Renan Barao returned to the UFC Octagon at UFC Fight Night 88 Sunday evening.
Taking on Jeremy Stephens in the night's co-main event, Barao tested his skills at featherweight, 10 pounds north of his usual bantamweight division. At 135 pounds, Barao captured the UFC title and thrice defended it before losing to T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 173. After bouncing back from that defeat with a win over Mitch Gagnon, Barao again lost to Dillashaw, this time signaling the need for change.
He found that adjustment in the form of a move up to 145, but the result was the same: defeat.
In Round 1, Barao showcased his speed, catching Stephens with some powerful punches and kicks. The former champ's movement was fluid, and he avoided punishment while winging hooks, spinning kicks, leg kicks, and more. Stephens continually looked for counters hell-bent on decapitation, but Barao's movement kept him out of trouble.
Barao searched for the takedown twice early in Round 2, shooting in on Stephens without much setup or conviction. Stephens easily shrugged off these takedown attempts, and from there he went to work with uppercuts and hooks. Roughly one minute into the round, Stephens clipped Barao with a massive uppercut, putting the Brazilian on his heels.
Stephens did what Stephens does from there: He pursued the kill. Calculated yet aggressive, Stephens marched forward, slinging vicious uppercuts and hooks Barao's way. While a few did get through, Barao remained composed, and he gathered himself in the clinch against the cage. Crisis averted, but the round was still clearly Stephens'.
Barao seemed to recover well between Rounds 2 and 3, coming out loose and quick for the fight's final frame. He peppered Stephens with punches from all angles, but he shot for a takedown with three-and-one-half minutes to go, and Stephens tied him up and controlled the clinch from there.
The two disengaged, but Barao quickly dove for Stephens' legs once more, completing the takedown but failing to advance position or establish any offense before his opponent popped back to his feet. In the final minute, Stephens stalked Barao and chucked huge left hooks and uppercuts. Barao hung tough and returned fire with power shots of his own, and both fighters stood toe-to-toe, slinging leather until the final bell.
All three judges saw it 29-28 for Stephens, kicking Barao's featherweight career off on a sour note. While the Alliance MMA product didn't get the finish, he sounded pleased with his performance in the post-fight interview inside the cage.
"Not surprised at all [censored]," Stephens said. "Barao's a true champion. Dana White promised me something tonight, so I came here to take it, and that's exactly what I did...Hats off to him, he's a great champion, he will be back. I just don't think he should be here at 145 pounds messing with me."