Renan "Barao" Pegado might be the most quietly impressive champion in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. By that I mean, if there's another champion with the kind of stellar record Barao (which we'll call him from this point forward; I won't pretend to understand the subtleties of Brazilian nicknames, so I am opting to use the nickname that the UFC has co-opted into his real name for my own sanity) has amassed in the UFC, well, I have no idea who it might be.
Before he signed with the UFC-owned World Extreme Cagefighting back in 2010, Barao had amassed a 23-1-1 record, with the lone no-contest coming due to an illegal soccer kick. As someone who finds it absolutely impossible to keep up with the sheer wealth and breadth of talent in Brazil, I had no idea who Barao was before he was slated to make his WEC debut against Anthony Leone at WEC 49.
My good friend Jordan Breen over at Sherdog.com is an expert in all things mixed martial arts, and he was quite familiar with Barao. I was not. And I remember looking at his MMA record and thinking that I did not recognize a single opponent on his entire ledger, and so it must mean that he hadn't fought anyone worth a single damn. He'd quickly realize that running up that kind of record was impossible when he was facing the best talent the rest of the world had to offer.
I told this to myself, and then I moved on to analyze the WEC 49 main card, headlined by a fight between Kamal Shalorus and Jamie Varner. Barao was in the first bout of the prelims, an afterthought, and I didn't pay him any more attention.
It has been three years since I made this inner proclamation. A quick look at the WEC 49 main card tells me that, of all of the fighters who appeared on that main card ahead of Barao, just three are with the UFC: Eddie Wineland (who fights Barao for the interim bantamweight title at UFC 165 on Saturday night), Yves Jabouin and Varner.
Barao submitted Leone that night at WEC 49, then submitted Chris Cariaso half a year later, then beat Urijah Faber and Scott Jorgensen and Michael McDonald and everyone else he's faced. He faces Wineland on Saturday night in a curious title defense; it's one where nobody in their right mind believes Wineland has much of a chance to win, and so we all look past Wineland and down into the murky future where Dominick Cruz may or may not be lurking.
Such is Barao's dominance; we are no longer concerned with who he is fighting now, and we think only of the time when the "real" champion returns from one of the longest layoffs I can remember, and certainly one of the longest periods of time an active UFC champion has been on the shelf due to injury and not idiocy or fear of Chuck Liddell's combined right and left hands.
What of Cruz? We look forward to the day he can return, and yet we do not know if he'll actually return. He's had multiple knee injuries since going on the shelf two years ago. And goodness, just look at that span of time—two years. Cruz is an active UFC champion that has not competed in two years. Two years from his prime. Right in the middle of his prime, if you want to be technical, and Cruz has missed it rehabbing his faulty knees.
That's a shame. But would it be a bigger shame if Cruz never returns? Or what if Cruz returns but is a shadow of his former self, without the speed and footwork that made him so difficult to defeat?
Do we even want to see that version of Cruz? Do we want a slowed-down and less frenetic version of the bantamweight champion in the cage against Barao? Of course not. We want the best against the best.
But that's the thing. No matter which version of Cruz returns against Barao, there's simply no chance we're getting the most optimal matchup. Whether it's because Cruz has spent Rip Van Winkle levels of time on the shelf, or because his very real injuries are slowing him down, the champion we see return to the cage against Barao (whenever it happens) just isn't going to be the same as the one who defended his title against Demetrious Johnson two years ago. It just isn't possible.
That's terrible news for us, as fans of fighting, but it's also terrible news for Barao.
After having defended himself against people like me, people who gave him no respect because he hadn't faced a single person I'd ever heard of, Barao went on to capture the UFC bantamweight title. Only it wasn't a real title; it was an interim championship, and Barao was still a fighter who mostly flew under the radar.
That's still the case, and I'd wager that if you ask 20 casual fans who was fighting in UFC 165's secondary title fight, roughly four or less would be able to give you Barao's name.
That's terrible for Barao.
He deserves the chance to face Cruz without compromise or injury or excuse, because the truth is that there's a very good chance Barao would beat Cruz no matter when or where they fought. He built the majority of his record in Brazil against lesser fighters, but he cemented himself as one of the very best in the world in America and Canada against the best these and other countries have to offer.
And yet, despite affirming the inevitable comparisons to featherweight champion and teammate Jose Aldo, Barao will never be afforded the same opportunities. If he beats Cruz when the champ returns, well, you know that Dom's knee injuries are the reason why. If Cruz never returns, well, Barao never beat the real champion, did he?
It's unfortunate. The man could very well be the best bantamweight fighter in the history of MMA, and yet he won't be recognized as such in, say, the same way Jon Jones is recognized as the best light heavyweight or Floyd Mayweather is recognized as the best boxer of his generation.
It's a shame, too, because greatness deserves to be recognized, and I doubt Barao truly ever receives what he's due.