The Renan Barao conundrum: When being the best isn't always good enough

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Dana White has been pushing all week that Renan Barao is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. While some may dismiss this as promoter hyperbole in building this week's fight, his position is very reasonable to take. But, no matter where you rate Barao among the greats, he has yet to click at the box office.

Two days before UFC 173, Dana White was in a scrum with reporters and he was talking about this week's favorite subject, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Renan Barao.

Now, some of you may recall White saying that about Jon Jones ever since Anderson Silva lost for the first time last summer. Well, the good thing about being a reporter or a fan is you're allowed to change your mind. When you're the UFC President, you change your mind over time and it's a contradiction, double-talk, or a promoter hyping this week's fight.

But, after watching Urijah Faber go down to Barao for a second time on Feb. 1 in Newark, N.J., the suggestion of Barao as the best fighter in the sport can't be dismissed as just promoter hyperbole during fight week..

Unlike Jose Aldo, Jones, Anthony Pettis, Ronda Rousey and Cain Velasquez, Barao is the one UFC champion who has never been in any kind of trouble in a fight. If he's got a weakness, it's a carefully guarded secret. You can argue about his competition, but after watching Faber the past few years against everyone but Barao, and then watching Faber against Barao, that argument falls on deaf ears.

Yet, it almost felt like White was arguing about the one thing that Barao is also the embodiment of.

Just because you are the best in the world in your weight or even the entire sport, doesn't mean people are going to pay in droves to see you. Barao may be the greatest fighter in the sport, but he's only the fourth biggest star on Saturday's show, behind Dan Henderson, Daniel Cormier and Robbie Lawler.

With that conundrum, we've been left with a week of excuses as to why. He doesn't speak English. He doesn't hype his fights well. He's too small. He's not good looking enough. He hasn't that the right opponent. He washes his clothes in the sink. Some of them, or all of them, well except for right opponent, because Faber is as marketable a challenger as you're getting in a lighter weight class, and the clothes in a sink part, probably have some validity.

The reality is that two pay-per-views in a row where, going in, everyone knows the numbers aren't going to be big. Barao vs. T.J. Dillashaw has a story. Dillashaw is part of the long quest to be the first Team Alpha Male fighter, after five unsuccessful title shots, to actually win a UFC title, battling the guy who beat his mentor twice. Or is Dillashaw the next victim of the sport's greatest unbeaten streak, which is somewhere between 33 and 35 fights since Barao lost his debut fight nine years ago as an 18-year-old, depending on where you go to get your info? It's unprecedented number, almost incomprehensible if you sit down and think about it, for someone at the top level in this sport. That in itself should be a hook--the greatest streak in the history of the sport is at stake.

It's possible Saturday could have been the show that challenges the UFC's pay-per-view baseline, that is, what is the lowest number a UFC show with a very legitimate title match can draw. But my gut says, this will not hit that level. The key reason is that even though the show is promoted around Barao vs. Dillashaw, the real main event is Henderson vs. Cormier. Plus, Lawler vs. Jake Ellenberger is a solid fight for its position on the show. Another is that people get together on holiday weekends and are looking for entertainment. By Saturday night, they aren't caring nearly as much at what the cost of that entertainment will be. It's not the strongest UFC show ever, but it is a UFC show with some names, and fights with significant implications. 

Unlike boxing promoters, UFC, ironically, the newer game, strongly sticks to more traditional based promotion. The title match, no matter who is in it, goes on last. If there are two title matches, with rare exceptions, the bigger guys are going on last. No matter what names are involved, it is the title match that the promotion is built around.

The positive in that mentality is the championship is positioned as more important than the personalities or an occasional grudge match. You can argue for the long-term health of the sport, it's the right move. Championships mean nothing in boxing today. When UFC had five champions not that many years ago, they had great value. It's not as much now with nine, and some would argue about choices of challengers at times, but they haven't been prostituted out of all meaning either.

But on a show like this, you sacrifice short-term. Building the promotion of the show around Henderson vs. Cormier would have yielded more results on this night. Yet, that's not how things are done.

As far as what is the UFC's pay-per-view baseline in 2014, the show that may answer that question comes in three weeks.

UFC 174, on June 14 in Vancouver, B.C. is built around flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and Russian contender Ali Bagautinov. The No. 2 fight, Rory MacDonald vs .Tyron Woodley is strong enough that the winner could very well get the next welterweight title shot  If the winner looks impressive, one would think it would be a lock. But three weeks between pay-per-views is a little early. Far worse for the next show, is that it's three weeks before UFC 175, which is the biggest show of the year.

People who like to get together with their buddies once a month or so to watch fights, and see Saturday's show, will have an easy time skipping 174. There will already be great awareness of the big one coming, with Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey title matches and Wanderlei Silva vs. Chael Sonnen.

White, addressing the talk that these small guys aren't drawing big numbers, brought up that it's the lighter weights that have carried boxing. But there is a big difference. It's the Hispanic fan base in the Southwest that has been a key in carrying boxing, and its nationalism as much as anything that leads to it. This country doesn't have enough Brazilians to where the nationalism of a superstar from that country is going to yield the results of a similarly-successful Mexican.

Plus, great smaller fighters in the right match-up in boxing are visually impressive with their hand speed and footwork at a level that even a casual fan can see.

Smaller MMA fighters are no less skilled than boxers, but when it comes to fighting, an MMA champion is a jack of all trades as opposed to a master of one. With the exception of a quick transition into a submission, you aren't going to get the knock your socks off mind blowing skill for an entire fight. You may get as good of a fight, or even better, if you get back-and-forth action. You may get every bit as memorable of a knockout finish. But there are reasons that certain things work differently in boxing than MMA.  

The big guy style MMA fight that relies on power is far easier for a casual fan to understand. But in boxing, once you're used to the speed of a smaller fight in a singular skilled sport, the big guy style feels more like plodding. Boxing fans are past the point where their sport is about wanting to see the biggest and baddest guys, particularly since MMA's existence almost makes that lure today irrelevant. It's more about huge personalities, nationalistic pride and impressive skills.

MMA is still about who can beat who up in the closest representation to a real fight that is allowed. And thus, size matters more. But personalities and stories of the fight will trump size.

Even with enough time to build a legacy, and/or the right opponent, Barao is probably never going to touch Georges St-Pierre's box office marks. But if he continues to dominate his division for years to come, there may be a day where his streak becomes something the average fan talks about.

Until then, he's the example of the reality of combat sports. Being the best doesn't make you the biggest star.

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