Saturday night at Wembley Arena, Renan Barao showed he’s one of the very best fighters in the entire sport. The 25-year-old Brazilian pushed his impressive unbeaten streak to 31 fights, notching his 20th consecutive victory by submitting Michael McDonald in the fourth round of the UFC on FUEL TV 7 main event.
Over the course of the fight, Barao got McDonald’s rhythm down, and started avoiding the Californian’s power shots. The set-up to the finish — an arm triangle choke — was deft as well, as the interim champion gave the 22-year-old challenger just enough space to try to turn onto his back. When McDonald made the attempt, Barao latched onto the hold, squeezing out the victory several seconds later.
Adapting to McDonald in stride and dismantling him the way he did highlights how talented Barao is inside the cage, but also highlights the quandary facing the UFC right now. With bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz still recovering from a second ACL replacement surgery and not expected back until the summer, should the UFC continue sending Barao into the fray or wait for a title unification bout to come together later this year?
Here’s my take on what they should do, and what comes next for the rest of Saturday’s winners.
Renan Barao vs. Eddie Wineland
Did last year not teach us anything?
As much keeping Barao on ice until Cruz is ready to return keeps the biggest possible fight in the division at the ready, there are no guarantees as to when the injured champion is going to be ready to compete again, and icing Barao at this point would be a mistake.
Fresh off his best overall performance to date, keeping Barao active going forward feels like a better plan of attack to me. Capitalize on his growing level of recognition rather than pressing pause just when people are starting to get invested.
While bantamweight doesn’t have a collection of top-end talents at the ready to step into the cage with the surging Brazilian, Wineland has looked very good in his last two outings, and wins over Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett — two top-10 opponents — are solid enough to earn him a spot opposite Barao.
Admittedly, this isn’t ideal, but there are no great options at this point. This is the highest level of recognition Barao has received to this point, and — just like the decision to keep Demetrious Johnson active against a good-but-not-great challenger like John Moraga — the UFC should look to keep its surging new star’s momentum going rather than wait on Cruz.
Cub Swanson vs. Chan Sung Jung
The only fight that fits for Swanson at this point is a showdown with “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, once he returns later this year.
Jung has won three straight and become the popular choice to challenge Jose Aldo in the future, but he’s been sidelined for the last nine months after undergoing shoulder surgery. Like Swanson, his last win came against Dustin Poirier, and he’s put together a nice little run of success as of late. With the division starting to stack up at the top of the ladder, an eliminator match such as this one would clarify the contender situation, and keep Jung from going right from the sidelines to the championship spotlight.
Jimi Manuwa vs. James Te-Huna
Both Manuwa and Te-Huna earned victories on Saturday in England, and it makes sense to match them up.
Te-Huna was ultra-impressive, surviving a near-finish in Round 1 to spend the next 10 minutes battering Ryan Jimmo en route to a unanimous-decision win. Manuwa’s second UFC victory was anti-climactic, as an injury to Cyrille Diabate brought the bout to a halt between the first and second frame.
Neither man is quite ready for top-10 competition in the UFC (in my opinion), so pairing them together seems like an easy and understandable solution. The winner moves up to start facing the big boys in the 205-pound ranks, while the loser remains a dangerous threat in the middle of the division.
Gunnar Nelson vs. TJ Waldburger
As much as I still believe Nelson has top-end talent, his performance against Jorge Santiago on Saturday gave me no indications that he’s ready to be rushed into the upper reaches of the welterweight division.
Waldburger is 4-2 in the UFC and coming off a submission win last December. Like Nelson, he’s better on the ground than in the stand-up, and you better believe the young Texan would welcome an opportunity to potentially earn a win over the much-hyped Icelandic prospect.
Matthew Riddle vs. John Hathaway
After earning a decision win over Che Mills on Saturday, Riddle is now unbeaten in his last four, and in need of a step up in competition. With his penchant for calling out Brits, why not give him the one British welterweight who has shown the skill set to stifle his wrestling and give him an honest go of things inside the Octagon?
Hathaway has put together three straight wins dating back to March 2011, and remains a solid prospect in the 170-pound ranks. With the upper tier of the division already overloaded with talent, having these two battle it out in order to potentially break into that next level fits.
Bonus: What’s next for the noteworthy main card fighters who performed well in losses:
Michael McDonald vs. Bryan Caraway/Takeya Mizugaki loser
Rather than put McDonald right back in the cage with another elite contender, my first inclination is to back things off a little, and let him regroup. Cycling him into the Octagon with someone like Brad Pickett or the loser of this weekend’s bantamweight bout between Urijah Faber and Ivan Menjivar doesn’t leave a lot of room for building up momentum before he’s right back to being the No. 1 contender. It’s the same problem the UFC has always faced with Faber; he’s always in contention, but never too far removed from his last title loss.
Giving McDonald someone outside of the top 10 allows him to reset, regroup, and start his climb fresh, with plenty of distance between him and the top of the division. He has a long career ahead of him, and a wealth of talent, so I have little doubt that he’ll make it back to a championship fight in the future. Right now, however, there is no need to expedite that process.
Dustin Poirier vs. Leonard Garcia
Poirier jumped into his fight with Swanson on short notice, held his own, but came away with a loss. While there is no shame in losing to another top-10 opponent, he’s now 0-2 against ranked opponents, and a perfect 4-0 against those outside of the upper tier.
Garcia has the tools to test Poirier, and is a recognizable name that would assure the bout a place on the main card of a televised event later this year. There are plenty of fighters in the featherweight ranks already jockeying for position in the title chase, and for right now, Poirier is on the outside looking in.
As such, he should take some time, continue to work on the weak points in his game, and start his climb back into contention from the middle of the mountain, rather than dropping back in where he’s already been turned away twice.
Ryan Jimmo vs. Brandon Vera
Jimmo looked great for five minutes on Saturday, and had he been facing anyone other than the granite-chinned James Te-Huna, he’d likely be 2-0 in the UFC, and I’d be talking about a match-up with someone on the fringes of contention. Instead, Te-Huna rebounded, dominated Jimmo over the final 10 minutes, and halted his winning streak, leaving the Canadian member of The Blackzilians looking to start a new streak.
Like Jimmo, Vera is coming off a bout where he had his moments, but ultimately came up short. Truthfully, that statement actually sums up Vera’s career to date quite nicely too. At this point, “The Truth” needs to show he can beat a legitimate top-20 light heavyweight (which he hasn’t done in some time) and Jimmo needs a chance to get right back into the chase against an opponent who still sits inside the top-20 in the rankings.