Weighing-In on Moving Up: Renan Barao at Featherweight

Fightland Blog

By Tom Taylor

Last weekend, after four and a half hard-fought rounds against TJ Dillashaw, Joe Soto was knocked out and lost his unlikely bid at the UFC bantamweight title. And while he came up short, he was perhaps not the biggest loser to emerge from the chaos of UFC 177’s main event. Yes, it was Soto who found himself unconscious, but it was Renan Barao, the man he replaced on short notice, whose stock seems to have taken the greatest hit in the wake of the infamous event.

Barao, who was the bantamweight champion until he was upset by Dillashaw at UFC 173, was scheduled for a shot at redemption in the main event of UFC 177. However, after issues surrounding his weight cut (he fainted and hit his head on the bathtub) Barao was forced to withdraw on the eve of battle.

From there, Joe Soto stepped up, and for a moment, the spotlight moved away from Barao. But now, with the event in the books, many voices in the MMA community, including UFC president Dana White, are encouraging Barao to make a permanent move up to the UFC’s featherweight division.

For Barao, one of the bigger members of the UFC’s bantamweight roster, a cut to 145 certainly appears simpler than a cut to 135. Yet the former champ, for the moment at least, is not keen on the idea. He and his coaches have both outwardly opposed the change.

The reasons for Barao’s reluctance are probably multifaceted. One obvious hurdle is that his long-time friend and teammate Jose Aldo currently holds the featherweight title. The pair will almost certainly never agree to fight, and so a featherweight Barao would be in a kind of uncomfortable limbo as long as Aldo’s stranglehold on the title continues. Of course, Aldo has also been goaded into making an upward move, but with his upcoming rematch with Chad Mendes on the horizon, and several more credible challengers waiting in the wings beyond that, Aldo is not likely to leave his current weight class for some time.

A second, probable reason for Barao’s hesitation is much simpler. At featherweight, he’ll have to fight bigger, stronger men. That will make it harder to perform well and harder still to win. And while Barao, a former champion and one-time owner of one of MMA’s longest win streaks, is certainly not your run-of-the-mill fighter, his reluctance is probably grounded in the difficulty other fighters— even great ones— have had in finding success at higher weight classes.

One example of this difficulty can be found in recent Barao training partner and MMA legend BJ Penn. While Penn is widely considered the greatest lightweight of all time, his forays up to welterweight were not so glorious. Sure, he was able to steal the welterweight from Matt Hughes, but outside of that performance, not one of his fights at welterweight was especially impressive. One might point to his first fight with Georges St. Pierre, which was a back and forth affair, but the second fight between the two was among the worst losses of Penn’s career. And the beating he took at the hands of GSP was not the last he’d experience at 170 lbs. Similar—and possibly worse—beatings were laid on Penn by former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz, and GSP training partner Rory MacDonald. Both left him almost unrecognizable. There is no denying the prodigy’s dominance at lightweight, but for the most part, his moves up to welterweight will be remembered for the black eyes and bruises he sustained there.

A similar example can be found by examining the career of another successful lightweight, Nate Diaz. Diaz, while not as dominant as Penn, was formidable enough a force at 155 lbs to earn a UFC title shot and score impressive wins over game contenders like Jim Miller and Gray Maynard. His visits to welterweight, however, were far less noteworthy. Like Penn, Diaz was manhandled by Rory MacDonald. Diaz’s skills are unquestionable, but against MacDonald, he was outmuscled and undersized. He faced similar challenges against Korean grappler Dong Hyun Kim, who was able to stifle the Stockton native from bell-to-bell.

Penn and Diaz are just two names in a group of fighters whose success in one weight class simply did not translate to the next weight class up. If Barao has paid any attention to the careers of such competitors, his hesitation to migrate to featherweight seems quite justified.

But perhaps, Barao has been looking at the wrong fighters. Indeed, while many weight-class-changes turn out to be horror stories, there are those that entirely revivify the careers of struggling fighters. For an example of this, look no further than the astounding resurgence of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.

Even though it was only a few years ago, it’s now difficult to imagine Rumble as a welterweight. While he found some success there, scoring wins over fighters like Dan Hardy and Charlie Brenneman, his welterweight career is more easily remembered for his losses to fighters like Josh Koscheck and the frequent difficulties he had making weight.  Finally, after many failed attempts at reaching welterweight’s 170 lb limit, Rumble was given an ultimatum by the UFC brass: Go up to middleweight, or go somewhere else. The choice, of course, was an easy one, and soon Rumble was matched up with an ever-dangerous Vitor Belfort.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s brief tenure as a middleweight was a disaster. Actually, technically speaking, it never really happened. Even with an extra 15 lbs of wiggle room, Rumble couldn’t make weight. Instead of easily weighing in at 185 lbs as many expected he would, the former welterweight missed weight by some 11 lbs. And so, his middleweight debut with Belfort was changed to a light heavyweight fight on just a nights’ notice.

Johnson went on to lose that fight, and was cut from the UFC. But in the end, his ejection from the organization proved to be the best thing for him. With nowhere to go but up, Rumble signed with World Series of Fighting and made a commitment to fighting as a light heavyweight. Seven light heavyweight fights later (interrupted by one trip all the way up to heavyweight) Rumble has still not lost. He has returned to the UFC and is now a top-five fighter in the perilous waters of the 205 lb division. He is, undoubtedly, one of the best and most current examples of the positive results an upward shift in weight classes can yield.  And of course, there are other examples. For further proof of the kind of success fighters can find outside their comfort zones, take a look at the legendary career of Anderson Silva.

Years down the road, when we warmly recall the career of a long-retired Silva, he’ll be talked about first as the most dominant middleweight this sport has ever seen. But Silva is also considered the greatest fighter of all time by a significant portion of the MMA world, and he didn’t earn that title by fighting at middleweight alone. Over the course of his storied career, “The Spider” has taken three trips up to 205 lbs, and each one was an absolute slaughter. First, was Silva’s lightning-quick destruction of James Irvine. Next, came his domination of the former light-heavyweight champion, Forrest Griffin, which Joe Rogan referred to as “one of the most embarrassing knockouts” he’d ever seen. Then came Silva’s final (at least, for now) trip to 205. At UFC 153, he pummeled Stephan Bonnar into a long-standing retirement, and in doing so, demonstrated that a great fighter can stay great, even against bigger, stronger opponents.

Back down at bantamweight, Barao’s career is at crossroads, and it remains to be seen which path he will take. When it comes to changes to a heavier weight class, precedents have been set for crashing lows and soaring heights. Some fighters make the most of the move, while others just can’t cut it. And while no fighter’s continued success is ever guaranteed, if ever there was a fighter whose chances looked good, it’s a bona fide killer like Renan Barao.



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