Lost in the talk of a night of tedious decisions, and an early stoppage in the main event, is that for a few minutes Saturday night, we were able to see a guy who may very well be the best MMA fighter on the planet.
And it's not someone who has been in the forefront of recent discussions on the subject.
There is nothing more fruitless in the world than arguing pound-for-pound rankings. Unlike division rankings where, in time, a semblance of the truth and finality of the arguments can transpire, there will never be an answer to the who the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world is. For years, it came down to Anderson Silva, a gifted striker with scary reflexes with a strong finishing percentage, and Georges St-Pierre, an explosive grappler who would physically dominate fights, often by beating people at their own specialties.
With both out of the sport for now, it's largely come down in many people's eyes, to Jon Jones, by default. But Jones has never taken apart the legitimate No. 2 guy in his division the way Renan Barao seemed in the process of doing at UFC 169 against Urijah Faber before the story became the early stoppage instead of the amazing talent shown.
Barao (34-1, 1 no contest) decked Faber twice and only Faber's toughness allowed him to survive the first onslaught. We'll never know if he could have survived the second barrage, past the idea that few fighters in that same position would have.
But until that point it was a scary display. Faber was coming off a 2013 that many felt he was either Fighter of the Year, or at the very least, a solid contender for that honor. He had just made Michael McDonald, the No. 3 fighter in the division, look like an inexperienced newcomer. It was no slight on Barao that there were people who felt that the fifth time was the charm, in Faber seeming never-ending or succeeding quest to regain the spot as top man in his division that he held for many years.
In the end, Barao came across like a fighter without an obvious weakness. Cain Velasquez can be hit. Jon Jones proved with Alexander Gustafsson and Vitor Belfort that he can survive tough situations, but he has also gotten into tough situations. Jose Aldo has gotten tired in five-round fights. With all due respect to Chris Weidman for beating Anderson Silva twice, he hasn't had enough longevity in the top position to be put just yet in the same category, although he also has never been in serious trouble. Barao not only hasn't lost in Zuffa competition, but nobody has even threatened him.
With Barao, his striking is aggressive, and effective. He's got speed, power and accuracy, as well as creativity. Unlike Aldo, who is more basic and with few holes, Barao has a wider variety of offensive weapons. His takedown defense is superb. He fights with a high output and never gets tired. And he's got 14 wins via submission, so even if it winds up on the ground, he's dangerous there as well. Barao is a few weeks from his 27th birthday, so he should be hitting his prime years, and is unbeaten in his last 35 fights after losing a decision in his debut as an 18-year-old.
Barao said after his win that he's not interested in moving up from 135 pounds. There will always be bodies that can be put in front of him, although right now there are no obvious top contenders. Right now, it's hard to even visualize anyone on the scene giving him trouble, let alone beating him.
In comparing the top four UFC fighters when it comes to division dominance, this is what we've got:
*Cain Velasquez - 11-1 in Zuffa competition with nine finishes. Aside from a knockout in his first fight with Junior Dos Santos, which he then avenged twice, he has not even lost a round. As far as all-out dominance, if you take away that knockout loss, it would be hard to argue against him.
*Jon Jones - 13-1 in Zuffa competition with ten finishes. The first thing that should be noted with Jones is you have to throw out that loss. It was a disqualification in a fight he dominated, brutally, from start-to-finish. He did lose rounds to Stephan Bonnar and Lyoto Machida, and depending on your point of view, anywhere from one to three of the five rounds with Alexander Gustafsson.
*Jose Aldo - 14-0 in Zuffa competition and with eight straight featherweight title defenses, he's trailing only St-Pierre and Silva. He may not get to beat that record if he vacates his title and moves up to 155. If he does move up a weight class and wins the lightweight title, he'll have done something that nobody else has done. B.J. Penn and Randy Couture have held titles in two weight classes, but they came down for their second title, not moved up. You could argue Penn started as a lightweight, even though he never won the title in that division, before beating Matt Hughes to win the welterweight belt. Also, he has dropped rounds to Mark Hominick, Ricardo Lamas, Frankie Edgar and Kenny Florian, often late in the fights.
*Renan Barao - 9-0 in Zuffa competition with six finishes. In that time, he lost one round to Faber in their first fight which he largely dominated and one round to Eddie Wineland before finishing him in the second. Saturday was his third defense, so he still has a ways to go to catch up to Jones and Aldo for longevity, but he's looked less vulnerable than either against the top competition.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five in Newark, N.J.
RENAN BARAO - Barao finds himself in a weird position. Because of the stoppage controversy, he's not getting the credit he deserves. Plus, a win over Faber in the manner he did it, combined with his style, should make him a must-see fighter.
But that's not the case. Perhaps it's the size. Perhaps it's the language barrier. But nobody was expecting UFC 169 to do a big pay-per-view number, even with two title matches. Barao has one obvious fight on the horizon, which would be with former champion Dominick Cruz. But after 28 months and counting out of action, it would probably be wise for Cruz to do at least one tune-up fight. For now, there are three names out there on the horizon, none of which will be fights that could headline a successful pay-per-view event.
Raphael Assuncao (21-4) faces Francisco Rivera (10-2) in three weeks in Las Vegas, and if Assuncao wins, he has the best argument for a title shot, since he holds a win over T.J. Dillashaw via close decision. Faber, immediately after losing, nominated teammate Dillashaw (9-2) for the next title shot. And the dark horse is Takeya Mizugaki (19-7-2), who has a four-fight winning streak and has hovered near the top for years.
JOSE ALDO - Aldo (24-1), did what was expected of him in taking an obvious decision from Lamas, winning the first four rounds. The talk after the fight was of a rare battle of champions, against lightweight champion Anthony Pettis.
At the post-fight press conference, Dana White talked of a scenario where Aldo would vacate the featherweight title, and challenge Pettis for the lightweight title. It appeared verbal agreements were all but worked out. That would take
Aldo out from trying to match Silva's records and end a four-plus year title reign.
This opens up the division, where Chad Mendes (16-1) and Cub Swanson (20-5) would seem the most likely to be picked to fill the vacancy, with Frankie Edgar (16-4-1) also in contention. If Aldo doesn't beat Pettis, he could come back to challenge the new champion. The problem is getting the featherweight title without beating Aldo almost seems like backdooring into it.
URIJAH FABER - Going into Saturday's fight, it appeared that after going 0-5 in his most recent title matches dating back losing the WEC featherweight title to Mike Brown more than five years ago, that this was his do-or-die. There are extenuating circumstances, in the sense he had a short camp, claimed he was injured and was doing the company a big favor taking the fight when Cruz suffered a torn groin.
Immediately after losing, Faber began pushing the idea of another run at the title. Few would argue that even with his prior losses, that Faber hadn't earned his way to the top this time. But he becomes difficult to book at this point. The division doesn't have any killer contenders to begin with. Faber already has wins over Assuncao, Eddie Wineland and Michael McDonald, while Dillashaw is his teammate that he's not going to likely fight. He could face Cruz, a rubber match with each beating the other once, but that would risk knocking Cruz out of a title match with no upside. Past that, since Faber said he wasn't interested in moving back to 145, where he's be giving up significant size to most, he's got rematches of the aforementioned three, or guys who simply aren't seen at his level, like Wilson Reis, Alex Caceres or Bryan Caraway.
ALISTAIR OVEREEM - Even though Overeem (37-13, 1 no contest) won all three rounds from Frank Mir, it wasn't the performance many expected. Most figured Overeem vs. Mir as a sure stoppage one way or the other instead of Overeem escaping with a careful decision.
Overeem still has the look and demeanor that says "star," even if it's been two years now since his signature win over Brock Lesnar. When asked after the fight about a potential opponent, he mentioned Lesnar, who is not even under contract to UFC, and whose World Wrestling Entertainment contract that prohibits him from fighting in MMA doesn't expire until April of 2015.
For a lot of reasons, the obvious fight is with Junior dos Santos. And for all the negatives of Overeem's recent performances, an impressive win over Dos Santos could very likely get him a title fight due to the lack of depth in the heavyweight division.
ALI BAGAUTINOV - Bagautinov survived a tough second round to win a decision of John Lineker. With Demetrious Johnson having beaten virtually every other top contender in the UFC flyweight division, Bagautinov (13-2) looks to be the favorite to get the next title shot. It's another title match that doesn't appear very marketable.
The 28-year-old native of Dagestan has won championships in Pankration, Combat Sambo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Russia. He's only been doing MMA for four years and is 3-0 in the UFC. He didn't put on a performance that would convince many he could take Johnson,but there don't appear to be any obvious better alternatives as challengers. .