The interim championship is one of the strangest phenomenons in combat sports. It was created mainly as a marketing tool and a placeholder but carries little significance in relation to the belt that comes with it. There are no real bragging rights that go along with it, and it sometimes jumbles history. For example, does anyone consider Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira a former PRIDE and UFC heavyweight champion?
When he won the PRIDE championship in 2001, he was universally regarded as the best. When he beat Tim Sylvia to capture the interim UFC title seven years later, not so much. Randy Couture was the reigning champion, embroiled in a contract dispute, and the only reason an interim title was created is because Couture refused to fight in the octagon. They eventually met the next year, but by then, Couture had already lost the title and Nogueira had already lost the interim belt. So while Nogueira's time with a belt wasn't completely meaningless, it didn't prove much. At that time, he wasn't the best; just one of them. But then, we already knew that.
Fast forward to the present, to a time when the UFC is promoting the upcoming UFC on FUEL 7 matchup between Renan Barao and Michael McDonald by saying that the 22-year-old McDonald could become the youngest champion in UFC history. While his early success has been a stellar achievement, moving him ahead of the real record-holder, Jon Jones, seems a bit over the top. But this is what interim titles do. They are often confusing and mostly unnecessary.
Even if we divorced the match from the label that comes with it, this is a fight with real merit. In 47 combined pro fights, McDonald and Barao, who currently holds that "interim champ" designation, have only lost twice. McDonald boasts an eight-fight win streak, while Barao has left the victor 19 times in a row.
The current odds peg Barao as a 3-to-1 favorite in the bantamweight fight.
That number seems remarkably high considering McDonald's prodigious power. He has nine knockouts on his ledger, including two straight in wins over Miguel Torres and Alex Soto. He has knockdowns in three of his last five fights. He has a gift rarely seen in the lower weight classes: one-punch knockout potential.
That power has worked as something of a cushion for McDonald (15-1). In fights against Edwin Figueroa and Chris Cariaso, he was out-landed, but emerged victorious at least partly because the thunderous nature of his boxing strikes are much easier for judges to gauge and record against 135-pounders throwing skidding strikes.
In his limited Zuffa run, McDonald has proven himself to be fairly well-rounded. He has fast hands, is a capable wrestler and as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, has a solid ground game. He is filled with confidence. But in assessing his success, it mainly comes from his hands. McDonald does not kick much, content to fire off offensive punch combinations or work as a counter-puncher. He favors a right cross and a stinging uppercut that has hurt several of his UFC opponents. He does a lot of his best work in the pocket, in exchanges.
It's hard to see this style meshing well against the constant movement of Barao (29-1, 1 no contest). The 25-year-old Brazilian has answered many questions in his last three fights. He took out the British banger Brad Pickett in a flash. He shut down Scott Jorgensen's wrestling. He nearly shut out the well-rounded Urijah Faber.
Barao excels at nearly every aspect of MMA. While his striking percentage is just 35 percent, he establishes and controls range well. He uses a full arsenal of offensive weapons, incorporating kicks, jumping knees and the Muay Thai clinch as standard tactics. Like most of his Nova Uniao teammates, he has proven to be an excellent wrestler, with a 78 percent takedown percentage. Meanwhile, defensively, he's only been taken down a single time in 20 attempts during his WEC/UFC days. On the ground, he's dynamic, with rapid transitions, fast guard-passing, and the ability to finish in an instant. Of his 29 wins, 13 are by submission.
The edge goes to Barao in most categories. He is a more complete striker, arguably a better wrestler, and unquestionably has the more dynamic submission game. He also proved in his fight with Faber that he can go five rounds with energy to spare. Meanwhile, McDonald has never gone more than three rounds, and he hasn't fought in 10 months, bringing up the question of ring rust.
In most parts of the fight, I expect Barao to outpoint McDonald.
The American will always have the ability to rock his opponent and finish in a blink. In the bantamweight division, that is rare, and so it changes the complexion of any fight that involves him. But Barao has never been knocked out, and in his Zuffa tenure, has never even been knocked down. With 31 pro fights on his ledger, that is a pretty good sign that he has the goods to stand up to McDonald's muscle.
I see Barao mixing up his offense from striking to takedowns, and perhaps shifting more towards the latter as he sees his clearest route to victory from the top position. If McDonald can resist the takedown and stay on his feet, he has his best chance of winning, but even then, I don't think it will be enough. Barao's offensive diversity and gas tank take him to the finish line in a unanimous decision. Then hopefully Dominick Cruz gets healthy and we can start to put this "interim" business in the rear view.