Occupy The Throne – Edition #21

In this edition of Occupy The Throne, Samer Kadi and I take a look at the UFC bantamweight division and this weekends Urijah Faber vs. Renan Barao fight.

Jeremy Lambert: For years Miguel Torres ruled the bantamweight division in the WEC. Then he was surprised by Brian Bowles, changing the landscape of the division for good. Bowles failed to defend his belt, losing the strap to Dominick Cruz. Since capturing the belt in March 2010, Cruz has defended it four straight times. He was originally scheduled to conclude his trilogy with Urijah Faber following their stint as coaches on The Ultimate Fighter, but an injury forced him out of action.

With Cruz sidelined, the UFC has created an interim title, which will be on the line this weekend when Faber takes on Renan Barao.

While the division hasn’t gotten a complete makeover with the champion’s injury like the welterweight division, things have been shaken up over the years with former contenders dropping to flyweight, former champions failing to re-establish themselves, and new contenders emerging.

Samer Kadi:Eighteen months into the WEC merger, and neither the featherweight nor bantamweight divisions have fully established themselves in the UFC. The sheer amount of UFC events means some fights are getting lost in the shuffle, and the lighter-weight fighters are not getting the exposure they deserve. That however, hardly implies that the future is gloomy, as a number of fighters have made their mark in the past year or so, and promise to bring intrigue and excitement to their respective title pictures.

In the bantamweight division, the top two stories have been the rise of Brazilian sensation Renan Barao, and the ever-growing rivalry between champion Dominick Cruz and arch nemesis Urijah Faber. The latter was supposed to culminate this weekend, as the pair was scheduled to put a climactic end to weeks of back-and-forth on “The Ultimate Fighter” and conclude their trilogy.

Cruz’s injury however, has paved way for Barao to put his sensational twenty-eight fight undefeated streak on the line when he takes on the division’s most well-known fighter. For Barao, this unquestionably marks the biggest fight of his career, and it is an opportunity he needs to take full advantage of. Meanwhile, a loss for Faber could spell the end for his title aspirations, as despite his immense skill, “The California Kid” has repeatedly fallen short in title fights in the past two years.

Jeremy Lambert: Due to the newness of the bantamweight division in the UFC, very few fighters can headline a show and draw more viewers than a Jason High fight. Urijah Faber is the exception. Through hard work and an unquestionable charisma, Faber established himself as the top dog in the WEC and, despite multiple losses in recent title fights, continues to headline PPVs because he’s the only fighter at 135 who UFC trusts to headline a PPV and not completely tank.

Unfortunately Faber is a victim of his own success. People have turned against him because the UFC keeps giving him title shots after one or two victories. This is not his fault. He can’t help it that casual fans tune in to watch him fight while not caring about guys like Scott Jorgensen or Eddie Wineland. MMA is a sport, but the UFC is a business, and it makes the most business sense to keep putting Faber in big fights. It’s not like Faber isn’t earning these shots either. He’s beating all the top guys in the division, but falling short against the absolute top guy. These losses have actually blinded people to believe that Faber isn’t as good as made out to be.

Make no mistake about it, Faber is as talented as they come and has actually become underrated over the years as people have turned against him. Close losses to Mike Brown and Dominick Cruz, and a loss to Jose Aldo, doesn’t prove otherwise. It’s actually a bit shocking that Faber is the underdog in this fight despite having a better résumé and five-round fight experience. Barao is talented in his own right, but I think we forget just how good Faber is because we’d rather talk about his “undeserving” title shots and how the UFC markets him compared to the rest of the division.

Samer Kadi: The sense of “Faber getting shoved down our throats” among a decent chunk of MMA fans is undeniable. However, while not totally unjustified, that feeling is a little harsh, especially when the frustration is directed towards Faber himself. Ultimately, he is doing what he needs to do, and that is win fights and put himself in the title picture.

Ironically, the continuous title shots have hurt Faber’s career in some ways, as his record in the past couple of years has been inconsistent. However, his losses have only come in title fights. Had he been given a few fights before throwing him back in a championship bout, Faber would have more than likely racked up a winning streak worthy of a fighter of his caliber. Nevertheless, he once again finds himself competing for the belt — albeit an interim belt — and awaiting him is a hungry Brazilian with serious skill.

Barao’s improvement in his offensive boxing could well end up being the difference-maker in the fight. It is the aspect Faber needs to be wary of the most, as Barao’s power, underrated counter-punching ability and deceptive quickness could give the former featherweight champion all sorts of problems. The Brazilian has developed a solid jab and uses it to set up his right cross expertly. Faber’s habit of occasionally getting a little lazy on the feet could come back to haunt him, especially against someone as ruthless as Barao. Moreover, the latter’s striking isn’t limited to his boxing, as he possesses competent leg kicks and extremely dangerous knees, and knows how to set them up and transition effortlessly. This diversity will, at the very least, keep Faber honest and force him to be on his toes, and perhaps stop the free-flowing nature of his offense.

However, Faber has done his fair share of improvements himself, as his boxing has become far more polished. He is less reliant on flashy – and sometimes reckless – strikes and has adopted a more traditional style, in which his jab has improved, as well as his ability to put power punches together. His right uppercut in particular has turned into quite a weapon, and he could use it to exploit Barao’s tendency to occasionally tuck his chin forward.

Jeremy Lambert: Barao would be wise to keep the fight on the feet, because not many people get into a grappling contest with Faber and come out on top. While the Team Alpha Male captain isn’t a great wrestler, he’s a good wrestler, made better by his ability to scramble. He’s great at getting inside, clinching, and then hitting a trip takedown or grabbing a front headlock and using that to transition to the back. Scrambling is an underrated and often overlooked aspect of MMA, but Faber has made a career out of being able to turn a nothing situation into a quick submission or dominant position.

While Barao is a jiu-jitsu black belt, his best work comes when he’s on top of his opponent. That’ll likely be a problem against Faber, given that he’s rarely on his back for anymore than a second or two. If Barao is content to play a bottom game against Faber, he likely won’t have too much success given Faber’s submission defense and his ability to damage opponents from full guard. It’s possible that Pegado tries to surprise Faber with a takedown of his on, but if that fails and Faber is able to sprawl, chances are “The California Kid” will come away with a dominant position.

Another concern about Barao is his cardio. In his most recent fight against Scott Jorgensen, the Nova União product slowed down as the fight wore on. Faber has cardio for days and has been 25-minutes more than once in his career. If Barao isn’t able to put away, or at least badly damage, Faber early, the fight will likely swing in the California’s native as it goes on.

Samer Kadi: If Barao is to win this fight, it will likely happen on the feet, and during the first half of the fight. The deeper the fight goes, the more Faber is likely to take over. His furious pace, mix-ups, chain wrestling and scrambles will be too much for the Brazilian to handle later into the contest, especially since Barao has shown signs of fatigues in most of his three round fights in the past.

For Faber, his criminally underappreciated grappling will be key. Few fighters can transition from striking to takedowns, use single leg attempts to initiate scrambles, and use those scrambles to get dominant positions the way Faber does. For as good as Barao’s jiu-jitsu is, that is not a game he will want to play with Faber, who’s ability to spin and take the back is only eclipsed by his otherworldly guillotine set-ups.

It would take a true disaster for this fight not to deliver. After five rounds of action in which Barao has his moments early, I expect Faber to take over and get the decision.

Jeremy Lambert: A Faber win keeps the division pretty much where it was earlier this year, and that’s heading towards a showdown with champion Dominick Cruz while the rest of the division tries to sort itself out.

A Barao win changes things up a bit. It pushes Faber back down the ladder, could end his title hopes once and for all, and leaves his trilogy with Cruz incomplete for the time being. Barao would be a breath of fresh air that the division has been lacking ever since Cruz won the belt and Faber dropped from 145. While a Barao win could prevent the division from making money given that Faber won’t be headlining, it could put the title in the spotlight on FOX. Barao vs. Cruz isn’t going to draw all that well as a PPV headliner, but FOX wants big fights, and a title fight should be considered a big fight.

Beyond this weekend, the rest of the division still has some work to do. Former champion Miguel Torres’s and former title contender Scott Jorgensen’s best days appear to be behind them while other former title contenders Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson will be battling later this year for the flyweight strap. Michael McDonald has emerged as the likely next contender, but after him there are a slew of fighters who need to put together a nice win streak before they’re even mentioned as title contenders.

Samer Kadi: Regardless of who wins in the main event, the bantamweight division will be in limbo after this weekend. Having the champion sidelined with a long term injury is never a good thing, and the UFC will likely be facing a scenario in which the newly crowned interim champion is undecided about waiting for the champion to heal up or taking another fight. Outside of the aforementioned McDonald, the division is in dire need of fresh contenders. Bibiano Fernandes looked to be the answer to that problem, but an extremely bizarre situation saw him somehow officially announced as a UFC fighter, get a fight lined up on a UFC PPV, only to deny signing with the company altogether.

As it stands, the UFC might secretly be pulling for Faber to emerge victorious, as let’s face it, he is the biggest draw in the division, and is perhaps the only bantamweight the UFC fan-base genuinely cares for.


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