In life, it’s human nature to want to follow the crowd… to do the same thing that everybody else is doing… to take the safe option. It’s daunting to see everybody go one way, and then choose to go the other way, but that’s exactly what I’m doing here.
Does this mean I’m picking T.J. Dillashaw to upset Renan Barao in the main event of UFC 173? No. But I have yet to find a single person in the MMA blogosphere who thinks Dillashaw has anything more than a remote chance of victory. As far as I can tell, I’m going out on a limb just by arguing that there’s a decent amount of upset potential here.
The most important thing to consider regarding Dillashaw is that this is going to be his 12th career professional MMA fight. I’ve observed that MMA prospects typically need somewhere between eight to 14 fights before they enter the prime of their careers. At 9-2 overall, Dillashaw is at a point in his career where he should still be improving as a fighter.
That’s a scary proposition for the bantamweight division, because Dillashaw has performed very well to this point. He’s 5-2 in the UFC, and should be 6-1 in my opinion as I felt he did enough to defeat Raphael Assuncao. He’s up 190-112 in standing strikes, he’s landed 12 takedowns without being taken down once, and he’s attempted nine submissions with only two attempts made against him. Dillashaw has already shown that he’s very good at all aspects of MMA.
When he faces Barao, Dillashaw will have to deal with the same challenge as everybody before him. Either he’ll have to find a way to break through Barao’s exceptional takedown defense (96%) or win a striking battle at range. I can’t consider Dillashaw a favorite to do either of those things, and that’s why I have to pick Barao to win this fight.
However, I would also argue that Dillashaw has a better chance of succeeding against Barao than almost anybody the champion has faced before. In the UFC, Barao has defeated Urijah Faber, Michael McDonald, Eddie Wineland, Scott Jorgensen, Brad Pickett, and Cole Escovedo. I firmly believe that none of those fighters can land strikes AND takedowns as well as Dillashaw. That includes Faber, a fighter with tremendous grappling but whose striking was often reduced to simply running forward at Barao in a straight line and winging punches.
In my view, Dillashaw has the tools to at least threaten to take Barao down or put his back on the fence and land striking combinations. Dillashaw also has decent knockout power for the division and an upset by knockout is in play even though it’s relatively improbable. I don’t buy the idea that Barao is just vastly superior to Dillashaw in all areas.
Now that I’ve made the case for Dillashaw as being competitive in this fight, let’s rewind and establish why Barao probably should win this match. For one, he’s a multi-dimensional striker who is excellent at maintaining distance, landing kicks to the legs, body, and head, and landing these strikes very accurately. Barao has excellent conditioning and keeps up a strong pace for five rounds, so there is no refuge in the idea that he might be vulnerable in the later rounds. He’s a tremendous athlete with excellent balance and overall takedown defense.
Even if an opponent does manage to take Barao down, his overall submission game is very fluid and enables him to quickly get back to his feet or threaten to sweep or submit his opponent.
The most realistic way to beat Barao is with strikes, and he has yet to face an opponent whose striking is at his level. Fighters like Faber and Jorgensen are grapplers first. McDonald and Wineland are more sluggers than volume strikers… although it’s worth noting that McDonald has come closer than anybody to beating Barao as he buckled the champion with close-range punches in the first round of their match. It’s also worth noting that Jorgensen landed 73 significant strikes in three rounds against Barao, although Barao was still easily able to out-pace him.
Is Dillashaw’s striking up to the task? Probably not, especially because most of his success to this point has been against low-level opponents by UFC standards. Against his toughest opponent to date in Assuncao, Dillashaw was able to roughly equal Assuncao’s output standing. That’s impressive in and of itself, but Dillashaw will have to elevate his game to another level if he wants to out-strike Barao.
Ultimately, Barao’s ability to control distance, land a variety of strikes to a variety of targets, and defend takedowns will probably be enough to shut down Dillashaw and win by decision or TKO. Still, while most of the MMA world rushes to dismiss Dillashaw as a credible threat, I see him as perhaps Barao’s most serious challenge yet due to his ability to land both strikes and takedowns.
Pick: Renan Barao by decision