Surprise, surprise, it's another championship fight for Urijah Faber. This will be his 15th fight in the UFC and WEC, and in 10 of them, titles have been contested. This time, it's of the interim variety, with Brazilian phenom Renan Barao standing across from him at UFC 149.
Faber hasn't won with a belt on the line since 2008, when he last defended the WEC featherweight strap in a win over Jens Pulver. Since then, he's lost four times -- twice to Mike Brown, and once apiece to Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz.
It's the loss to Aldo that many are using to project his fate against Barao. The two Brazilians train together at Nova Uniao, and have some similarities in their styles. Barao has also acknowledged that Aldo has advised him in the leadup to the fight. It's not as if he needs any built-in advantage, coming into the bout on the strength of a 29-fight unbeaten streak, believed to be the longest current stretch in MMA.
Barao (28-1, 1 no contest) enters the fight as around a 2-to-1 favorite, but if there is one knock against him, it's that he hasn't faced anyone as experienced and successful as Faber. To date, he's fought five times under the Zuffa umbrella, and though he's a perfect 5-0, his most decorated opponents have been Scott Jorgensen (who was 13-4 when he faced Barao), and Brad Pickett (who was 20-5).
In both instances, Barao performed well. Against Jorgensen, he went to a decision but swept all three rounds on the judges' scorecards. Against Pickett, he dominated, knocking him down and then submitting him with a first-round rear naked choke. Faber, though, certainly brings his craftiest and most battle-tested opponent.
Most of Barao's offense is jump-started by his jab. The basic boxing punch is one that is often overlooked in MMA, but it seems to be a staple of the new breed of Nova Uniao fighters as evidenced by Aldo's frequent use of it as well. Barao throws the punch with snap and as the starting point for frequent combinations.
Again, this is another similarity between Barao and Aldo. The featherweight champ is known for crisp, power combinations. Barao isn't as technically sound as Aldo, but he certainly commits to his flurries, often choosing to plant himself and engage in exchanges with his opponent. He trusts his hands and chin. This is a place where he could find trouble with Faber, who has experience in firefights. While Faber isn't known for having one-punch knockout power, he has certainly rattled many opponents with his overhand right, and he'll have the chance to land it against Barao's aggression.
When asked about the similarities between Barao and Aldo, Faber first pointed out that they both like to kick. That's certainly a true observation, and it's something that paid dividends for Aldo against him. Aldo landed low kicks 27 times in the Faber fight, taking away some of Faber's explosiveness late. It's a formula that Barao will probably follow, based upon his own past game plans. Even in the fight with Pickett, which started and ended as a blur of action, Barao used leg strikes with impunity, making his attack unpredictable and varied.
The other important aspect of Barao's game is his takedown defense. According to FightMetric, he's stopped 93 percent of takedowns against him. Faber is a former collegiate wrestler, but he doesn't often shoot anymore. Given Barao's ability to stop the takedown, I wouldn't expect to see the Brazilian on his back much. Still, don't be surprised if Faber attempts occasional takedowns for two reasons. The first is simply to give Barao something else to think about, and the second is in hopes of wearing Barao down over the course of a potential five-round fight. Faber's conditioning has always been excellent, and if he's going to win this fight, his best chance will be in the later rounds.
One of the reasons a move down to 135 initially made sense for Faber (26-5) was that featherweights were getting bigger. Bantamweight seemed to be a more realistic weight class for Faber, who is listed at 5-foot-6. According to the UFC, that's the same height as Barao. His listed reach -- 69 inches -- is just one inch less than Barao's 70.
Yet when you watch them fight, Barao fights in a much longer style. While Barao's jabs and kicks lengthen the ground he can cover and his striking distance, Faber seems to have fallen in love with his right hand. Sometimes, like in his most recent fight against Brian Bowles, it finds its mark and helps him finish. And other times, like against Cruz, he never quite finds what he's looking for. Though now 33 years old, Faber still has enough speed to occasionally land from distance, but without using setup strikes, it becomes a tougher chore.
At this point of his career, Faber is mostly a finished product. He is quick, with some power, he's excellent on the ground and he can fight all day long. He always comes in prepared and forces you to beat him. Brown, Aldo and Cruz have shown that if you fight him with composure and fend off his frequent charges, he can be defeated. While Barao is much more likely to stand in the center and trade with Faber than any of the aforementioned trio, he's proven to have a durable chin, and his extended reach should mean that he hits Faber more than vice versa.
Given the aggression of both fighters, this matchup is almost a lock to be the night's show-stealer. I've barely made mention of their ground games, where they are both dynamic finishers. If the fight goes to the ground, it won't be boring in the least.
This fight is ultimately very closely contested. Barao's length poses problems, and so does Faber's speed. The wrestling will likely be a stalemate. The ground game is a battle between two submission assassins. So what's the X-factor here? I'm betting it's conditioning. Earlier this week, I taped an event video preview with my colleague Ariel Helwani, and in that, I picked Barao. But since then, I've had a chance to watch more tape, and conditioning is the one thing that worries me about Barao, who has shown a propensity to slow considerably as fights go on. This fight is five rounds, not three. If Faber can withstand Barao's early violence, he'll see a fighter that becomes more ordinary as rounds go on. It is certainly possible that Barao has addressed this issue, but in a five-round fight, it's not an assumption I'd be willing to make. Faber's experience and conditioning wins out as he takes the late rounds in a decision victory and moves on to yet another title match.