Saturday night marks the first time the UFC bantamweight championship will headline a pay-per-view event without the presence of Urijah Faber.
During the days leading up to the event, much has been made about his fitness as a leading man. The two previous times Barao has headlined PPVs (both of them against Faber), the response was lukewarm, with UFC 149 collecting an estimated 230,000 buys in July of 2012 and UFC 169 garnering the same amount four months ago. Without The California Kid and against underdog replacement opponent T.J. Dillashaw, this will be our first real chance to see how Barao can do on his own.
Will fans open their wallets for the diminutive champion with the 70 percent finishing rate and slinky victory dance? The answer could be important, since it seems like he’s going to be here for a while.
We already know UFC president Dana White is all in. He’s been copiously singing Barao’s praises on social media all week, even awarding the 27-year-old Brazilian the top spot on his highly malleable, personal pound-for-pound rankings. That’s got be be a nice honor, however fleeting.
“I am absolutely, 100 percent sold on Renan Barao,” White said during the opening scene of a recent video blog. “I think he’s the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, and if you don’t believe it by his fights, look at the stats, look at the numbers. It’s unbelievable.”
Barao’s numbers are indeed Ruthian, even if his stature is more Eddie Gaedel. He hasn’t lost a fight after his first professional appearance in 2005, and the fact that he’s run off 32 consecutive victories is mindboggling, especially in a sport where everybody who's anybody loses eventually. His advanced metrics—White lauds his “significant strikes per minute” in the above vid—are enough to make fantasy baseball nerds check his availability in their 5x5 roto dynasty leagues.
“On paper, Barao should be a superstar,” wrote MMA Junkie’s Ben Fowlkes this week. “His unbeaten streak is legitimately impressive, even if the first few years of it came against regional nobodies ... But if Barao’s struggle to go big time tells us anything, it might be that skill doesn’t sell as much as we’d like to pretend it does. Not by itself, anyway. Not if it comes wrapped up in the package of a 135-pound fighter who doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t have much in the way of an identifiable personality, and – let’s just be real here – looks a little bit goofy."
Hard to argue with that. Barao has been UFC champion for nearly two years now (dropping the “interim” tag back in January) and hasn’t yet blossomed into much of a draw. Some of that slow start could be blamed on the fact he never got to prove his dominance by taking on former champ Dominick Cruz, but surely the rest of it must be a question of size.
Little guys have yet to find their stride on MMA’s biggest show, at least in terms of drawing power. Since coming over from the WEC in 2011, the six PPVs headlined by UFC feather and bantamweight champions have averaged just over 250,000 buys. In other words, they haven't exactly lit the world on fire.
Surefire superstar Jose Aldo has underwhelmed, trading the ostentatious knockouts of his WEC run for a more staid technical brilliance and four decisions during his first six Octagon appearances. Cruz has mostly been a nonfactor due to injury, and Faber has struggled to find a place after going 0-3 in UFC title chances.
Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson has exclusively been a TV attraction since winning the title at UFC 152 (where he played second fiddle to Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort). He'll get his first chance to main event a PPV in June at UFC 174, but expectations aren’t any higher for that event's chances than they are for UFC 173 this weekend.
It’s clear the lighter weight classes have thus far had difficulty getting big numbers of MMA fans to buy in. That’s a shame, considering they put on more dependably exciting fights than arguably any other weight class. But so long as they continue to toil under a lack of overall depth and name recognition, as well as the public’s apparent reluctance to pay to watch small men do work, even the best fighters there will continue to lag behind their larger counterparts.
It seems unfair to expect Barao to be any different. He may be the bantamweight champion, but he’s still a bantamweight. Until he builds a title streak of Anderson Silva-esque proportions or gets dragged into a blood feud with some 135-pounder channeling Chael Sonnen, he probably won’t draw money like a bigger champion, let alone an all-time, No. 1 pound-for-pound great.
Does that mean a lot of penny-pinching fight fans are going to miss out on one of the UFC’s more interesting developing title reigns? Yep, but that’s not really a Renan Barao problem. It’s a much weightier issue than that.
Until the lightest weight divisions read like finished products, their champions—however great—will continue to draw like works in progress.