Renan Barao is targeting a summer return to action, and while he’ll wait for the UFC to officially name his next challenger, the UFC bantamweight champion has identified the man he sees as most deserving of the chance.
“I think Raphael Assuncao is probably the top contender right now,” Barao told MMAjunkie. “He’s been working hard for this, and he should get his shot. He’s coming off six wins, and he’s beat many guys. He deserves this. But whoever the UFC puts there, I’m prepared to go out there and do my best.”
Barao, who boasts an incredible career record, fought most recently in February, where he defeated Urijah Faber in the first round to defend the UFC’s undisputed bantamweight title. It was the first time Barao defended the unified title, as his previous two victories were as an interim champ.
Barao, who admitted he considered himself a true UFC champion well before former title holder Dominick Cruz was stripped of the belt due to his extended injury absence, said it has been nice not to answer any more questions regarding his status.
“I’m very happy,” Barao said. “This was my goal all along and I had the opportunity to get it. It’s another great achievement, and now those questions about my interim status, about being the real champion, are gone.”
Barao had been rumored to be considering a move up to featherweight, a shift that would be made possible if his friend and Nova Uniao teammate Jose Aldo relinquished his 145-pound title in favor of a shift to 155 pounds. But with lightweight champ Anthony Pettis’ dance card filled, Aldo recently told MMAjunkie he was – at least for now – staying put.
Barao said he’s just fine leaving things as they are.
“I’m cool in this weight division,” Barao said. “I think there’s still a lot of work to do. We’ve always talked about this, that whatever’s best for the team and whatever [Nova Uniao head coach Andre Pederneiras] felt I should do would be for the best, but I’m OK here and there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Barao (32-1 MMA, 7-0 UFC) said he took a few days of vacation following his February win to celebrate the victory, but he’s now back in the gym six days each week and continuing to hone his skills. Whether or not Assuncao (22-4 MMA, 6-1 UFC) will be selected as his next opponent remains to be seen, but he’s targeting Sunday for a return to action.
“I think I’d probably like to fight at the end of June, early July,” Barao said. “Starting June, I’ll be ready to fight and keep this belt.”