T.J. Dillashaw has scored consecutive fifth-round finishes. | Photo: Josh Hedges/UFC/Getty
The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to Chicago for its fourth show on the main Fox network with a solid if not outstanding offering on Saturday at the United Center. In the main event, bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw makes the second defense of his belt against the main he defeated to win it, Brazil’s Renan Barao. Their first fight was an upset for the ages and a thrashing of epic proportions, and there is every reason to think the rematch will be outstanding.
Underneath the headliner, the card features a number of solid matchups that lean more toward action than divisional relevance. The co-main event, a probable top contender’s fight between women’s bantamweights Miesha Tate and Jessica Eye, is the exception. Otherwise, Edson Barboza takes on Paul Felder in what promises to be a technical and violent scrap, and veteran brawlers Joe Lauzon and Takanori Gomi kick off the main card. The preliminaries are substantially less promising, though there are still a few fights of potential interest.
Let us take a look at each UFC on Fox 16 matchup:
UFC Bantamweight ChampionshipT.J. Dillashaw (11-2, 7-2 UFC) vs. Renan Barao (33-2, 8-1 UFC)
THE MATCHUP: Heading into the third defense of his bantamweight title, Barao was on the cusp of being the next big thing, a 135-pound version of his training partner and longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Dillashaw, moving up from a scheduled preliminary bout with Takeya Mizugaki, shocked the world by dominating the massive favorite from the opening bell and finishing him in the final frame. Since then, Dillashaw has defended his belt only once, a finish of Joe Soto in August, while Barao rebounded from the devastating loss with a submission of Mitch Gagnon in December. With Dominick Cruz injured yet again, this is the best fight to be made in the division and by far the most meaningful one.
Despite his pedigree as a Division I wrestler, Dillashaw has evolved into one of the trickiest and most dangerous strikers in the bantamweight division under the watchful eye of Duane Ludwig. The champion’s approach on the feet revolves around unpredictable movement and crisp footwork that has him constantly darting in and out of range while taking clean angles. He fights with an odd broken rhythm that is difficult to time, and his tendency to unexpectedly switch stances gives him a vast array of ranges at which he can land offense. The combination of movement, angles and stance switching makes him a dangerous counterfighter, as he can simply stop, plant his feet and run pursuing opponents right into a combination. Dillashaw excels at mixing up his strike locations and is a master at hiding his high kicks behind a feint and using punches to obscure his opponent’s field of vision. Offensive output is a strong suit, and Dillashaw is rarely there to be hit, though his head movement is not always consistent and he tends to rely on distance and angles for defense.
While he prefers to strike, Dillashaw remains one of the best wrestlers in the division. He has never been taken down in the UFC; he finishes his singles, doubles and knee taps with clean technical skill; and he chains them all together beautifully. He is a lethal grappler, as well, with a slick array of back-takes from a variety of positions, smooth passes, a heavy base and a strong front headlock. In sum, Dillashaw is a well-rounded and dangerous fighter in every phase of the fight.
Barao is an elite fighter with plus -- if not better -- skills in every phase. He has largely been a striker since coming to the UFC, and he is a pretty good one who works behind a crisp jab, winging overhand right and hard low kicks at range. Lightning-fast spinning kicks make his basic arsenal of strikes more effective, and he has a knack for finishing combinations with uppercuts and stepping knees to catch opponents who try to change levels and duck under for takedowns. Barao is perfectly willing to exchange in the pocket and reflexively plants his feet and throws when pressured -- a tendency that Dillashaw repeatedly exploited in their first meeting. The Brazilian is not a defensive mastermind and tends to rely on a tight guard and distance to avoid his opponent’s strikes.
While he is one of the division’s best, striking is probably Barao’s least imposing skill set. He is an excellent clinch fighter with sharp knees and strong control, and he has even better wrestler chops. He has not conceded a single takedown in his nine UFC outings. Offensively, he has a nice array of trips and throws in the clinch, along with singles and doubles, all of which he chains together nicely. He is a monster on the mat, with silky-smooth passes, an unshakeable base that gives him suffocating control and a variety of submissions, most notably the arm-triangle. Scrambles are another specialty, and he excels at finding the back and sinking the rear-naked choke.
BETTING ODDS: Dillashaw (-220), Barao (+180)
THE PICK: The betting odds seem appropriate. Little about their first meeting suggests Barao has the tools to deal with Dillashaw’s lateral movement and angles, which literally left the American standing behind Barao on several occasions. Dillashaw’s stellar takedown defense means this will likely be contested on the feet and in the clinch, with more of the former than the latter; it is hard not to give the champion the edge in that kind of fight. With that said, Barao does have a path to victory if he stays lighter on his feet, capitalizes with big shots when Dillashaw exchanges and perhaps snags a few takedowns. That seems less likely than a scenario in which the champion pieces up Barao with slick movement, angles and consistent combination work on the feet. The pick is Dillashaw by decision.
Next Fight » Miesha Tate vs. Jessica Eye