The Killing the King series is my commitment to analyzing the best fighters in the world today, the UFC champions, with an eye for weakness and how they can be exploited in the long run.
The idea is not to make me seem prophetic, it is simply to point out that the fight game is pretty scientific. Got a guy who pulls back a lot? Fake him out. Got a guy who moves a lot? Kick his legs or put him on the fence. There are ways to undo everyone's favorite tendencies, and there isn't a fighter—living or dead—who doesn't show habits and gravitate to particular strategies.
We get caught up in the auras and the hype and the nonsense about being “unbeatable,” but at the mechanical and tactical level, fighting is a game of questions and answers. That is, after all, why they say “styles make fights.” Eddie Wineland had Renan Barao looking very average in their bout, where Urijah Faber—generally considered a tougher challenge, and who had demolished Wineland when they fought—looked like he had nothing for Barao.
It is all about finding the right approach. Fight a man on his own terms and he'll beat you up with the stuff he has been practicing day in and day out. Find a way to take that away from him, and he's having to fight you with his B game—that's when things become a lot less favorable to him.
I have been putting these Killing the King pieces together for a while, but this is my first at Fightland, and my first in about half a year. So forgive me if I seem rusty, and let's take a look at the UFC bantamweight despot, Renan Barao.
The fact that Renan Barao hasn't lost a fight since his début in 2005, and that he has now defended his UFC bantamweight title (which was “interim” for a stupidly long time) on four occasions, should give you an idea of just how good Renan Barao is.
But no matter how many men he beats, the arsenal of tools which he shows is minimalist. That is never a bad thing—I appreciate a man who gets good at using what he knows—but it can make it easier to take that handful of tools away. It might sound cruel to say, but Barao is in many ways the diet Jose Aldo.
Barao relies on his hard right low kick to do the attrition based damage throughout his fights, and while he has a sterling Brazilian Jiu Jitsu pedigree, he tends to use it to finish, or when he is in trouble. In fact, Barao's takedown attempts in previous fights can tell us a little about what confuses him.
What Barao has always had, and what Jose Aldo has only recently acquired, is a sublime jab. It is a ramrod straight from his guard—no telegraphing, and his weight stepped into it in the same way Jack Dempsey and “Peerless” Jim Driscoll so passionately advocated. It is less a “jab” and more of a “jolt” as those gentlemen liked to call it.
The lead shoulder is raised, and the chin is tucked behind it, and when he really wants to commit to it, Barao will come in side on—presenting a knife-edge sized target to his opponent. This sort of jab cuts inside of a more squared opponent's offence, bloodies his nose, and lets you duck out while he's swinging blind with the sting of the punch still in his mind.
Jose Aldo, until very recently could not jab for love nor money. His bout against Mark Hominick demonstrated that wonderfully. When Aldo was swinging, Hominick was forced to respect the featherweight's incredible punch—but when Aldo was jabbing, Hominick could slip, get inside and punch Aldo's chest and body. There was all sorts of injury talk in that fight after Aldo visibly gassed out—but if there's one thing Hominick has it's accuracy, if he was punching Aldo in the chest and body, there was a reason that he was doing it.
In recent years Aldo's jab has become a force of its own, and it certainly doesn't look like a carbon copy of Barao's. It is a versatile weapon and Aldo used it to get the better of Frankie Edgar in their meeting.
Fighting Past the First Punch
What Renan Barao doesn't have, which Jose Aldo does, is the polish on the rest of his boxing game. Aldo, to my mind, has some of the finest all around striking, and, particularly, boxing in mixed martial arts. He will slip punches masterfully, he will use pivots to let opponents charge past him, and he will mix in bodywork like few others in the business.
When Barao gets past the first punch—that beautiful, nose-flattening jab—he begins to look very wild, and very average. If he sat back and just jabbed and low kicked, he would take decision wins over every opponent he fought, but he would probably not get caught half as much as he does. The most obvious example of this ugly swinging as he squares up to fight is in Barao's bout with Brad Pickett. Barao decided he wanted to throw his right hand, then squared up and swung wild.
Note the high chin and low hands.
Barao sticks his chin out, drops his left, and leans forward almost every time he throws his right hand.
Plenty of fighters have this problem. Getting a strong, safe, technical jab to gel with a power punching game is a difficult thing to do. There's a reason why most fighters are best known for one or the other. UFC fighter Ramsey Nijem is an obvious example. Lovely jab, great at picking away at an opponent, but when he wants to bite down on his mouth piece and throw his right hand he tends to leave himself wide open to counters. It has cost him a few fights but he looks to be getting a handle on it.
A phrase I mention a lot is “closing the door.” In traditional boxing form (though there are plenty of approaches out there), it is best to stay in half facing or in a “bladed” stance. You want your centerline away from the opponent and you certainly don't want to square up and give him a nice wide target. The problem has always been that in order to throw a strong right hand you must square your shoulders and hips to the opponent. Closing the door is the act of getting back to a bladed stance after throwing the right hand, and ideally it should be done as quickly as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to close the door by finishing each combination with a jab or left hook.
It is this getting back to a bladed stance which Barao struggles to do, or at least struggles to remember to do.
It is, of course, not enough to use examples from years ago and claim to have worked Barao out, but this habit still rears it's ugly head in Barao's fights to this day. Here is Barao jumping in on Michael McDonald and leaving himself wide open for whatever comes back.
Here is an example of Barao, thrown off by Eddie Wineland's feints and footwork, trying to step in and get it down with power punches. He throws himself off balance and squares up, but can't get back onto a line quick enough and almost gets himself into serious trouble with Wineland's right straight.
An example of this exact same flaw getting a great boxer into trouble was Rocky Marciano versus Archie Moore. Marciano was able to grind Moore down over the rounds, but giving a savvy fighter opportunities for a tight right straight like this is tactical suicide.
Moore shoulder rolled the punch so he was close enough to punish Marciano, where Wineland wasn't in the sequence above, but it was the offensive fighter's squaring up and over committing which was the common factor in both.
Drawing Barao into a brawl is always going to be a positive thing for his challengers. He is simply so much better on the outside, picking away than he is in close. The problem is that forcing him to exchange is hard to do.
Renan Barao iskeen to stay out at range. In their most recent meeting, Urijah Faber looked utterly clueless as to how to catch Barao. Faber was running in with combinations and still hitting nothing but air as Barao retreated. But Faber is pretty predictable on the feet. He's going to dance a bit, then run in with his right hand.
When Barao met Eddie Wineland it was very different. Wineland's constant feints bewildered the champion. Barao didn't know when to retreat and when to stay frosty. Wineland's feints forced Barao to the fence several times, which would be awesome if Wineland actually liked to fight there. Wineland simply backed off and let Barao come back to the centre of the Octagon.
I understand that Wineland's style annoys many because of his upright stance, low hands, and being largely inactive outside of feinting for large portions of the round, but review his fight with Barao and you will understand just how troubling that perpetual motion can be to a fighter who is unaccustomed to it.
When Barao is attempting takedowns like these, you know he's a little flustered.
Where Jose Aldo will circle out, or pivot and let his opponents run past him, Barao almost exclusively retreats straight back.
This means that when he is near the fence he can be rushed onto it. Michael McDonald showed this nicely, but not being the strongest wrestler or infighter, McDonald wasn't in position to take advantage of this. However, as Barao struggled to turn McDonald onto the cage, he ate some right hands and dropped to a knee.
Low kicks should be a primary concern of anyone fighting Barao. Firstly, defending his, but secondly landing some on Barao. Certainly Barao's low kicks need checking so that he is dissuaded from attempting them—but it is important to understand that doing so will stand a fighter still for Barao's right hand. This is exactly how Barao caught Urijah Faber in their second meeting. You can't get away when you're on one leg.
This is why offensively applying low kicks should be of importance to Barao's opponents. They root an opponent to the floor. You either hammer the leg, reducing the movement of the opponent, or they are on one leg as they check it. There isn't a movement-based fighter alive who can't be slowed down a little with the threat of low kicks. Frankie Edgar hates them, as does Lyoto Machida.
The best part about low kicking to reduce mobility is that you your kicks don’t even have to land. The opponent checking the kick is enough to keep him in place, giving you the opportunity to jump on him with punches. As Barao loves to retreat from strikes, low kicks are tailor made to mess with his go to defense and push him towards his B game. Stand him still, drag him into a brawl, and find his chin.
It is also worth noting that being on one leg while on offence is equally limiting. Plenty of fighters have made careers out of stepping in with a punch as the opponent kicks. Igor Vovchanchyn and Fedor Emlianenko were excellent at it, as is Lyoto Machida. As fast and precise as Renan Barao is, he still throws the majority of his kicks with no set up. This means that counters can be easier to find than against an Ernesto Hoost type who is going to have you shelling up and worrying about his punches before he punts your thigh.
Here's a nice instance of Eddie Wineland stepping in to time Renan Barao.
But equally, it is not necessary to have elite timing and clairvoyance as to when the opponent is going to step in. It is just as easy to take a kick and follow it back with a left hook. Tyrone Spong does this wonderfully. Against Nate Corbett, Spong would take a kick on his shin or thigh, then follow it back with a jump in and a left hook to the body.
Spong later went upstairs and knocked Corbett down.
Body shots really take it out of a kicker over time and Urijah Faber, Eddie Wineland and Michael McDonald were all able to land good body shots on Barao which they failed to go back to.
Here's Roman Zentsov following Pedro Rizzo's kick back with a left hook
Barao is generally considered one of the most complete fighters in the world today, but he is very much a minimalist. His stand up is pinpoint accurate from the outside, but he leaves himself wide open when he is agitated and gets into a brawl. His Jiu Jitsu is phenomenal, but his takedowns have been found wanting for the most part. His takedown defense is sublime, but as with most of the Nova Unaio team, it involves large portions or leaning on the fence to hold himself up.
Drawing Barao into a brawl, where he is forced to go beyond one or two punches at a time and his sloppiness in combination can be exploited, seems like the best strategy to score a win rather than trying to outpoint a guy with one of the best jabs in the business. This can be accomplished by cutting off the cage—a skill that is largely absent from most fights today but which I will continue to stress the importance of—or forcing a clinch and then physically moving Barao to the fence.
Alternatively Barao could be drawn into a brawl by drawing out his right hand. Carrying the lead had low and encouraging him to throw his looping right hand and then ducking or shoulder rolling would do this, but that's always dangerous with a man who loves to kick. Drop the hand for a moment and you might find a high kick coming instead of an easily slipped punch.
To be honest, what I would hope to see from anyone hoping to beat Barao is pressure, and tons of it. Get across the ring, kick him in the leg and swarm in on him with punches before he can get away. Move to the clinch, then to the fence, then flurry again. Rinse and repeat.
So what are T. J. Dillashaw's chances? Well, he has all the skills to beat Barao, but that doesn't at all mean that he will. He certainly lacks the experience of Barao, and the fight is on relatively short notice. What's more is that Dillashaw's camp, Team Alpha Male, already put Urijah Faber in with Barao and he seemed absolutely stumped for ideas by the second time. Instead of working to cut the ring, or get to the clinch, or hack away at the trailing leg as Barao retreated, Faber just ran at him over and over with punches.
What I saw from Dillashaw against Mike Easton—pushing him to the fence, flurrying on him, taking him down, then flurrying on him again as he got up—is exactly what I would love to see against Barao because trapping him in a corner seems to force him to throw back, and that is where he leaves himself so open.
The problem is that after eating some jabs and low kicks, Dillashaw might resort to the same sort of sprinting flurries which got him into trouble against John Dodson, and which Michael McDonald and Urijah Faber resorted to when stumped by Barao.
Renan Barao is a tough nut to crack, but I doubt we will see him go out with a whimper. The dangerous way he jumps into brawls and leaves himself wide open says to me that when someone does topple Barao, it isn't going to be a tedious grinding decision. Barao is more likely to go out with a bang.
Tune in to UFC 173, and see in the underdog, T. J. Dillashaw can be the man to end Renan Barao's incredible streak.
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