It was a night designed to showcase two of the UFC's brightest stars below 155 pounds.
Renan Barao and Jose Aldo, longtime teammates at the Nova Uniao camp in Brazil, went into UFC 169 as champions of the bantamweight and featherweight divisions, respectively. Aldo retained his belt with a dominant win over Ricardo Lamas, and then it was time for Barao to show the world why he's considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.
Barao was facing Urijah Faber, a man he'd already defeated back in the summer of 2012. After that loss, the idea of Faber getting another title shot seemed ludicrous. "The California Kid" had lost five consecutive title fights dating back to his 2008 loss to Mike Brown in the WEC's featherweight division.
But Faber's 2013 was one of the strongest individual years for a fighter in recent memory; he won four fights and finished three of them by submission, including an emphatic win over Michael McDonald that cemented him as the bantamweight division's top contender.
And so Faber was once again deserving of the opportunity. And opportunity knocked in the form of yet another Dominick Cruz injury; the longtime champion had not competed in over two years, and so the UFC was left with no choice but to strip him of the title and name Barao, formerly the interim champion, as the division's sole ruler.
Faber was asked to fill in on short notice, and because he lives an incredibly clean lifestyle and stays in fighting shape every single day of his life, he was prepared.
The fans were behind him. On Twitter, the overwhelming majority of fans picked Faber, though it is likely they were picking with their hearts and not their heads. Barao was a decisive betting favorite.
I think Barao gets the win, but it's hard not to want to see Faber wear UFC gold just once.— Nathan (@ACCBiggz) February 2, 2014
Believe it or not, most of you say Faber. Oddsmakers say Barao. Let's hope the winner earns it cleanly.— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) February 2, 2014
The night reflected the odds, however. Barao connected with a powerful overhand right halfway through the first that sent Faber crashing to the mat. Faber got back to his feet, but was still staggered and hurt. Barao landed another overhand right, and Faber fell face-first to the canvas. Barao pounced with ground-and-pound, but Faber covered up and was intelligently defending himself.
When referee Herb Dean moved in, Faber gave him the thumbs up. He was blocking all of Barao's punches. But Dean ignored Faber's indication that he was okay and stopped the fight.
But regardless of the premature stoppage, Barao looked, as the UFC bills him, like a monster. Joe Silva will have a very tough time finding an opponent who can present a formidable challenge for the champion, and we may just be seeing the birth of a new pound-for-pound great who can surpass his Nova Uniao teammate in the history books.