Renan Barao (33-3) vs Jeremy Stephens (24-12)
THE MATCHUP: Barao wasn’t actually such a massive bantamweight as some would have you believe, but he seemed to struggle with dieting properly in advance of his fights, leading to more than a few disastrous weight cuts that have likely diminished his ability to ever meet the 135 pound limit again. A move to featherweight is the logical next step then, and Barao finds himself faced with another fighter who has found new life in that division.
Stephens is not only a bigger, more powerful fighter at featherweight, but a more technical one as well. Stephens is no longer the wild puncher that found mixed success as a 155-pounder, but a streamlined boxer-puncher who moves well and counter punches with deadly accuracy. At range, Stephens is still mostly relegated to the right hand and the right kick. Both are dangerous, but it’s that newfound counterpunching that makes Stephens so dangerous. He is perfectly happy to plant his feet and meet an oncoming opponent, throwing uppercuts, left hooks and even flying knees to catch the overaggressive foe advancing.
Barao is not entirely dissimilar as a fighter. He too likes to counter opponents, often with a powerful left hook. Though he has cleaned up his footwork somewhat since the first T.J. Dillashaw fight, Barao is not quick on his feet, and tends to march forward inviting his opponent to attack. When he throws, he almost always does so in combination, frequently finishing with a powerful outside low kick. While Stephens likes to flash the jab before committing to the right hand, Barao’s jab is a vicious ramrod that forces opponents to react; it remains one of the most valuable and underrated weapons in his arsenal. Barao will also dip into the bag of spinning kicks when the mood strikes, and he has dealt some devastating blows with these more esoteric techniques.
Long billed as a “wrestle-boxer,” Stephens is not actually a great takedown artist. The occasional halfhearted double leg, even with Stephens’ size advantage, shouldn’t be enough to floor Barao. The Brazilian is perhaps the very best defensive wrestler out of Nova Uniao, the home of brilliant counter wrestler and former featherweight champion Jose Aldo. The UFC records a 97 percent rate of takedown defense for Barao, who was taken down in the Octagon for the very first time in his last fight, a rematch with former bantamweight champion Dillashaw. On the ground, there is no question that Barao is the superior grappler. With a methodically relentless top game, Barao has cinched 15 of his 33 wins via submission.
THE ODDS: Barao (-195), Stephens (+166)
THE PICK: Two years ago this would have been a simple pick for Barao. The Brazilian was climbing the pound-for-pound rankings after his third UFC title defense, and riding a nine-year winning streak to boot. But after two crushing defeats to TJ Dillashaw, there are serious questions regarding Barao’s confidence and durability going forward. Still, Dillashaw is something of a nightmare matchup for Barao, and Stephens isn’t. To beat Barao, one has to dance circles around him and pepper him while he struggles to keep up. To wit, when Dillashaw adopted a more aggressive approach in the rematch, Barao hit him -- harder and more cleanly than in the first fight. Stephens can send a thunderbolt to Barao’s chin, but his feet aren’t considerably faster than the former champion’s. And if Stephens waits at range for Barao to lunge in for a counter, he will find himself sitting right on the end of Barao’s crisp jab and crushing low kicks. The pick is Renan Barao by unanimous decision.
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