The flight from Sacramento to Rio de Janeiro is a long one, with nearly 16 hours in the air. For Renan Barao this past August, it was even longer.
“It was a long flight and I was really sad because I was ready to make my dream come true,” Barao said this week, days before his return to the Octagon this Saturday to face Canada’s Mitch Gagnon in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night in Barueri, Brazil.
It’s his first bout since he lost his UFC bantamweight title to T.J. Dillashaw in May. He was supposed to rematch Dillashaw at UFC 177 on August 30, but weight cutting issues followed by a fainting spell forced him out of the bout. As he went home after training so hard for a fight that never materialized, he was crushed. But at the same time, he wanted nothing more than to get back in the Octagon as soon as possible. He got his wish.
“As soon as they offered me the fight I accepted it right away because it’s really important for me to end the year with a victory,” Barao said.
The matchup surprised some, considering the Natal native’s place on the pound-for-pound list and Gagnon’s only recent arrival in the top 15 of the bantamweight division. And though Barao admits to not knowing much about his opponent before he got the contract to fight him, he most certainly knows about the submission specialist now.
“He’s not a famous fighter and I didn’t really know him before, but he’s a tough guy, and he has many strengths in his game, so I need to be ready for Saturday.”
Some would say Gagnon is even more dangerous because of the fact that since he’s the underdog, he has nothing to lose. That’s something not even crossing Barao’s mind.
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I train every day to beat the main guy in my division.”
The 27-year-old used to be that main guy, taking the interim 135-pound title in July of 2012 when then-champion Dominick Cruz was in the midst of his long layoff due to injury. Barao successfully defended the crown three times, getting promoted to undisputed champion along the way, but in May, Dillashaw stopped the 35-fight unbeaten streak of the Brazilian, stunning the world, and Barao. Now his quest is to become the main guy once more, and he hopes that a win over Gagnon will put him in line for a shot at the winner of next year’s expected Dillashaw vs. Cruz bout. So how does Barao see that fight playing out?
“It will be a tough fight for both,” he said. “They are both fast and both great fighters, but I think Dominick Cruz has more weapons to win the fight.”
Does he have a preference when it comes to who he would like to face eventually?
“I want the guy who has the belt, so whoever has the belt is my target and my main goal is to bring the belt home.”
Barao shared similar sentiments back in February of 2010. He had just pounded out a hard-fought three-round decision win over Sergio Silva in the Jungle Fight promotion, and the bout in Vila Velha would prove to be his last in Brazil until this Saturday’s fight. In the four years since then, he went on to chase a WEC, then a UFC title, but he still remembers that night against Silva.
“It was so long ago, and it was raining that day,” Barao laughs. “Me and Sergio actually train together now. I remember that it was a tough fight and a great fight, but my life has changed a lot since then.”
> Check out the full UFC Fight Night Barueri fight card
It’s safe to say that those changes were 98% positive, with the other two percent being the loss of his title and the debacle before the rematch this past summer. That whole situation actually took the ever-present smile off Barao’s face, but it’s back this week, and he hopes it never leaves him again.
“I’m smiling right now, I’m ready, and I’m happy to be fighting again.”