NEW YORK – It says something about Nova Uniao -- Andre Pederneiras’ masterclass jiu-jitsu school in Rio de Janeiro -- that its principles can come to America and carry the fight game on its shoulders…as the main attractions…on Super Bowl Saturday…on a weekend when even the most dignified patriots belch the alphabet.
Featherweight champion Jose Aldo and bantamweight interim champion Renan Barao will showcase themselves on Feb. 2 at UFC 169 in Newark, just across the Hudson where the metropolis of New York City will twinkle with sad taboos. It was the writer Washington Irving who dubbed New York City "Gotham," and he meant it in the olde British sense -- a village full of idiots. There are UFC officials who wonder if that radius extends to Albany.
Yet Aldo and Barao were in the Big Apple on Thursday, just as pleasant and manner-minding as you’d expect, even as they were surrounded by media, politicians, billionaires and the memories of Willis Reed. Standing in the newly renovated Madison Square Garden, the would-be capital of the fight world, the Brazilian champions basked in the glow of the marquee lights. Outside, on 32nd and 7th, a billboard flashed their likeness. Inside, they were making the translator earn his money. The New York media was there with recording devices to get some impressions.
"I’m really liking New York," Barao said. "I haven’t had the chance to go around and see much of it yet, but tonight I’m going to do something and make sure I enjoy myself."
Barao hasn’t lost a combat mission in over eight years. Oddly, though, he’s become one of the more cosmopolitan fighters. Since signing entering the WEC in 2010, he has never fought in his native Brazil, even as Zuffa has taken up residence there. Barao has fought in Toronto, London, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Birmingham and ports of Alberta, Canada. Next he fights in the great shadow of New York, against the flickering Dominick Cruz, who was the unbeatable bantamweight before Barao came along.
The thing has festered for over two years. Cruz has been out with an ACL, and Barao has been collecting names in his stead. After so long living with the "interim" asterisk on his own belt (which weighs the exact same as Cruz’s), the UFC can finally trot out its dual champions in media tours as it leads them directly to the flagpole.
And as far as the smaller weight classes go, this is the biggest fight we’ve ever had. Barao hasn’t lost since 2005; Cruz since 2007. It’s been forever in the making, the bringing of them together. They have for so long-lived in parallel universes.
"I’m truly happy that this fight is finally going to happen," Barao said. "With all the media that’s around it, it just really makes me happy to see that people recognize us, and it’s going to be a good thing."
How Cruz was able to hold onto his belt for the entire hiatus is a story itself. Yet even with the layoff with the ACL -- and all the setbacks -- Barao seemed keenly aware of Cruz’s work ethic, and doesn’t expect to see a diminished product on Super Bowl Saturday.
"I think my advantage is really my own training," he said. "I’ve always said that. It’s the best. I train with the best in the world, and I’ll just be well prepared and that’s going to be my advantage."
Even as a tourist this passing through, Barao wasn’t so wide-eyed next to all the skyscrapers and power players around him. Least of all Cruz, the man who stood before him in the timeline, and the man that stands before him presently.
"I personally feel like that I’ve been a champion, not just now, but for some time," Barao said. "This is just a chance to unify the belts and show everybody what I can do, and keep these belts for a while."