was just a fresh-faced 18-year-old when he made his professional MMA debut in Natal, Brazil, losing by unanimous decision. Apparently, he responds well to adversity, because he has not lost since. Depending on who you talk to, Barao either has a 21-, 23- or 25-fight unbeaten streak. No matter who you talk to, or what number you believe, it's one of the most impressive current stretches in MMA.
The 23-year-old Barao finally brings that long run of success to a major promotion when he faces Anthony Leone
during Sunday's WEC 49
undercard in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and many think you should mark this date on your calendar as the start of something big.
The people around him say it's no fluky run of luck, suggesting that Barao will soon take over the WEC's bantamweight division. Chief among his supporters? Friend, training partner and WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo
, who is blunt when asked just how good Barao will be.
"I think that Renan will be on top of his division in one year," Aldo told MMA Fighting.
His confidence in Barao is certainly justified by the available evidence. Barao, who has the majority of his wins by submission, actually has a longer background in striking, learning at the hands of his father Netinho Pegado, a boxing trainer.
Raised in what he terms a "simple and humble" style in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte on the eastern tip of Brazil, Barao always knew the direction in which his life was heading.
"I always wanted to be a fighter," he said. "As a kid, I was always into a fight. But now I'm a professional, and this is my job."
It's a job that he has done very well. Utilizing his well-balanced style, Barao has proven himself a threat anywhere the fight goes. He showed that versatility during the WOCS Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro in Sept. 2008. Fighting twice in the same evening, Barao first awed the crowd by KO'ing William "Parrudinho" Porfirio with a flying knee, knocking him through the ring ropes in the process
. Then, in the finals, he flashed his ground game, tapping out Rogerio Silva de Souza with a rear naked choke. It was the second time in his young career he won two fights in one night.
"He has a complete game," Aldo said. "He is very good in the standup and is a strong jiu-jitsu fighter. His aggression is another great tool and something that makes him dangerous. I know WEC fans will enjoy his style."
If there's been one possible knock on Barao, it's his opponent level, as he's spent most of his career fighting local and inexperienced fighters with only a handful of bouts. For example, in one of his most recent fights that took place last December, he took on Jorge Enciso, who entered the fight with a 1-1-1 record. The fight directly before that, he fought Marcio Nunes, who was only in his second career bout, according to the best available records.
Of course, some of this may not be Barao's fault. No matter where you are, life on the local circuits sometimes leads to lopsided matchmaking, as would-be opponents get gunshy about accepting fights with buzzsaws. After all, a possible loss to go with what might be a substandard paycheck does not sound like anyone's idea of a fun evening.
That said, the few times he's faced truly seasoned fighters, he's excelled, notably earning a decision over then 17-4 Paulo Dantas, a credible fighter who holds a win over UFC vet Jason Dent in his career.
The area of his game in need of the most work, like many non-Americans, is wrestling, though the bantamweight division is lighter on wrestlers than his former featherweight home.
Still, it's been clear for a while that Barao was ready for the next step. For a while though, it was hazy as to what exactly that step was. Earlier in the year, he reportedly signed with the Shine promotion, but he never fought with the organization and eventually inked a deal with the WEC.
"He's growing so fast, this kid has tremendous skills," said Andre Pederneiras, the esteemed co-founder of the renowned Nova Uniao fight team. "For sure he has a chance in the future to fight for the title."
Barao pulled off most of his incredible streak while fighting at 145, his downward move necessitated by the championship presence of Aldo. The two have no desire to fight one another, so Barao moved to 135 in hopes of ruling the two classes side-by-side. (Aldo notes that Barao is now in the same weight class as another teammate, Wagnney Fabiano
Like Barao, his American opponent Leone -- also 23 -- is making his WEC debut, but he is doing so on just over two weeks notice, replacing the injured Clint Godfrey. Though Barao has little name recognition among most fans, he enters the fight a two-and-a-half to one favorite over his 8-0 opponent. His fight is not scheduled for the televised portion of the card, but internally, the WEC is very excited about the possibility of Barao's stardom.
Along with his own teammates' predictions and the long unbeaten streak, will he succeed or will he crumble under the weight of expectations?
"I'm cool, for me that is not a problem," he said. "The opposite, it's what makes me a better fighter and makes me want to win every time."