Renan Barao has not lost a fight since April 2005. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Memorial Day Weekend show is traditionally one of the promotion’s biggest cards. In recent years, the emphasis has been placed squarely on “big,” with heavyweights headlining each of the last two holiday events. Lighter weight fighters will take center stage this time around, however, as Renan Barao defends his bantamweight strap against T.J. Dillashaw in the UFC 173 main event on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
While it was not the headliner UFC brass originally wanted -- that honor goes to Chris Weidman-Lyoto Machida, which will now serve as UFC 175’s main event -- Barao is rapidly emerging as one of the sport’s pound-for-pound best.
If you feel 135-pounders are not worth the pay-per-view asking price, the promotion has you covered: Daniel Cormier will look to solidify his contender status as a light heavyweight against Dan Henderson in the co-main event, while Robbie Lawler attempts to rebound from a narrow title loss two months ago in a welterweight showdown against Jake Ellenberger.
Here is a closer look at the UFC 173 card, with analysis and picks:
UFC Bantamweight ChampionshipRenan Barao (32-1, 7-0 UFC) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (9-2, 5-2 UFC)
The Matchup: In a perfect world, Dillashaw would have more time to develop before being thrust into a title bout against one of the UFC’s top overall talents. After all, it was supposed to be Raphael Assuncao, who defeated Dillashaw in October, in this position, but a rib injury sustained at UFC 170 would not allow the Brazilian to make such a quick turnaround. When Weidman-Machida, the original UFC 173 headliner, needed to be pushed back to July to accommodate Weidman’s knee surgery, the promotion needed something at least somewhat main-event worthy.
So here we are, with Dillashaw attempting to do what Team Alpha Male leader Urijah Faber has already failed to do on two separate occasions. While members of Team Alpha Male all seem to excel in similar facets of MMA, perhaps Dillashaw can learn from Faber’s missteps against the bantamweight champion. Dillashaw’s skills have progressed nicely since his time on “The Ultimate Fighter 14,” when he was known primarily for his wrestling and a strong right hand. Since then, the former Cal State Fullerton wrestler has improved his ability to string together punches while blending in fakes and feints to keep his opponents guessing. That, coupled with his ability to transition between striking and takedowns, has made him a difficult matchup for most anyone in the division; even his loss to Assuncao was a contentious split verdict that many media scored in his favor.
Perhaps most importantly, especially against Barao, Dillashaw has displayed a proficient kicking game. In his most recent outing, Dillashaw battered Mike Easton with an array of kicks to the legs, body and head. He has also enjoyed success faking the low kick before landing a head kick. That type of versatility was not often displayed by Faber in his two bouts with the champion, as “The California Kid” too frequently allowed Barao to control the range.
If Dillashaw elects to go with a kick-heavy approach, he must be prepared to follow up with punching combinations -- particularly when he uses low kicks. This will serve to keep Barao off-balance while not allowing the Nova Uniao star to implement damaging leg attacks of his own.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In addition to an accurate and explosive toolbox of kicks, Barao can also control distance with a deadly left jab. While he has left himself open when he attempts to put punching combinations together in the past, it can be difficult to capitalize on such openings because Barao often gets reckless only after he has already stunned his opponent and looks to finish. Barao hurt Faber twice with right hands at UFC 169, a point of concern since Assuncao was able to find the mark with several rights in his meeting with Dillashaw.
Although Dillashaw might be able to offer Barao a few different looks, it is difficult to imagine him consistently outstriking the Brazilian. In addition, Barao’s size and takedown defense will limit, if not eliminate, Dillashaw’s wrestling and scrambling opportunities.
The Pick: Barao can hurt Dillashaw at range with jabs and low kicks while looking for opportunities to land more damaging strikes. His ability to transition to submissions when an adversary is hurt is frightening, as well. Dillashaw, while talented, could have used another year of seasoning at least. Barao takes this by technical knockout or submission within three rounds.
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