BARAO PUT TO THE TEST
Renan Barao continued his quest to become the best bantamweight in the world on Saturday night with a fourth-round submission win over Michael McDonald. Barao looked great, as usual, though the bout wasn’t free from moments of trepidation for the interim champ.
The back-and-forth action was just what Barao needed to continue to grow as a fighter. His eight-year unbeaten streak has to cause complacency to rear its ugly head. Easy wins don’t help. Fights like Saturday night, by contrast, remind Barao that he can’t take any opponent or any fight for granted. That will serve him well as he seeks to set an unbeaten record that could very well become the standard bearer for the sport for years to come.
WILL BARAO-CRUZ HAPPEN?
Despite the fact that Barao extended his unbeaten streak to an absurd 33 bouts on Saturday night, including his first successful defense of his interim 135-pound title, that still wasn’t enough to solidify his claim as the best bantamweight in the world.
There is some guy named Dominick Cruz who currently owns that distinction. Cruz also happens to be the real UFC bantamweight champion. Until the pair meet in the cage, Cruz retires or is stripped of the belt, Barao will remain firmly planted as the division’s number two.
I’m not suggesting that Cruz will necessarily defeat Barao. But the real champion has earned the right to occupy the top spot until someone forcibly removes him from that position.
That fight is supposed to happen this summer when Cruz finally heals from two knee surgeries. But I’m not so sure it will for a couple of reasons.
First, I think that Cruz will need a bit more time than most think. The guy hasn’t competed since October 1, 2011. That is a lifetime in a sport like mixed martial arts. Add to the mix that Cruz had to basically have back-to-back ACL surgeries, which means he hasn’t done anything of great substance to maintain, let alone sharpen, his skills since early summer 2012.
Thus, even if Cruz begins training in June, after recovering from the December surgery (which, again, was his second ACL reconstruction in six months), I think he will need much more time than just a typical 10-week training camp to get ready for a title defense against Barao.
Second, Barao is far better suited for the featherweight division. His frame is absolutely enormous for the 135-pound weight class. The cut is a significant undertaking. The only reason he isn’t competing 10 pounds to the north is his close friend and teammate, Jose Aldo, rules that division.
Aldo has openly talked about moving to lightweight, a division that is likely better suited to his frame as he continues to get older. If Aldo defeats Anthony Pettis this summer and Cruz is a bit behind on his comeback timetable, it may seem likely that Barao will move up in weight in an attempt to be his buddy’s successor as the featherweight champ. Such a move would all but eliminate Cruz-Barao from the sport’s short-term road map.
SWANSON COMING INTO HIS OWN
Cub Swanson probably wondered where his career was headed when he suffered a second-round submission loss to Ricardo Lamas in his UFC debut. That was his third loss in his previous five fights and clearly not the best way to jumpstart his career after finally getting the opportunity to compete inside the Octagon.
Then, something clicked with the exciting featherweight. He followed the Lamas loss with a second-round TKO win over George Roop. Then knockout wins over Ross Pearson and Charles Oliveira. Three in a row is nothing to sneeze at. Four in a row starts to spark talk about title contender status.
Swanson’s win over Dustin Poirier on Saturday night definitely put him squarely in the championship mix. Not solely because it was his fourth win. It was more about who he beat.
Anyone who regularly reads this column knows what I think about Poirier and his potential. For Swanson to comfortably handle him suggests that the California native is ready for the best that the division has to offer.
I know that Pettis is next up for Aldo. I think Swanson should be next in line.
DESPITE THE LOSS, POIRIER STILL HAS THE GOODS
I still firmly believe that Poirier is a future champion. Saturday’s loss does nothing to derail that belief. Granted, a loss never helps the cause. And it certainly will take him a half step backward in the division hierarchy. Yet, he has to be granted some quarter for accepting the bout on short notice.
Taking a company-first approach to one’s career can pay dividends down the road, particularly for young fighters who have plenty of time to recover from a loss. At 24 years old, Poirier still has at least a decade of competition in front of him, if he chooses to stay in the sport that long. That means he is nowhere close to reaching his potential at this early stage in his career—a scary thought for UFC featherweights and lightweights, despite dropping two of his last three fights.
My guess is Poirier will be rewarded for his willingness to step up with a marquee matchup in his next bout. A win will completely negate the negative impact of Saturday’s loss. Another loss, however, would be disastrous for the youngster.
Thus, if I was running Team Poirier, I would look at this next bout as a major moment in his career. Risks aside, I don’t think he needs an easy opponent, if such thing exists in the UFC. I actually think he would be better served looking to fight one of the recognized top contenders, though I would make sure that he gets a full training camp in preparation for the bout.
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