Opinion: Renan Barao and the Shattered Veil of Invincibility

By Andreas Hale Jun 1, 2016

When the mighty fall, they often fall hard.

In the case of Renan Barao, his veil of invincibility has been shattered and dismantled. In its wake stands a fighter far removed from the No. 3 spot he occupied behind Jon Jones and Jose Aldo in the pound-for-pound rankings just two years ago.

Before his shocking loss to T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 173 in 2014, Barao was mowing down the competition. After losing his first MMA fight, he stormed to a 32-1 record, with one no-contest. For a minute, he appeared to be unbeatable at bantamweight. He proved he had effective striking and a slick ground game, and he dominated opponents many thought might give him problems. Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to see what that version of Barao would have done against a healthy Dominick Cruz. However, for a spell, Barao was one of the three best fighters on the planet.

Then an interesting sequence of events led to his downfall.

Barao was scheduled to fight Cruz on two occasions, but injuries caused both fights to be shelved. After defeating Urijah Faber at UFC 169 in his first official title defense as the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder, Barao was slated to face Raphael Assuncao. However, Assuncao wasn’t fully healed and declined the bout, which led to what was perceived as an epic mismatch when Barao was paired with Dillashaw.

Now, you have to remember where Dillashaw was at in his career prior to this fight. His most memorable moment was being lit up by John Dodson at “The Ultimate Fighter 14” Finale. After that, he moved up to featherweight, beat a few fighters nobody cared about, dropped a split decision to Assuncao and defeated Mike Easton. It wasn’t exactly a sparkling resume, but he was in the right place at the right time.

Dillashaw flattened Barao in the fifth round and had observers scrambling to figure out what went wrong with the Brazilian. He was flat, hittable and ultimately beatable. The knockout not only ended the Barao’s remarkable winning streak but shattered his aura of invincibility; and when you shatter that aura, everything usually falls apart with it. The psychology involving fighters who suffer a knockout loss for the first time in their career is an interesting one. You can call it the Mike Tyson effect, because once that invincible energy used to intimidate opponents dissolves, they usually have nothing left. When Barao lost, he truly had nothing left.

A second knockout loss to Dillashaw caused Barao to move up in weight. Maybe a change in scenery would kick start the Brazilian, it was thought. Once he was paired with Jeremy Stephens at UFC Fight Night “Almeida vs. Garbrandt” on Sunday in Las Vegas, “Lil’ Heathen” pointed out exactly what the problem was with Barao. In just about every interview prior to the fight, Stephens cited how he could see in Barao’s eyes that he was “mentally broken.” Although Stephens tried to talk up his opponent, he saw what everyone else saw: a man who was a shell of his former self; and a change in weight class was certainly not the answer.

The UFC Fight Night 88 co-main event went about how you would expect it to. Barao started off well, and then he got hit -- hard. Although he didn’t get knocked out, something was vacant in how Barao looked for the rest of the fight. He wasn’t necessarily there and simply operated on cruise control while trying to not get KO’d.

It’s a weird effect that happens to these fighters because the end comes so swiftly and with a great deal of devastation in its wake. Look at all of the fighters who were unbeaten and dominant in their performances. Once they hit the bump, they are never the same. Barao is a victim of this fragile aura. He might win a fight or two on his natural ability, but when he’s pushed, he’s going to fall. The base is no longer as sturdy as it once was.

Against Stephens, Barao’s was rattled, and he was taken back to the fight where Dillashaw simply wanted it more than he did. Flash knockouts are one thing -- you can chalk them up to a lucky punch -- but a one-sided beatdown that ends in a knockout is something that does far more damage psychologically.

That’s why we’re all curious as to who Ronda Rousey will be once she decides to return to fighting. She lived to be unbeatable, and Holly Holm ripped that away from her in and absolute mugging. Without the veil of invincibility, what exactly is she fighting for? Once you know you can be beaten, the fear of being embarrassed again seems to take hold of a fighter’s soul. It doesn’t happen to every fighter, but it happens to enough of them.

Adversity is a bitch, especially when you’re not used to it. It’s the difference between Muhammad Ali and Tyson. One evolved over time, and the other shut down. Barao appears to be on the wrong side of the equation, and no weight class shift, change in trainer or anything else can save him from the inevitable free fall to mediocrity.

Andreas Hale is the editorial content director of 2DopeBoyz.com, co-host of the boxing, MMA and pro wrestling podcast “The Corner” and a regular columnist for Sherdog.com. You can follow on Twitter for his random yet educated thoughts on combat sports, music, film and popular culture.
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