fence and in the clinch.
Showing great awareness as Faber leaned left with a right collar tie (top left), Wineland turned his hips clockwise and dropped levels for a duck-under (top right). Wineland then made sure to get his hips lower than Faber's, allowing him to raise his opponent into the air (bottom left). From there, it was just a matter of turning Faber horizontal for Wineland to complete the takedown.
Taking Faber down is a good sign Wineland is capable of grounding Barao. Whether Wineland does or not depends on his confidence in grappling with the Brazilian.
By no means is Barao going down easily. The interim champion has not been taken down inside the Octagon. However, it is a possibility many may be overlooking.
With Barao's jiu-jitsu black belt factoring in, it's hard to imagine takedowns are a big part of Wineland's game plan heading into Saturday. He may score a stray takedown or two, but Wineland is only going to look to go to the ground when Barao hands him opportunities to score points with takedowns.
Renan Barao may be the best grappler in the bantamweight division, but he's not flawless.
Against Michael McDonald, Barao left his forearms on the canvas too long, which allowed McDonald to take control of the situation from the bottom by securing an overhook from butterfly guard (top left). When Barao tried to free his arm (top right), it created enough space for McDonald to push Barao away and stand (bottom).
McDonald is not as experienced as Eddie Wineland, who was controlled by Urijah Faber on the ground but maintained full guard against the elite grappler. So Wineland is far from doomed in the event of a Barao takedown at UFC 165. Wineland hasn't been submitted in four years, so if he plays it right, he can survive on the ground with Barao.
At the same time, half of Wineland's losses have come by submission, and Barao already has two submission victories over top-10 bantamweights since joining the UFC roster.
It took some time, but Barao did eventually submit McDonald. If Wineland leaves any openings, the same will happen to him.
Barao took McDonald's back after a takedown in the fourth round (top left). As Barao threw in a leg, McDonald looked to turn into the half guard (top right). With McDonald's arm trapped between his head and shoulder, Barao recognized an opportunity for an arm triangle and slid his right hand onto McDonald's left shoulder (bottom left). Barao adjusted and tightened the choke before sliding into side control for the finish (bottom right).
No huge mistakes are required for Barao to put opponents away. He's a smart chain grappler with more than enough tools to force a tap from Wineland.
Renan Barao has not been taken down inside the Octagon.
Against elite competition, Barao's grappling off the bottom is very much an unknown. While that might make it worth Wineland's time to try to put Barao in an unfamiliar position, it's hard to see the interim champion spending much of this fight with his back on the canvas.
Barao has prevented better wrestlers than Wineland from taking him to the ground, and Wineland may simply not want to take the risk of falling into the guard of a jiu-jitsu black belt training under Andre Pederneiras.
It's possible Wineland scores a takedown or two, but it seems likely those would be attempted late in rounds to score points in the judges' eyes.
Although Eddie Wineland has been competing at a high level for a longer period of time than Renan Barao, the Brazilian actually has a few more fights under his belt and more experience in UFC championship bouts.
Wineland has been out of action for nearly nine months, and Barao hasn't fought since February. Both men would probably like to be more active, but the bantamweights have been on the shelf for roughly the same amount of time, so rust shouldn't be a huge factor.
Barao's reach is only slightly longer than Wineland's, but Wineland is usually taller his than 135-pound opponents and likes to keep them on the end of his punches. That won't be as easy to accomplish against Barao.
In terms of style, Eddie Wineland is a similar matchup to Michael McDonald for Renan Barao.
Barao may have to spend some time finding the holes in Wineland's takedown defense, but the interim champion has the chin to stand with the challenger while he does.
Once Barao finds a way to take this fight to the ground, and he will eventually, Wineland will be in danger. Despite the fact that he survived on the ground with Urijah Faber, Wineland's biggest weakness over the course of his career remains his submission defense.
Look for that weakness to show itself Saturday.
Prediction: Barao defeats Wineland by submission in the second round.
Statistics via FightMetric.com.