In the 20-plus years since UFC 1 introduced the world to mixed martial arts, only three have been able to string together a nearly innumerable 30-plus-fight win streak.
The first, Igor "Ice Cold" Vovchanchyn, a hard-nosed Ukrainian beloved by hardcore fans. He racked up knockouts from Russia to Brazil to Japan; most notably making the Pride Grand Prix 2000 finals.
The second, Travis Fulton, amassed a career record of 250–49–10. Though the rotund heavyweight fought mostly for no-name organizations in the Midwest, "The Ironman" did compete inside the Octagon on two occasions. Something of an anomaly in his own right.
Finally, Renan Barao, fighting this weekend at UFC 173. A live-wire wrecking ball inside the cage, he's more soft-spoken outside of it. He is the UFC's bantamweight champion. There is a good chance you may have never heard of him, or know little beyond the fact that he wields one of the UFC's belts.
For starters, Barao is Brazilian.
He does not speak English and uses a translator for interviews. Even the great Anderson Silva, also Brazilian, took years to fully establish himself as a pay-per-view star. At this week's UFC 173 media day, Barao, the 27-year old with a 32-1 record, spoke about moving Stateside. It would seem the black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu realizes he needs to make a move—literally—in order to grow his fanbase.
Beyond the language barrier, Barao tips the scales, on weigh-in day, at a redoubtable 135 pounds. Or, roughly half of what a heavyweight like Brock Lesnar would weigh in at. Lesnar, on several occasions, would cut down to the 265-pound limit only to enter the cage on fight night well over that mark.
In MMA, size, it would appear, matters to its fans—and even more so than in its cousin combat sport of boxing.
While boxing's flagship division was, for the longest time, heavyweight, (in boxing, heavyweight starts at 200 pounds and goes up from there) the smaller weight classes have done quite well for themselves.
The biggest stars in boxing right now—Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao—usually compete at the 145-pound mark, give or take a few pounds. In MMA, 145 pounds puts you as a featherweight, one weight class up from Barao's bantamweight home.
While lighter-weight boxers like Mayweather have headlined pay-per-views that did well over one million buys and beyond, in MMA, only the heavier-weight-class fighters can boast something similar. The buy rates when lower-weight-class fighters headline a PPV woefully pale in comparison.
Combine being a stranger in a strange land with a stature that most MMA fans simply haven't gravitated toward, and it leaves a lot to be desired for fighters like Barao, or his training partner Jose Aldo, who is champion in the aforementioned featherweight division.
And that's a shame.
While bigger fighters like Brock Lesnar—or Jon Jones, champ at light heavyweight—are certainly worth their weight in gold, it is the smaller fighters who are often more skilled technicians that can fight for days on end without looking much worse for wear (something their heavier counterparts can't routinely brag about).
Another knock on smaller-weight-class fighters is that they cannot finish a fight. While the notion that smaller fighters don't finish fights is a fallacy—sure their finish rate is lower than it is with heavyweights—it would be especially off base with Barao.
He's stopped his foes with techniques ranging from an arm-triangle choke to spinning back kick and punches.
He can knock you out. He can take you down and submit you. And no one can seem to stop him.
At UFC 173, upstart TJ Dillashaw will attempt to stop that unstoppable force.
Dillashaw is actually one year older than Barao, but carries into the cage with him a modest 9-2 record. Vegas does not like his chances. As of two days ago, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas had him as plus-550 underdog; the champ at a whopping minus-850 favorite:
If Barao does go on to successfully defend his belt, it would be the fourth time in a row he's done so. It would put him in some pretty good company—head and shoulders with some of the legends of this youngish sport.
|Most Consecutive UFC Title Defenses|
|Jon Jones||Light Heavyweight||7|
|Tito Ortiz||Light Heavyweight||5|
|Chuck Liddell||Light Heavyweight||4|
|Frank Shamrock||Light Heavyweight||4|
Should you get the opportunity—be it at a bar, on a friend's couch or via post-fight video highlights—check out bantamweight champ Renan Barao this weekend.
It may feel weird going out of your way to view a fighter you may have barely heard of until recently.
But if the young champ's trajectory continues to chart on its current course, you may get to see one of the all-time great finishers in action on his way to becoming one of the first true stars south of 155 pounds.