The UFC might have absolutely adored Renan Barao a couple of months ago, but he now finds himself on "the list." Not the good list, either. By withdrawing from UFC 177 following complications related to his weight cut, he has landed in Dana White's doghouse and out of title contention.
Still, Barao remains one of the best fighters in the UFC's lower weight classes, and there is no reason to believe he won't be back with a vengeance in the near future. With a title rematch opposite T.J. Dillashaw off the table, the question now is, who could be next for Renan Barao?
So let's take a quick look at some of the potential opponents for the former champ's return, shall we?
Winner of Dominick Cruz vs. Takeya Mizugaki
The winner of Dominick Cruz vs. Takeya Mizugaki is the logical next opponent for T.J. Dillashaw without a doubt. However, depending on how things pan out with the champ's health (and depending on how the fight itself plays out), we could see Cruz or Mizugaki asked to face Barao in a likely top-contender match.
If Cruz wins in decisive fashion and is anywhere near as good as he was before his knee injuries, he will almost certainly be booked to face Dillashaw. However, if he isn't quite as nimble as he used to be, or if his cardio fails him, a match with Barao both buys him more time to prepare for a title shot and gives the UFC time to reacquaint fans with Cruz.
On the other hand, if Mizugaki wins with anything short of a savage knockout of Cruz, he will almost certainly be tasked with facing Barao rather than moving on to a title shot.
In spite of the fact that Mizugaki is an accomplished veteran and on an impressive 5-0 run, he is a near-anonymous figure in the UFC at this point. The promotion has little financial incentive to move him to a title shot, and as such, a fight with Barao would make sense to further build him up or give Barao a logical fight before facing Dillashaw again.
Matchmaking logic aside, both of these fights are dreams for the technically minded fan and would make for a solid pay-per-view co-main event or UFC on Fox headline.
Winner of Raphael Assuncao vs. Bryan Caraway
A lot of the top bantamweights are booked right now, it seems…but anyway, Raphael Assuncao vs. Bryan Caraway is slated to go down in the co-main event spot at UFC Fight Night 54 (headlined by Rory MacDonald vs. Tarec Saffiedine). Whoever happens to win that bout, as with Cruz vs. Mizugaki, is a strong candidate to face Barao.
Obviously, the appeal of this fight is largely rooted in Assuncao being the logical top contender at 135 pounds courtesy of his 2013 win over Dillashaw (and his overall 6-0 record as a bantamweight). It's silly that Assuncao has to restake his claim for this spot, but the UFC hasn't been kind to him and the scheduling certainly hasn't helped.
Caraway, meanwhile, is an unproven commodity but has long looked the part of an upper-level bantamweight.
While Barao vs. Cruz or Mizugaki would be a strong top-contender bout, Assuncao and Caraway largely serve as tuneup opponents for Barao. Caraway is pedestrian off the mat, and while Assuncao is solid all over the cage, Barao owns superior striking and wrestling. For the UFC, who would prefer Barao to be champion over Dillashaw, that makes this a solid option.
While Dana White didn't harp on it too much, one of the many things he said while discussing Barao's withdrawal from the fight was that he believed that Barao should consider a move to featherweight (and his teammate and friend, UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, should mull over a move to lightweight).
While it's unknown if Barao's cut is a particularly difficult one or if this was a one-time incident, Barao moving to 145 pounds is a fun mental exercise.
There are plenty of potential opponents for him in the stacked 145-pound division. Chan-Sung Jung, Jeremy Stephens and Dennis Bermudez all come to mind. The most interesting potential matchup (short of a title fight with Aldo) would be against high-flying striker Cub Swanson.
Swanson essentially exists on a separate plane from other fighters when it comes to trading leather. He has reached that point where he can basically do whatever he feels like, from front-leg body kicks to all manners of spinning strikes, and it works more often than not.
Now…can you imagine what kind of fireworks he could put on against Renan Barao? Man, that would be fun.