Renan Barao: Why a P4P Label Is Not Everything in the Sport of MMA

Levi NileContributor IIIMay 25, 2014

USA Today

It seems that whenever a supporter of a fighter wants to elevate his name, he is elevated as a pound-for-pound great. Be it fans, writers or Dana White, the term is used quickly and without restraint—the main support being that of an impressive record, usually coupled with an equally impressive winning streak.

At UFC 173, TJ Dillashaw proved that it takes more than a great record or winning streak to hold the mantle of pound-for-pound great; it takes true greatness.

Going into his fight with then-champion Renan Barao, Dillashaw was hardly given a chance to win. Barao was thought to be too dominant to be defeated by a relative newcomer to the sport.

Dillashaw in the shoe box with Barao
Dillashaw in the shoe box with BaraoUSA TODAY Sports

After all, Dillashaw was sporting a 9-2 record going into the fight; weighed in equal opposition to the impressive 32-1 record of Barao, Dillashaw didn’t seem to have the experience needed to handle the Brazilian.

Those sentiments were echoed loudly by just about anyone with a Twitter account and some authority in the sport. Prior to UFC 173, White spoke highly of Barao, showing an appreciation for all of the talents and accomplishments the Brazilian had earned, per John Morgan of USA Today:

He’s never been taken down in the UFC, ever,” said White. “He’s got the most bantamweight finishes in UFC and WEC history. Even after how great Jon Jones looked at UFC 172, the more I start to dig into this thing and look at it, I think you have to say that Renan Barao is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.

At first glance, the reasoning behind this is sound; greatness is recognized by results, and those of Barao are quite impressive.

But that is only half the equation, and it doesn’t even take into account the other fighters who have enjoyed such high praise who are still at the top of their game. White addressed the central question regarding the pound-for-pound term, but seemed to lose sight of the fact that a great record alone is not the be-all and end-all of the debate.

“Pound-for-pound means if everybody was the same size, who would win,” White said. “This kid [Barao] has got the stats to prove it.”

Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar
Jose Aldo vs. Frankie EdgarUSA TODAY Sports

But prove what, exactly—that he could beat Jon Jones or Jose Aldo if they were in the same weight class?

At a certain point, a record alone cannot indicate who would win if two pound-for-pound luminaries were to meet on an even playing field. Obviously, when there is a weight difference involved, speculation is all we have, and pure numbers have always been the true cornerstone for analysis.

But there are also factors of speed, power, explosiveness, conditioning, fluidity, poise and so much more; factors that are not usually factored into the final tally of wins and loses.

And of course, there is the ever-important clash of styles.

Even before his loss to Dillashaw, it seemed hard for me to fathom that Barao could beat a fighter as skilled, powerful and fast as Aldo. It’s not that Barao couldn’t beat Aldo—we will never know until they actually fight—but given Aldo’s talents and physical gifts, it seems as if Barao would be a beat behind the music for most of such a fight.

And what of Jones? Granted, he had his hands full against Alexander Gustafsson, but Gustafsson and Barao are vastly different fighters. Would Barao be able to nullify the grappling and takedown game of a fighter like Jones, just because he boasts an impressive record that never saw him face an opponent like Jones?

These are the kind of intangibles that can never be fully addressed where the pound-for-pound debate is concerned.

When Dillashaw dominated Barao, round after round, while shocking, it was not that far removed from the realm of possibility. After all, Chris Weidman, sporting a record of a mere 10-0, defeated a man who was then considered by most as the greatest P4P fighter in the world, Anderson Silva.

Then, there is another wrinkle; does a loss suddenly mean that a fighter like Barao is no longer as good as he was before? If that is the case, then imagine the chaos in the debate that would ensue if Anderson Silva, coming off back-to-back losses, were to suddenly take a superfight with Jon Jones and defeat him?

It’s a long and tangled web that more often than not loses sight of the fact that great fighters can lose and good fighters can prove themselves great, but they are all capable of great highs and shocking lows on a night-by-night basis.

Barao suffered a tough setback at UFC 173, which by necessity calls into question his inclusion in the P4P debate. But that does not diminish the one thing that he can stand proudly upon: He’s a great fighter who has won far more than he has lost.

When you are fighting in the biggest promotion in the sport, an impressive record reflects a fact that means more than any hypothetical judgment.