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B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 15 Bantamweights in Mixed Martial Arts

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 13, 2014

B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 15 Bantamweights in Mixed Martial Arts

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    Renan Barao
    Renan BaraoTIM LARSEN/Associated Press

    It says something about the division that the two most famous 135-pound MMA fighters in the world are both women: Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. The men, despite a head start on the big stage, have fallen a bit behind their female counterparts. 

    In some ways, bantamweight has been a bit snakebit. Dominick Cruz, the division's kingpin when the UFC absorbed the now defunct WEC back in 2010, was a truly unique and gifted fighter. He also hasn't stepped into the cage since a 2011 win over Demetrious Johnson.

    In the face of a series of injuries, the UFC admirably stayed by Cruz's side, continuing to embrace the wayward champion as one of the best fighters in the sport.

    When the UFC finally hit the eject button in 2014, it was in favor of Brazilian wunderkind Renan Barao. An all-out media assault followed, including UFC President Dana White reading FightMetric statistics aloud to a skeptical media, attempting to convince them that Barao was the rightful heir to Anderson Silva's pound-for-pound crown.

    It was a marketing campaign Barao immediately set aflame with a lopsided loss to the relatively unknown TJ Dillashaw, putting the division right back at square one. Is Dillashaw the kind of prodigy the promotion promised Barao was?

    Either man has an uphill climb in front of him. Neither has star charisma, and without an extended winning streak, it will be difficult to gain traction in an increasingly crowded MMA landscape.

    Hope exists outside the UFC, however. Four of the best 15 fighters in this division ply their trade elsewhere, including Marlon Moraes and Eduardo Dantas, two of the best young fighters in the world.

    Perhaps, for the first time in almost a decade, the best fighter in the world in his weight class will compete outside the hallowed chain link of the UFC Octagon? 

    This list is not a ranking based on past performance. Instead, these ratings are a snapshot of where these athletes stand right now compared to their peers. We've scored each fighter on a 100-point scale based on their abilities in four key categories. You can read more about how the ratings are determined here

    Disagree with our order or analysis? Furious about a notable omission? Let us know about it in the comments.

15. Johnny Eduardo

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Age: 35   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: Nova Uniao
    Record: 27-9 (7 knockouts, 13 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Eddie Wineland (KO), UFC Fight Night 40
    Def. Jeff Curran (UD), UFC on Fuel TV 3
    Lost to Raphael Assuncao (UD), UFC 134

    Wrestling

    12/25

    Takedown Average: 0.0, Takedown Accuracy: 0%, Takedown Defense: 70%

    Johnny Eduardo has been competing in combat sports his entire life. Though many MMA fans have never heard of him, he's an elder statesman of Brazilian MMA and a wonder on his feet.

    A ringing endorsement—but one that has nothing to do with his wrestling game. When he faced off with Raphael Assuncao in his UFC debut, he was worked over in the clinch and taken down repeatedly with little trouble.

    Assuncao is a good fighter, but his wrestling is best described as “serviceable.” Though Eduardo's sample size in the UFC is small, if Assuncao can easily get him to the mat and hold him there, it probably means Eduardo's takedown defense is substandard in the rarefied air of the division's elite.

     

    Grappling

    13/25

    Submission Average: 0.4

    In the first 10 years of his career, grappling was Eduardo's mark of shame. It was the one weakness that kept him out of the big shows in Japan, while those around him earned fame and fortune.

    Seven of his first 21 fights ended with his capitulation, giving him the distinct appearance of raw meat in a country full of starving grapplers. Twice he walked away from the sport for years at a time.

    Much has changed in his second act. He won 11 in a row on the Brazilian independent scene, even taking four by submission. Training at Nova Uniao and Black House had cured much of what ailed him. How well that will translate into the Octagon remains to be seen—but suffice to say, it remains a tantalizing opportunity for future opponents.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.60, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.60

    Now we're talking.

    Eduardo is the muay thai coach at the Nova Uniao gym. Think about that. This is the guy who coaches Eduardo Dantas, Renan Barao and Jose Aldo.

    He has been doing muay thai his entire life, and with his diverse assortment of kicks and accurate punches, it shows. In his most recent fight, he floored seasoned bantamweight striker Eddie Wineland with punches. That's a big deal.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Even at age 35, Eduardo is a very formidable athlete. His long frame is perfectly formed to execute his muay thai arsenal, and he has shown some surprisingly good cardio in his short UFC career. 

    His lack of activity makes him hard to gauge. His fight with Assuncao was all the way back in 2011; his last fight before putting Wineland to sleep was in 2012, back when we were all getting hyped up for Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen 2. He might have gotten better since then—but he is certainly getting older.

     

    Overall

    60/100

14. Iuri Alcantara

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 33   Height: 5'9"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: Marajo Brothers Team, Wand Fight Team
    Record: 30-5 (13 knockouts, 12 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Vaughan Lee (KO), UFC Fight Night 41
    Def. Wilson Reis (SD), UFC Fight Night 36
    Lost to Urijah Faber (UD), UFC Fight Night 26

    Wrestling 

    14/25

    Takedown Average: 1.80, Takedown Accuracy: 83%, Takedown Defense: 56%

    While Iuri Alcantara has some very solid Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he unfortunately suffers from a chronic inability to actually get the fight to the ground. It's a common but serious problem that many Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners suffer from.

    Don't be deceived by his gaudy FightMetric success rate. It's unnaturally high thanks to a perfect 6-of-6 performance against an overmatched Felipe Arantes. Sure, he can clinch, get a body lock and drag a guy down sometimes, but that's it.

    Defensively, he isn't much better. He is only a smidge over .500 in defending takedowns, and both of his UFC losses—to Urijah Faber and Hacran Dias—saw him get taken down with ease.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.9

    With his spindly limbs and mohawk, Alcantara has the look of a submission whiz and generally lives up to it in the cage. While it might be lazy to label his submission attack as "explosive," he has the tendency to burst forth violently when an opponent presents a limb to him.

    When Pedro Nobre sloppily turtled on the ground, Alcantara got hold of his arm shockingly fast, held onto it, beat him move for move as they rolled and eventually took mount.

    It isn't just random schmoes that he can manhandle, either. He reversed a Faber takedown attempt and gracefully turned it into back control. These moments of brilliance make up for what is otherwise a fairly average guard.


    Striking

    16/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.47, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.99

    While he is at his best on the ground, most of Alcantara's highlights involve him knocking some poor sucker out. With his southpaw stance and long limbs, he is difficult to handle for all but the most sophisticated strikers. The fact that he also has some remarkable power in his hands makes him legitimately dangerous for anybody who isn't particularly well polished on the feet.

    Don't get the impression, however, that he is anything other than physically gifted. His knockouts have not come from combinations, changing levels, slippery footwork or any of that fancy-pants stuff that you'll see from other top fighters. He throws that left hand hard and ends the fight if it lands. Simple as that.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Alcantara is a fighter with a few particularly good techniques and a noteworthy degree of athleticism, and he uses those tools to great effect. When he is not in his comfort zone, however, he is visibly lost.

    If he is on top of an opponent, he is incredibly scary. Underneath? Not so much. If he fights somebody who lets him stand at a comfortable range, he can work his rangy punches and easily score a big knockout. Against somebody who doesn't play directly into his hand? Probably not.

    As a fighter regularly buried on preliminary cards, he has rarely been tested in his UFC career thus far. All of his fights have come against either regional-level fighters or generally superior competition. How he fares against fighters on his level will decide whether he has a long-term career in the UFC.

     

    Overall

    63/100

13. Bryan Caraway

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Age: 29   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 68"
    Fight camp: Xtreme Couture
    Record: 19-6 (1 knockout, 17 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Erik Perez (Sub), UFC Fight Night 42
    Def. Johnny Bedford (Sub), UFC 159
    Lost to Takeya Mizugaki (SD), UFC on Fuel TV 8


    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 3.49, Takedown Accuracy: 45%, Takedown Defense: 85%

    Caraway spams takedowns in all of his fights, constantly putting pressure on his opponent and either securing dominant position on the ground or regrouping and trying again after a failed attempt. In his past three UFC fights, he is just 7-of-23 in completing takedowns, but he's still 2-1 in those bouts, and both wins were a direct result of his persistence in dragging his opponents to the mat.

    On the defensive side, his takedown defense is top-notch, giving up just three takedowns in his past six fights. If he could become more consistently effective with his offensive attempts, Caraway's wrestling could be considered "elite," but for now, his success in this department is more a product of grit and stubborn determination than inherent athleticism or physical skill. 

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 1.4

    Once he takes a fight to the mat, Caraway is an opportunist of the highest order. If an opponent leaves his neck or an arm exposed—even briefly—he'll pounce. In fact, 17 of his 19 career wins came via submission.

    Early in fights, late in fights and at every point in between, Caraway looks for the finish on the ground—even when it's not strictly necessary. In his UFC 159 matchup with Johnny Bedford, a fight he was likely winning on the judges' scorecards, Caraway attacked Bedford's neck with a guillotine (from half guard, no less) and eventually forced the tap with less than one minute left in the fight. 

     

    Striking

    12/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.15, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.81

    It takes a special kind of athlete to come from a wrestling-centric background and develop elite stand-up skills inside the Octagon. Caraway is not a special kind of athlete.

    His stand-up attack is slow and sloppy. Worse, it's usually one-dimensional. His kicking game is nonexistent. He's a boxer—and an amateur-level one at best.

    Caraway sticks to one or two techniques throughout his fights in an attempt to close the distance and work the fight to the ground. When something works, he sticks with it to a fault.

    At UFC 159 he caught Bedford with a left hook early in the fight and proceeded to overuse the technique because of this early success. With almost no setups or feints, Caraway lobbed left hook after left hook at Bedford's dome, becoming predictable and hittable in the process. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    Caraway is not the strongest, quickest or most technically skilled guy inside the Octagon. He wins with guts and brains. There's something to be said for that type of success.

    He is often ridiculed and made into a punch line because of his relationship with UFC women's bantamweight Miesha Tate, but on fight night, he is all business, and he's a finishing machine once the bout touches the ground.

    His aggression and finishing instinct makes him dangerous against almost anyone. He's a solid benchmark against whom bantamweight hopefuls can measure their worth. He owns this role quite well, separating the real players like Takeya Mizugaki from the pretenders like Johnny Bedford. 

     

    Overall

    64/100

12. Alex Caceres

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 25   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: MMA Lab
    Record: 10-5-1 NC (2 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Sergio Pettis (Sub), UFC on Fox 10
    Def. Roland Delorme (UD), UFC 165
    Def. Kyung Ho Kang (NC, Caceres failed drug test), UFC on Fuel TV 8

    Wrestling

    13/25

    Takedown Average: 0.28, Takedown Accuracy: 100%, Takedown Defense: 59%

    Little has changed for Alex Caceres, even as he's risen the ranks in the UFC. His exit from The Ultimate Fighter came when the season's runner-up, Michael Johnson, took him down at will and held him there with startling ease.  

    Four years later, wrestling remains his one stumbling block on his way to contention. He has made some modest improvements, to be sure. But statistics show a fighter who can still be bested by a persistent grappler. 

    Caceres has been taken down in nearly every one of his fights. Even Kyung Ho Kang, who doesn't have amazing takedown skills, took him down an absurd five times. Until this glaring hole is filled, any march toward the championship is illusory.

     

    Grappling

    17/25 

    Submission Average: 1.7

    With Caceres' long legs and deceptive strength, he is able to pull off some nifty tricks on the ground. From up top, he can sink in hooks and pull off passes that others just can't imitate. From underneath, he can attack with submissions from almost any position.

    He showed off both of those nicely in submission wins over Sergio Pettis and Damacio Page. Against the relatively undersized Pettis, he took his back, coiled around him and flattened him out to set up a beautiful rear-naked choke. Against Page, he made the veteran pay for his wild ground-and-pound by locking up a scary triangle choke.

    Because of his major weakness in the wrestling department, Caceres has been matched mostly with bottom-tier fighters and other up-and-comers. That can't continue as he moves up the ladder, so it will be interesting to see how well his grappling holds up against better-established opposition.

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.03, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.02

    Look at that stat line, and then look at the tale of the tape on Caceres. You can probably put together a mental picture of how he strikes on that information alone. His long frame lets him pepper opponents with jabs and front kicks with little risk involved.

    Combine that style with solid cardio, and you have the makings of a stellar strategy. Twice now he's landed more than 100 significant strikes in a 15-minute fight.

    That's the good news. The bad news is his lack of sophistication and polish. He can get sloppy with his striking, and Pettis was able to match him standing by using good head movement and angles. Other top fighters will pose similar problems. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/25

    There's a lot to love about Bruce Leeroy. He's a fun fighter with talent and the right build to beat folks in a variety of ways. He has remarkably good cardio, befitting a fighter with his style, and he can outpace almost anybody at 135 pounds.

    However, he remains far too willing to attempt high-risk, low-reward moves. Lingering underneath opponents to attempt a triangle choke in lieu of escaping and ill-advised flying knees in the midst of a fight that he's winning may work against the Roland Delormes of the world. Against almost any top-10 fighter, it will likely prove disastrous.

     

    Overall

    64/100

11. Takeya Mizugaki

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 5'7"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Haleo Top Team, Shooting Gym Hakkei
    Record: 20-7-2 (5 knockouts, 1 submission)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Francisco Rivera (UD), UFC 173
    Def. Nam Phan (UD), UFC Fight Night 33
    Def. Erik Perez (SD), UFC Fight Night 27

     

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average 1.69, Takedown Accuracy: 60%, Takedown Defense: 69%

    Mizugaki's wrestling game is not nearly as sophisticated as the numbers suggest. While he's able to outclass the division's lesser lights here, time and again he's been tangled up for minutes at a time by formidable grapplers.

    Bryan Caraway, Rani Yahya and Erik Perez all scored multiple takedowns when fighting Mizugaki, and when he's in with wrestlers of that caliber, his takedown defense looks rudimentary. Most fighters with good or better wrestling will be able to take him down if they work their angles and are persistent in the face of initial failure.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.1

    As one of the more formidable strikers in the bantamweight division, Mizugaki's grappling is largely (and rightly) focused on being able to escape from opponents on the ground. His ability to work his way back to his feet after being taken down is exemplary. He has a bag of tricks and a gift for choosing the right escape at the right time.

    Just as importantly, his submission defense is incredibly underrated. We have seen some deadly Brazilian jiu-jitsu players get Mizugaki in some less-than-ideal positions. But each time he's found himself deep underwater, he's found his way to the surface.

    In his 29 professional fights, he has only been submitted a single time—against Urijah Faber, one of the most fearsome finishers in the sport. That says a lot when you consider he's faced off with many of the best grapplers in the division.

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.40, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.16

    Mizugaki has something very few other fighters in MMA have: power and accuracy in both hands. While most are content in pumping do-nothing jabs, he owns a potent lead left hook and a sneaky straight right that follows directly behind it.

    He is a highly technical boxer and hasn't been beaten standing since he fought Miguel Torres in 2009. Frankly, it's hard to envision him losing a striking battle to anybody among the current bantamweight crop outside of the top 10.

    Now, if only he had some more knockout power. It's a deficiency that separates him from the truly elite.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Like other veteran striking specialists, Mizugaki is a guy who knows what he is good at and does a solid job of keeping himself in a position that allows him to pull it off.

    He'll keep the fight standing as best he can, outland his opponent with little difficulty and rack up another decision win. A solid chin keeps him going in the face of disaster, and serious cardio helps him continue churning out punches until the final bell.

    The big problem with this strategy is the fickle nature of MMA judges. Against grapplers, he walks a very fine line on the scorecards, relying on the judges to weigh his boxing over his opponent's clinch work and takedowns. Against strikers, he's hoping his volume outweighs his opponents' power and flash.

    It has worked out fine for him lately—he has gotten the better end of two razor-thin decisions over Bryan Caraway and Erik Perez. The next time, of course, he might not be so lucky. 

     

    Overall

    65/100

10. Eddie Wineland

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29   Height: 5'7"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: New Breed Academy/Duneland Vale Tudo
    Record: 21-10-1 (11 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Johnny Eduardo (KO), UFC Fight Night 40 
    Def. Yves Jabouin (TKO), UFC on Fox 10
    Lost to Renan Barao (TKO), UFC 165

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 0.42, Takedown Accuracy: 40%, Takedown Defense: 82%

    Eddie Wineland is a striker by trade and has no interest in going to the ground unless it is to finish off a rocked opponent. There's nothing wrong with that. Great fighters have been putting their wrestling to mostly defensive purposes since the heyday of Chuck Liddell.

    To his credit, Wineland has come a long way since he was manhandled by Chase Beebe in a 2007 WEC fight. Against the great Urijah Faber, he stuffed all but two of the perennial contender's 11 takedown attempts. Not too shabby.

      

    Grappling

    14/25

    Submission Average: 0.2

    Like his wrestling, judging Wineland's grappling comes down to two things: his ability break free from an opponent who is trying to clinch and his ability to get back up after being taken down. In both areas, as with his wrestling, he struggles against formidable grapplers but does a serviceable job against lower-tier talent.

    Luckily for him, his run to a title shot was built on a steady diet of fellow strikers and wrestler Scott Jorgensen inexplicably masquerading as one. There are relatively few recent examples of Wineland being actively attacked on the mat, making judgment a bit difficult.

    In the years prior to his ascension as a top contender, when he worked as a fireman full-time, this was a problem area. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we'll have to assume it remains one. 

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.35, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.31

    Wineland's bread and butter is a rangy punching game, and he has always used it to great effect. Anyone who doesn't have tight, technical striking of their own will almost certainly get peppered by that powerful left jab and that straight right that follows like night after day.

    Like anyone in with a solid boxer, they will simply be unable to do anything about it. He has made even well-established fighters like Yves Jabouin and Scott Jorgensen look downright amateurish with his ability to land unanswered punches.

    Feinting takedowns, however, has always been an effective counter to his striking. His recent knockout loss to Johnny Eduardo also suggests that his elbows-by-the-belt stance might not be suitable against strikers who meet or exceed his reach.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/25

    Wineland is a generally smart fighter, something to be expected from a man 10 years deep into his MMA career. His fighting style, built around his long reach, is well honed and good enough to easily beat a sizable contingent of the bantamweight division.

    The blueprint is out there to beat him, though—and has been for a long time. He hasn't made the changes necessary to compete with the top bantamweights of today, or at least hasn't done so successfully. For much of his athletic prime, he was forced to work rather than train full-time.

    That has perhaps left him a little behind some of his peers. He has always been a few tweaks short of UFC champion-caliber—but at this point you have to assume those changes are never coming.

     

    Overall

    65/100

9. Joe Warren

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    Age: 37   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Team Quest/Team Rhino Sports
    Record: 11-3 (3 knockouts, 1 submission)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Rafael Silva (UD), Bellator 118
    Def. Travis Marx (TKO), Bellator 107
    Def. Nick Kirk (Sub), Bellator 101

    Wrestling

    21/25

    Takedown Accuracy: 70%

    On paper, there's no fighter in the division who can match Warren's wrestling. At 37 years old, however, some of that paper is showing signs of age. And so, it's to the video we go to see for ourselves.

    As you'd expect, the 2006 Greco Roman world champion is great out of the clinch. He's smart enough to know that his opponent knows this is a strength. So, rather than force the takedown from this position—which his foe has undoubtedly trained like a maniac to prevent—he mixes things up nicely. Knees and hard punches soften the other guy up. Then, should he desire it, the takedown comes.  

    Warren also has a strong shot, which he developed at the University of Michigan as an All-American in 2000. Combined with his undeniably world-class clinch work, it's one of the most multifaceted wrestling games in all of MMA.   

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Attempts: 0.55

    In his third professional fight, Warren ran into a buzzsaw named Bibiano Fernandes. Though Warren had beaten established stars in his first two bouts, Fernandes brought order to chaos. He also created a sense of caution where none previously existed. 

    For elite wrestlers, that kind of humbling loss is a rite of passage. Future champions like Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar both had to learn the dangers inherent in Brazilian jiu-jitsu before they could move forward into immortality. Warren, too, took his lesson to heart.

    Since that fight, a fully conscious Warren has never again allowed himself to be put in such a disadvantageous position on the ground. Yes, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire nearly sunk in a rear-naked choke, but only after knocking Warren silly with a right hand.

    Now five years into his career, Warren's submission defense is fully formed. He also has very good top control, allowing him to supplement his knockout power standing with a powerful ground-and-pound attack.  

     

    Striking

    16/25

    From his very first fight, Warren has had surprisingly good hands, going toe-to-toe with established fighters like Chase Beebe and Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto and never looking out of place. That comes from his Greco Roman background. The footwork and posture necessary for success in that sport seem to translate easily into MMA.

    Unfortunately, that kind of early success breeds overconfidence. Warren was beaten to the punch early and often by Joe Soto and was saved from his lack of technique only by his own tremendous power. He wasn't so lucky against Alexis Vila or Pat Curran, both of whom finished him with a left hook and a flurry of strikes, respectively.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Warren has actually come a long way in just five years, especially considering his level of competition in the cage. It's been a trial by fire, but he's emerged as a very solid fighter. If he were 25 or even 30, there would be plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic.

    Unfortunately, he can see 40 creeping up on him. It's a sad fact of life for many athletes. As his knowledge and skills grow, his body continues to decline. In fact, there's every reason to believe we've already seen the best of him.  

     

    Overall

    71/100

8. Marlon Moraes

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    Age: 26   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 66.5"
    Fight camp: Ricardo Almeida BJJ/Valor Martial Arts
    Record: 13-4-1 (5 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Josh Rettinghouse (UD), WSOF 9
    Def. Carson Beebe (KO), WSOF 6
    Def. Brandon Hempleman (UD), WSOF 4

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Wrestling is that thing you do whenever you need to seal a round on the judges' cards or on a whim. At least it is in Marlon Moraes' world.

    He isn't a traditional amateur wrestler. He'd never win an NCAA wrestling championship, but that doesn't stop his wrestling from being excellent in an MMA context. He avoids getting put on his back, and he dumps his opponent in turn when need be. Usually, these takedowns occur as a result of his stand-up throwing his opponents off balance and creating an easy opportunity for a trip or a double-leg shot. 

    Defensively, Moraes' wrestling is stellar. His strengths are rarely negated because of poor takedown defensethe name of the game in counter-wrestling. That's really what matters most for him, so he receives high marks here.  

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Back in 2011, Moraes suffered back-to-back submission defeats. That's easy to forget in the wake of seven consecutive wins. But questions linger.

    Since those dark days, he's honed his skills under Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Ricardo Almeida. The results, when applicable, have been impressive too—just ask Miguel Torres.

    The problem with analyzing Moraes' grappling is rooted in his strengths. His striking has been so effective, and his wrestling defense so sophisticated, that he's rarely had to show where he stands on the mat.

    Taking into account his past failures and his recent track record, it's only fair to give him a modest rating in the grappling department until he definitively proves otherwise. 

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Moraes can straight-up sling leather. His combination of speed, accuracy and power is positively lethal. One quick flick of the hips can send an opponent into la-la land. Leg kicks, hooks, high kicks, straight punches, knees and elbows come from all angles, and his quickness and footwork make retaliation nearly impossible. For opponents, it's painful and frustrating. 

    Moraes began thai boxing at the age of seven. His output in the cage perfectly showcases what 20 years of training can do for a gifted fighter. His striking is effortless, mean and flat-out superior to anybody he might face in the World Series of Fighting.

    Guys like Renan Barao or TJ Dillashaw might be able to stand and strike with Moraes, but even then, the competition would be a close one. 

    For fans, it's beautiful. It's art. For opponents, it's something else—a problem that very few can solve.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Moraes is composed to a fault inside the cage. The finishing instinct flashes at times, but other times he looks just a bit too nice inside the cage, which leaves some seemingly easy finishes hanging. 

    When he stuns an opponent, he will follow up for a quick kill, but if he doesn't immediately earn the referee stoppage, he'll back off, regroup and try again. 

    It's a minor flaw. Decision or knockout—either way, Moraes wins fights. For the better part of three years, though, he has looked untouchable, and he's slowly developing the Jose Aldo-like aura that makes you wonder, "How the heck is somebody going to beat this guy?" 

     

    Overall

    72/100

7. Eduardo Dantas

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    Age: 25   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Nova Uniao
    Record: 16-3 (4 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Anthony Leone (Sub), Bellator 111
    Def. Marcos Galvao (KO), Bellator 89
    Lost to Tyson Nam (KO), Shooto Brazil 33

     

    Wrestling

    16/25

    Eduardo Dantas' weakest area by a mile is his wrestling game. Every fighter with a modicum of wrestling talent he's faced, from Alexis Vila to Zach Makovsky to Anthony Leone, has been able to take him down and pound him—for a round.

    For whatever reason, every time Dantas fights a wrestler, he gets worked over on the ground in the first round but manages to pull it together as the fight goes on. Once he feels the other man's strength, Dantas has an amazing ability to adapt. He has a steady base and can plant himself like an immovable object against the cage.

    He may eventually go down, but he won't make it pleasant. He is still susceptible to high-level wrestlers, but he's not downright awful. He has the physical tools and experience to avoid being an easy lay-and-pray victim.

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    This may sound like hyperbolically high praise, but it is well deserved. Next to Bibiano Fernandes and Urijah Faber, Eduardo Dantas is the greatest submission threat in the bantamweight division. Nobody else is really close.

    Standing 5'10" with the long legs of a basketball player, he has a physique that allows him to attack opponents in ways that others simply cannot. Watch him control Alexis Vila in their Season 5 Bellator tournament bout or pull off his 20-second armbar against Samuel de Souza in Shooto Brazil. It's hard not to be impressed. 

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Wild submissions aren't the only thing Dantas can do with his game-changing lankiness. With his long arms and legs, he explodes into punches and kicks that opponents simply can't get close enough to counter.

    Still just 25, he hasn't quite mastered how to use these incredible physical tools. He relies heavily on power shots that, while damaging, are relatively easy to defend or counter. Compare this with Jon Jones and his dangerous front leg kick or Alexander Gustafsson's jab, and it shows that Dantas still has a lot of work to do.

    Some fighters with the gift of length never figure out how to utilize it. Whether Dantas can master his own gifts will decide how he's remembered. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/25

    Dantas is one of the best athletes in the bantamweight division. Not only that, but he has a wonderful home in the Nova Uniao gym, where he regularly trains with UFC stars Renan Barao and Jose Aldo, as well as a host of other formidable lighter-weight fighters.

    He has all the right tools and all the right people around him, and he's going to need them. Dantas gets excited in the cage and a little wild. More often than not, when he whiffs a flying knee or goes for that sloppy head kick, he gets away with it. Sometimes, however, he pays for it, the way he did against Tyson Nam.

    Despite his lofty status, Dantas is still one of the youngest fighters at the top of the division and is still developing. But, at this level, the time for transformation is over. It's time to deliver. Can Dantas? 

     

    Overall

    72/100

6. Bibiano Fernandes

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    Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

    Age: 34   Height: 5'7"   Reach: N/A
    Fight camp: Revolution Gym/AMC Pankration
    Record: 16-3 (1 knockout, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Masakatsu Ueda (UD), ONE FC 15: Rise of Heroes
    Def. Soo-Chul Kim (UD), ONE FC 11: Total Domination
    Def. Koetsu Okazaki (UD), One FC 9: Rise to Power

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Level of competition, as with every other rating for Fernandes, skews how we think about the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace's wrestling game. He has never set foot in the Pride ring or the UFC Octagon. As a result, his success is questioned at every turn.

    Against the level of competition you'll find in Asia in the years after Pride, Fernandes has a functional double-leg takedown. It's not the fastest you'll see in the division, but it's technically sound and powerful. When he's able to lock his hands, more than likely someone is going down.

    His takedown defense is less clear-cut. Like many of the best jiu-jitsu players, Fernandes doesn't mind being on his back. He has an incredible guard, and only the most ridiculously cocky wrestler, like Joe Warren, would dare take him down.  

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    It's here that Fernandes truly excels. No, his jiu-jitsu world championships haven't translated to submission after submission against professional martial artists. But grappling is about much more than just submissions.

    You'll almost never see him lose a battle for position on the ground. His technical grappling is superb. More than that, he seems to have a knack for finding himself in certain advantageous positions, most notably on his opponent's back. His transition from takedown to back control is so seamless, a first-time viewer would think it was the result of every double-leg. It's not. Fernandes is just that good. 

     

    Striking

    15/25

    How you spin this category has everything to do with how you see the world. If you see the glass as half full, it's important to note that Fernandes' striking has improved dramatically since his time with MMA coaching icon Matt Hume. He has solid boxing, technique and power, and his jiu-jitsu game gives him the leeway to throw leg and body kicks without fear of the takedown.

    If you see the glass as half empty, things are a bit simpler. Fernandes, despite his improvement, would likely have a hard time matching his striking with many of the division's best fighters.  

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    I was shocked to learn about Fernandes' tragic story in an interview last year. His mother died when he was just seven, and his father, unable to care for five children on his own, simply released them into the wild. Literally.

    Fernandes spent three years living mainly in the Brazilian rainforest, scavenging for food and learning to survive. That doesn't directly translate into the ring or cage. But when things get tough, always remember that Fernandes has seen tougher. That has to count for something.  

     

    Overall

    73/100

5. Raphael Assuncao

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Age: 31   Height: 5'5"   Reach: 67"
    Fight camp: Ascension MMA
    Record: 22-4 (3 knockouts, 10 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Pedro Munhoz (UD), UFC 170
    Def. TJ Dillashaw (UD), UFC Fight Night 29
    Def. Vaughan Lee (Sub), UFC on Fuel TV 10

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 1.82, Takedown Accuracy: 36%, Takedown Defense: 77%

    Raphael Assuncao is not an especially formidable wrestler, but he separates himself from many Brazilian jiu-jitsu players by actually having something resembling a takedown game. He has shown singles, doubles and trips and is capable of getting green fighters to the ground with ease. Good wrestlers, though, seem immune to his powers.

    While he can stuff and work over guys with unrefined wrestling, both TJ Dillashaw and Urijah Faber were able to get him to the ground and keep him there (in Faber's case, it led to a rear-naked choke). He has enough skill to trump most of the division but is susceptible to being beaten at their own game by the division's best wrestlers. 

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

    Assuncao is an underrated Brazilian jiu-jitsu player who has been able to outgrapple some formidable ground-focused fighters. His strength is his positional control. He does not actively look for submissions like the very best grapplers, preferring to build up points with the judges.

    Despite his background, striking range is where he is most comfortable, and he tends to focus on keeping the fight there. As with his wrestling, his grappling isn't quite immaculate but is more than enough to get the job done against lesser bantamweights. 

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.30, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.82

    Assuncao is a very smart, technical boxer in the same mold as Demetrious Johnson. He is very good at staying at that perfect range where he can avoid an opponent's punches and counter effectively. 

    On top of that, he is capable of switching seamlessly between orthodox and southpaw stances, letting him box up opponents with little difficulty. He struggles a smidgen against rangy strikers, most obviously in a knockout loss to Erik Koch. He makes up for it by being very disciplined and has made even some solid strikers like Mike Easton look foolish standing up with him.

    Lack of power is all that stands in the way of Assuncao becoming an elite striker. His superior striking has carried him to plenty of decisions, but opponents with pop in their strikes are almost guaranteed a chance to deliver at some point. Assuncao has just one knockout in the last six years. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Fighters like Assuncao, who basically rack up wins entirely based on their ability to find and exploit weaknesses, can make a good living in the sport. He has the tools to work over basically any fighter who isn't on his level, and he has the chin, cardio and savvy to keep himself in a fight if things go south.

    He is smart and disciplined—he has to be. His lack of finishing prowess means he has to be perfect to win.

    Assuncao's style has turned him into an awkward gatekeeper for several years, but he finds himself in title contention with an impressive six-fight winning streak, including a win over current champion TJ Dillashaw. He will likely be fighting for the UFC bantamweight title in the near future, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in a return match with an ever-improving kingpin.

     

    Overall

    73/100

4. Michael McDonald

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Age: 23   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Oakdale MMA
    Record: 16-3 (9 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Urijah Faber (Sub), UFC on Fox 9
    Def. Brad Pickett (Sub), UFC on Fight Night 26
    Lost to Renan Barao (Sub), UFC on Fuel TV 7

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average 1.23, Takedown Accuracy: 66%, Takedown Defense: 57%

    Michael McDonald punches guys in the face until their brains enter survival mode. It's what he does for a living. He's not a wrestler and doesn't claim to be.

    On occasion, however, he does a fairly good impression of one. He's a natural athlete, and his strength and quickness allow him to make up for some technical deficiencies. But his striking-heavy attack leaves him overextended and vulnerable to takedowns at times, and he often finds himself on his back, fighting to regain a dominant position. 

    His wrestling is solid. But against the best of the best, solid just isn't going to cut it. It's a vulnerability that will likely continue to cost him against the bantamweight division's elite.  

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 1.2

    In some ways, "Mayday" is the anti-Chael Sonnen. Polite and unassuming, you just couldn't picture him talking trash and taking names. But that's not the real difference between the two men. It's that McDonald loves three-sided polygons every bit as much as Sonnen despises them.

    His submission game is defined by both arm and leg triangles, and he executes these techniques with a finesse rarely demonstrated by such a young fighter. A brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he's comfortable anywhere on the ground, often reversing unfavorable positions and catching his foes off guard with his savvy submission attack. 

    Despite this obvious fluidity on the ground, both of McDonald's UFC losses came via submission, one via Renan Barao's arm-triangle choke and one via Urijah Faber's guillotine. Those two foes might very well represent the top two grapplers in the division. But it's another reminder that he's not quite elite—not yet, at least. 

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.80, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.58

    McDonald's near 1-1 ratio of significant strikes landed to significant strikes absorbed communicates an inaccurate message. One McDonald punch, while equal from a numerical standpoint, is not equal to one punch from any other bantamweight fighter. 

    His power is frightening, and he's racked up nine knockout victories already in his young MMA career. He's speedy, quick and technically sound. He can eat eight punches to land one, and that one may be all he needs to end the fight. 

    Like any other human being, he can get caught and rocked, but it's generally safe to assume that McDonald holds the edge in a fight so long as both combatants are upright.   

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    Already the No. 4-ranked bantamweight in the UFC, McDonald has accomplished a lot in his 23 years. He fought for the interim title against Renan Barao in February 2013, and he battled Urijah Faber to earn another chance at the 135-pound strap just 10 months later. 

    Yet both times McDonald received these opportunities, he failed. Both Barao and Faber finished him with submissions, which raises a few question marks.

    Does he possess a Michael Bisping-esque mental block that keeps him from performing at his peak potential when the stakes are at their highest?

    Or is he just a typical young fighter who is still finding his groove but doing it on the national stage?

    We don't know yet. But it will be fun finding out.

     

    Overall

    74/100

3. Urijah Faber

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 35   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Team Alpha Male
    Record: 30-7 (7 knockouts, 17 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Renan Barao (TKO), UFC 169
    Def. Michael McDonald (Sub), UFC on Fox 9
    Def. Iuri Alcantara (UD), UFC Fight Night 26

     

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average 1.52, Takedown Accuracy: 35%, Takedown Defense: 58%

    The iconic chin is the same. So are the flowing locks and the occasional unfortunate cornrows. But beyond the physical, the WEC-era Urijah Faber has very little in common with today's vintage. 

    In those days, striking was a tool he used simply to close the distance. Fights were a constant battle for takedowns and scrambles for position. That was a lot of fun, for the viewer at least. For Faber, however, it was a bit of wasted energy. 

    Today, the takedown is there in his back pocket. When things get iffy, or when he finds an opponent who can't match him on the ground, it's a weapon he can always utilize. But, like many wrestlers who have fallen in love with striking, it's a tool he all too often leaves untouched for minutes or even rounds at a time. 

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.1

    Faber has always been great in this category. He's added no small amount of skill to his explosive athleticism, making him almost impossible to hold down or to submit. In fact, over the course of 37 career fights against mostly stellar competition, he has never been submitted.

    On offense, he's even better. Seventeen of his 30 career wins have come by way of submission. Seven of those were with his ever-improving guillotine choke, including a win over Michael McDonald in December. 

    For all his submission prowess, where he really shines is in top control. Only the most potent jiu-jitsu specialist should even consider working from his guard against him. His ground-and-pound is both aggressive and increasingly controlled. Elbows are his weapon of choice—the harder, the better. 

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.70, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.27

    Much was made of Faber's improvements under now departed coach Duane Ludwig, but much of that was heavy smoke without even a small fire. Faber is, for the most part, the same stand-up fighter he's always been.

    He has serviceable low kicks, a poor high kick and a left hook that seems incapable of doing much more than tickling a foe's chin. He does damage with the same techniques he's always relied on: a powerful overhand right and a deceptively speedy lead uppercut. 

    He utilizes lots of movement and switches stances frequently. That's mostly for show. When he comes, it's with the intent to land that right hand. In many ways, it's a limited approach.

    But, for now, it's the only one he has. Faber doesn't counter well. In fact, when striking at least, his mindset is either offensive or defensive. He doesn't flow easily between the two phases like the best strikers do. Until he can, his striking will never be as good as he needs it to be to beat the best strikers in the UFC at their own game. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    There's a lot to love about Faber's relentless positivity. He's created his own empire at Team Alpha Male, and his success speaks for itself.

    Unfortunately, his success may actually prevent him from taking the final steps he needs to regain his status as the sport's best lighter-weight fighter. He's been just good enough to avoid a major tactical restructuring, beating gatekeepers and journeymen with ease. That may stop him from thinking too hard about what's holding him back. 

     

    Overall

    78/100

2. Renan Barao

15 of 16

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 5'7"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Nova Uniao/Kimura
    Record: 32-2-1 (8 knockouts, 14 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to TJ Dillashaw (TKO), UFC 173
    Def. Urijah Faber (TKO), UFC 169
    Def. Eddie Wineland (TKO) UFC 165

     

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average 1.31, Takedown Accuracy: 55%, Takedown Defense: 96%

    Considering his slick Brazilian jiu-jitsu game, it's a shame Barao doesn't focus more on improving his wrestling. His submissions are among the best in the division—but you have to take your opponent down to work your grappling, and at this point in his career, that doesn't seem to interest Barao much. 

    His game plan is built around a stiff jab and even stiffer kicks. To execute it, he has to stay on his feet. Luckily for him, his wrestling and fleet feet have been up to the challenge. Only Anthony Leone managed to take him down, a decision he soon regretted. Barao made him tap with an armbar in short order. 

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.7

    Pay close attention when Barao starts sniffing out submissions on the mat. For the most part, it's a skill set he completely ignores. But when he does look to finish a fight—look out. So far in his Zuffa career, he's secured a submission win in every fight he's made an attempt to do so. 

    Like most Nova Uniao fighters, he's especially proficient with the arm triangle, as he showed against Michael McDonald last year. There's nothing innovative there. It's simply an old technique executed to perfection. That, more than flashy new techniques with funny names, is the key to success on the mat. 

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.55, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.02

    A lot of air has been wasted comparing Barao to his teammate, featherweight champion Jose Aldo. In truth, the two aren't very similar at all. Sure, both are jiu-jitsu wizards who prefer to spend their time trading strikes with opponents, but the way they go about winning those exchanges is quite different.

    Barao's striking game is built around a stiff and determined jab. He throws it out there, not just as a distraction or to set up a power shot, but as a significant weapon in its own right. He uses leg kicks in much the same way. While Aldo lands his leg kicks after a punching combination, a la kickboxing great Ernesto Hoost, Barao leads with his, treating it like a de facto jab. 

    While TJ Dillashaw showed that an equally quick opponent can beat Barao to the punch, for the most part you can't argue with success. Those single one-off strikes have worked very well for Barao; it's when he throws combinations that he courts trouble.

    Although he's cleaned up some of his technical flaws in recent fights, he's still prone to let things devolve into a brawl, dropping his defenses and swinging for the fences. At some point, a savvy opponent will simply cover up and wait, eventually catching the champion with his hands down.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Look to Barao's spinning back-kick finish against Eddie Wineland at UFC 165 if you have any questions about the bantamweight champion's athleticism and skill. But you can look to the first round of the same fight for the flaws that might stop him from becoming an all-time great. Wineland won a round he had no business winning because Barao doesn't always fight to his strengths.

    Luckily, he has one of the best coaches in the sport with UFC veteran Andre Pederneiras in his corner and some of the best fighters in the lighter-weight classes to help him continue improving. At 27, Barao is not yet a finished product. That, more than anything, has to be particularly frightening to those standing across from him. 

     

    Overall

    80/100

1. TJ Dillashaw

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 68"
    Fight camp:  Team Alpha Male
    Record: 10-2 (4 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Renan Barao (TKO), UFC 173
    Def. Mike Easton (UD), UFC Fight Night 35
    Lost to Raphael Assuncao (SD), UFC Fight Night 29

     

    Wrestling

    21/25

    Takedown Average: 2.20, Takedown Accuracy: 42%, Takedown Defense: 100%

    Before he ever stepped into an MMA cage, TJ Dillashaw had spent his whole life wrestling, receiving a full ride to California State University-Fullerton to work his magic on the mats. While that experience doesn't always translate to the Octagon, it's certainly a very real head start. As a result, it's no surprise that his MMA wrestling is very good. 

    Most impressive about his wrestling statistics is the context in which they are earned. Despite facing standout grapplers like Raphael Assuncao and Mike Easton during his time inside the Octagon, Dillashaw has never been taken down, and he's landed at least one takedown in each of his wins except for his most recent masterpiece against Renan Barao at UFC 173.

    He boasts an excellent single-leg takedown and a powerful blast double, and even when he is unable to complete an attempt, he'll regroup and try again, usually with great success.

    Training with the wrestle-first beasts of Team Alpha Male, Dillashaw's wrestling talents will likely never dull completely, even as he continues to grow as a complete martial artist.   

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 2.0

    Dillashaw hasn't yet flashed the patented guillotine inside the Octagon, but he's unmistakably a product of Team Alpha Male. Like his camp mates, he has built his grappling game upon power and aggression. 

    Once he takes an opponent down, he is relentless in search of the finish, particularly in looking to take his foe's back. He's not flashy with submission attempts, but his grappling is undeniably effective. All three of his career submissions came from back mount, and once "The Viper" secures this position, it's tough work getting out.

    Dillashaw is also solid defensively on the ground, which he showcased during his fight with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Assuncao. The Brazilian locked in a deep anaconda choke in Round 2, but Dillashaw remained calm and gradually worked his way out of danger. 

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 5.23, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.33

    Dillashaw completely outstruck Renan Barao, the man whom many previously considered to be the best striker in the bantamweight division. It was a star-making performance, one that provides a nice launching point to discuss Dillashaw's evolving stand-up game.

    In the biggest fight of his life, he showcased incredible footwork and crisp, powerful punches, knocking Barao down in Round 1 with a huge right hand and eventually finishing the job in Round 5 after almost 22 minutes of demolition.

    He landed 140 significant strikes to Barao's 64, a phenomenal output that was no fluke—it approximates his career average of 5-2. Before meeting Dillashaw, Barao had never been outstruck in the UFC, let alone dominated in that fashion.  

    While Dillashaw's striking looked better than ever against Barao, it's worth learning a lesson from the hyperbole that attached itself to the former champion. Dillashaw is no more "unstoppable" than Barao was. In fact, he was knocked out by current flyweight John Dodson in his UFC debut, and his striking defense still has holes for a savvy foe to exploit.  

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Dillashaw is a system fighter—in the best way. He buys completely into the Team Alpha Male ethos and style, applying everything he's learned on fight night when it counts most. While the team's foundations all had significant bad habits to unlearn, Dillashaw was a tabula rasa of sorts, the perfect clay for coaches to mold into a champion. 

    He's ultra-aggressive and looks to punish his opponents from the onset, setting the tone and putting them in a hole before they can mount any significant offense. His conditioning is top-notch, and he can follow a game plan without deviating.  

    Mentally, he appeared unfazed by the hype surrounding Barao at UFC 173. He worked his game to perfection, becoming the UFC bantamweight champion and positioning himself as one of the UFC's breakout fighters of 2014 in the process.

    Right now, times are sweet for Dillashaw, and there's no telling just how far he'll ride this wave of success. Everything is in place; now, he just needs to stay focused and knock down challengers as they emerge from the pack. 

     

    Overall

    81/100

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