With UFC 169 happening this weekend, it’s my duty as an MMA reporter to watch copious amounts of ﬁlm and read-up on ﬁghters who will be competing on the card. As I was reading Barao’s ﬁght history, I came across one of my favorite nuggets in all of MMA. Current UFC Bantamweight Champion Renan Baraoand current UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson were scheduled to meet nearly three years ago at UFC 130 in the card’s curtain jerker.
Unfortunately, the bout never came to fruition as Johnson replaced an injured Brad Pickett against Miguel Torres on the card and Barao ended up facing late replacement Cole Escovedo.
Back then, Barao and Johnson were merely unknown 135 pound ﬁghters. Now, they are two of the sport’s pound for pound elite. I always wonder how that ﬁght would have gone then and how it would go now. Thankfully through hours and hours of tape study, I have a pretty good idea. Take a look at an analysis of the superﬁght that almost was: Renan Barao vs. Demetrious Johnson.
When the ﬁght was scheduled in 2011, Johnson’s striking technique was nowhere near the caliber it is today. Johnson’s striking was taken advantage of by Brad Pickett as his striking often left him off-balance and open for takedowns. He showed improvement in his bout with Kid Yamamoto but he would still want to avoid striking with Barao. The 2011 Barao wasn’t as dangerous as he is today on his feet but he was still damn good. Just a few months after his UD over Cole Escovedo, Barao destroyed Brad Pickett in the standup before submitting him. If Johnson hadn’t made signiﬁcant improvements in his striking before his bout with Barao he would have been in a lot of trouble.
Nowadays, the striking would be much more even. Barao has deﬁnitely improved in the last two and a half years but Johnson has become a whole different animal in the striking department. Johnson has learned to use his speed to his advantage in his striking. Instead of over comitting himself on his punches, Johnson know is able to jump in, strike, then be out before his opponent can react. Johnson has also been developing his power strikes which showed in his knock out of Joseph Benavidez this past December. Barao is still a master at using his length but Johnson’s crisp technique would negate that advantage.
Advantage Then: Barao
Advantage Now: Even
Johnson is a solid grappler now but found himself in a lot of risky positions against Miguel Torres in 2011 when the proposed bout with Barao would have taken place. When I talked to Johnson shortly after his bout with Torres, he admitted that his gameplan didn’t change much between Barao and Torres. “No the gameplan didn’t change much,” said Johnson. “They are both tall guys and we knew that they both were good on the ground. We had to keep everything crisp.”
Could Barao have had the same success that Torres did in sweeping Mighty Mouse? It’s almost impossible to know as there has been very little documentation of Barao working off of his back, but other areas of his grappling game could provide some clues to how the ground battle would have gone.
Barao has shown excellent scrambles in the UFC which leads me to believe he would have had success on the ground against Johnson . Barao’s last WEC bout versus Chris Cariaso was a perfect example of his grappling prowess. When Cariaso slipped on a headkick, Barao immediately got into Cariaso’s guard, and quickly advanced position. Cariaso tried to get up but Barao jumped onto his back and submitted him with a rear-naked choke.
Today, I would say Johnson is the superior technical grappler while Barao has the ﬂash and submission prowess. Johnson did submit John Moraga in 2013 but his grappling style rests on the ideal of position above submission. Barao could land a crazy sub on Johnson but I’d favor the ﬂyweight champ due to his ability to land takedowns, maintain top control, and avoid submissions.
Advantage Then: Barao
Advantage Now: Johnson
A bout between Johnson and Barao in 2011 would have heavily favored Barao. Barao would have been able to outstrike Johnson on the feet and give him ﬁts on the ground. If the match-up were to take place today, I would every so slightly favor Johnson. Johnson’s technique in both grappling and striking has improved ten fold. The combination of Johnson’s newly improved skills and speed would lead him to a narrow split-decision over Barao.
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