Saturday night originally presented an opportunity that Renan Barao had been waiting over a year to see come to light.
After winning and then defending the interim bantamweight title on two occasions, the Brazilian phenom was finally going to get the chance to square off with longtime titleholder Dominick Cruz to determine who would be the true champion of the 135-pound division.
Their fight was figured to be a wild affair filled with high-paced action until one of them broke, but the way things actually turned out is far from the chaotic five-round battle originally envisioned. In the weeks leading up to the fight, Cruz suffered yet another injury and was officially stripped of his title, which made Barao the official undisputed champion of the division.
"On one hand I was very happy because I became the official bantamweight champion," Barao told Bleacher Report. "But on the other hand it was sad because I never want to see someone's career halted because of an injury. As for this fight I have coming up with Faber, it doesn't bother me. I always stay in shape, and I'm prepared to fight anyone that comes my way. Now it is going to be Faber, and I'm ready for that fight."
Barao has had no time for celebration because the UFC tapped a replacement in Urijah Faber to fill Cruz's slot in the main event of UFC 169. The two fighters are no stranger to each other as Barao used his speed and distance to outpoint "The California Kid" in their initial meeting at UFC 149 in July 2012.
In the aftermath of his victory over Faber, the Nova Uniao product picked up two more victories to put his current unbeaten streak at a lofty 31 consecutive victories. Meanwhile, the Team Alpha Male leader has experienced a resurgence of his own as he ripped off four impressive victories in 2013, including a blistering defeat of former title challenger Michael McDonald in his last outing at UFC on Fox 9 in Sacramento.
Demolishing "Mayday" had Faber sitting on the perch of another title opportunity, and when Cruz once again fell by the wayside, he stepped up without hesitation to face Barao. While the 26-year-old Brazilian champion is familiar with what Faber brings to the table, he believes the former WEC champion presents more of a threat now than when they previously fought in 2012.
"Faber is a much better fighter than he was before," he said. "He's improved a lot in his stand-up game. He's made some changes in his rhythm, but I'm on to it and I will be one step ahead of him in this fight just like I was the last time.
"In the first fight I wanted to get a good grasp on the distance between us, and then once I found it, I could impose my will. This time around it is going to be the same thing. Faber is going to try to do some things to throw me off, but ultimately a fighter always goes back to what is the most comfortable for them. Once things settle down, it will be just like the first fight, and I will be able to do the things I plan to do."
While preparing for the biggest fight of his career, Barao wasn't alone at Nova Uniao. The storied camp lead by Andre "Dede" Pederneiras also consisted of Barao's friend and teammate Jose Aldo, who is preparing for a title fight of his own in Newark, N.J. To keep things lively around camp, Coach Pederneiras also brought in one of his original students—former two divisional champion and future Hall of Famer BJ Penn—to assist his fighters.
This made for an exciting camp and one that Barao believes has him ready for a great performance in Newark.
"This was the best camp of my life and Aldo's life as well," he said. "We knew our fights were big and important. A lot of important people came to help like BJ Penn and the Brazilian boxing champion. It was easily the best training camp I've ever had in my entire life."
On Saturday night against a high-profile opponent like Faber, he will have a chance to not only showcase his skills but also bring the eyes of MMA fans to his division. The UFC fanbase has historically resisted giving its full attention to bouts below the 155-pound limit, but Barao and Aldo have the potential to flip that stigma.
Barao knows what is on the line against Faber, and if he does the job he knows he can do, he will get to hear the words he's been waiting the better part of the last two years for when Bruce Buffer announces him as the undisputed champion of the bantamweight division.
"I haven't thought much about that moment because I've been so focused on the fight," he said. "But when I do get my hand raised and that belt is put around my waist as the undisputed champion, it will be one of the greatest moments of my life. There is no pressure because I've worked very hard for this, and it is going to be an amazing feeling.
"I want to be the start this division needs to get more recognition. I train very hard to put on a great show for the fans, and I love getting out there and fighting for them. I want people to be excited to watch me fight. The more people enjoy watching me fight, the more attention it will bring this division."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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