“Right now Renan Barao lands 3.7 significant strikes per minute,” White booms. “The UFC average is 2.61; Barao lands 3.7.”
Riveting stuff, if you’re a spreadsheet. If you’re a fight fan, maybe not so much.
First Barao was a “monster.” Then he was a “killer.” Now he’s “the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world,” according to White, and just in case you aren’t buying that, he’ll go ahead and bury you with stats. Because nothing gets fans fired up for a title fight quite like math.
It’s hard to blame the UFC too much. On paper, Barao should be a superstar. His unbeaten streak is legitimately impressive, even if the first few years of it came against regional nobodies, and even if White apparently felt the need to fudge some of those numbers when touting Barao’s stats (“The kid hasn’t lost a fight in 35 fights,” said White, which isn’t exactly true, since Barao is 32-1 according to Sherdog and 28-1 according to MMA.tv).
But if Barao’s struggle to go big time tells us anything, it might be that skill doesn’t sell as much as we’d like to pretend it does. Not by itself, anyway. Not if it comes wrapped up in the package of a 135-pound fighter who doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t have much in the way of an identifiable personality, and – let’s just be real here – looks a little bit goofy.
Not that you’d want to tell him that to his face, of course, because he’s pretty terrifying just in terms of his actual, physical skills. But then, that’s the whole point.
No one doubts that Barao can fight. Just look at the long odds in his fight against T.J. Dillashaw in the UFC 173 main event. Barao is currently an 8-1 favorite to retain the UFC bantamweight title, probably via a stoppage inside the distance. The UFC keeps telling us how great Barao is, but the problem isn’t that people don’t believe it – it’s that they don’t seem to care quite as much as the UFC wants them to.
Something tells me that finishing percentages and striking stats aren’t going to be what changes all that, either. If fans failed to jump on the bandwagon after seeing him kick Eddie Wineland in the face or knock Urijah Faber to the floor, they probably won’t freak out once you tell them about his perfect record on takedown defense. Barao doesn’t need stats so much as he needs a good rival, someone who can put his skill in perspective and do for him what he can’t do for himself.
That’s where Dillashaw comes in, at least in theory. The trouble is, he’s a 5-1 underdog who’s coming into his big title shot with a winning streak that’s holding steady at one. That’s not to say he’s no good. Like Barao, he’s a very good bantamweight, but a) probably not quite as good, and b) we’ve already established that that doesn’t necessarily move the public interest needle all by itself.
The UFC president’s attempt to get us pumped for this showdown by hyping Dillashaw’s superiority in the significant strikes per minute category (SSPM, if you want to sound like a jerk) feels like proof that this fight doesn’t have a whole lot of pop. Instead it has two very good fighters, one UFC title, and no clear selling point.
In a different world, all you’d have to do is convince us that Barao is something special as a fighter. In the real world, there’s a reason no one knows or cares what Chael Sonnen’s SSPM number is, yet they still want to see the guy fight.