FeatherweightsRenan Barao (33-4) vs. Phillipe Nover (11-6-1)
THE MATCHUP: In moving to featherweight, former bantamweight champion Barao expected to find a new lease on life, but a change of division would not be enough. To take advantage of his speed and smaller frame, Barao came into his featherweight debut planning to flit about on the outside and pick apart the slower Jeremy Stephens. The strategy was not only a wise one for a brick-fisted slugger like Stephens but a welcome transformation for Barao: His biggest shortcoming as a bantamweight was his willingness to plant his feet and trade, a tendency which the highly mobile T.J. Dillashaw beautifully exploited.
The two are often confused, but there is a real difference between “countering” and “sticking and moving.” That difference was illustrated in the Stephens fight. Barao turned in a picture-perfect first round, moving better than ever before, forcing Stephens to chase him and leading the dance with crisp straight punches. As it turns out, Barao has a knack for out-fighting. However, when the tempo picked up, his nature took over and Barao began planting his feet and waiting on Stephens to lead. Lacking head movement or any other kind of active defense, Barao got himself into trouble and kind of gave away the fight. Actually, Barao corrected his mistake and went back to his jab and footwork in the third round. The fight ended up being extremely close, and there is a good argument to be made that Barao deserved the win. Indeed, nearly a third of media scored the fight in his favor. In the end, however, Barao’s execution was imperfect, and Stephens got the nod.
Nover will be an interesting test for Barao’s new look. Nover is willing to move and strike from the outside himself, which means Barao will either have to pressure or box with him at range. Fortunately for the Brazilian, Nover throws nowhere near the volume of Dillashaw, nor does he possess the cracking power or absurd durability of Stephens. Nover’s best weapons are his kicks, and Barao will need to kick with him to compete at range.
Nover’s predilection for kicks does open him up to takedowns, however, and his defensive wrestling is not as stout as Stephens’ in the first place. Barao seemed determined to take down Stephens in their fight, and that tactic could yield more fruit this time around. Barao is an exceptional grappler with a patient, methodical top game. He may be known for his striking, but two-thirds of his 23 finishes have come via submission. Nover has solid skills in every area, but he struggles with fighters who transition well. In other words, he is easiest to take down when he commits to striking and easiest to hit when he tries to grapple. Barao has enough experience to take advantage of those opportunities and catch Nover in the in-between spaces.
THE ODDS: Barao (-425), Nover (+345)
THE PICK: Barao’s fight with Stephens was not flawless, but it was encouraging. In fact, I find that loss to be far more inspiring than Barao’s win over Mitch Gagnon. In sticking and moving, however inconsistently, Barao proved that he can adapt at a point in his career when most fighters are beyond dramatic change. Now he will have the chance to test his new style in a more forgiving environment. This is not to say that Nover cannot win: If Barao loses his discipline and starts waiting, Nover is fast enough to land shots at range. However, Barao successfully regained his composure against Stephens despite absorbing hellacious punishment in the second round. Doing the same against Nover should be considerably easier. The pick is Barao by unanimous decision.
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