By Scott Sawitz
After taking the fight on less than a month’s notice, Urijah Faber will step into the main event of UFC 169 (February 1st, Newark) against Renan Barao, who took a definitive and dominant five-round decision over the former WEC stalwart at UFC 149, for what was then supposed to be an interim title in the bantamweight division. With Dominick Cruz vacating his title due to yet another injury, Faber will have his third opportunity to win UFC gold. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much time to prepare for Barao, who’s become one of the toughest outs in all of MMA.
Faber’s year-round commitment to being in near peak condition — a Team Alpha Male requirement, it seems — affords him this luxury of taking a fight on short notice. Over 18 months have passed since the California Kid walked out of the cage against Barao on the losing side, and what could have been Faber’s last UFC title fight has turned into something else entirely. With four wins (and three submission finishes) over highly ranked opponents marking a stellar 2013 campaign, Faber willed himself into title contention one more time by running roughshod over the UFC’s 135-pound division.
With the rematch set, and Faber looking ahead to what could (once again) be his last shot at a UFC belt, one imagines that the Duane “Bang” Ludwig-led Team Alpha Male squad has a much different game plan in mind for Faber against the Brazilian champion. Ludwig, who has spoke of his fondness for watching fight video in preparation, should have five UFC title rematches on his mind while preparing his fighter for next month’s bout. Each of these fights contain profound lessons that could help Faber become the first Team Alpha Male member to hold a UFC championship belt. Let’s begin…
Lesson: Make your opponent fight your game
Considering he probably shouldn’t have been fighting anyway, it wasn’t all that much of a surprise that Cain Velasquez would come out wanting to exchange with Junior Dos Santos during their first meeting at UFC on FOX 1 in November 2011. JDS made him pay for it, giving the champion his first loss and taking his title.
In their rematch a year later, Velasquez came out and pushed a hard pace on Dos Santos from the first minute on. He never let Dos Santos get his footing square or push forward with his boxing-focused game. He kept the champion on his toes and then brutalized him for 25 minutes, imposing his will on the Brazilian and not giving him an inch.
How Faber can apply this: Barao thrives in space and the one thing Faber has to do is cut off the cage, make it close and make it ugly. He has to add a little bit of a grind to this fight, at a minimum, and refuse to give Barao space to utilize his leg kicking game. Faber is excellent in scrambles and grappling exchanges; this is where he’ll win the fight. His strength is on the mat and he needs to make Barao fight here, not on his feet where Barao’s striking ability will trump Faber’s. Faber suffered a broken rib from Barao the first time they fought and Faber is well aware of how hard he throws.
Lesson: Impose your will
The one marked difference between the first Hughes/Penn fight at UFC 46 and their second fight is that Hughes came out significantly less tentative the second time around. Hughes was noticeably cautious in their first meeting because of Penn’s explosiveness and Penn was able to dictate the fight early. Hughes was on his heels, moving backward, and Penn exploited that into one of the biggest upsets in UFC history to that point. The 2006 rematch was marked by Hughes and his top-position mauling of Penn, which ended in a third-round TKO. Hughes was far more aggressive the second time around, and didn’t let BJ dictate the terms.
How Faber can apply this: Don’t let Barao dictate the striking exchanges. Faber was tentative in their first fight, as Barao pushed the pace and established the tenor of the fight. Faber needs to let his hands go and impose his will, not letting Barao set up his striking game. It’s why Faber lost; he couldn’t get off first and took a ton of damage in the process. He has to tighten up space and impose his skillset, making Barao counter and use movement. Faber’s at his best when he’s able to control where the fight goes, and that’ll be a factor in a Faber victory.
Lesson: Familiarity brings contempt
Lyoto Machida was a riddle no one had been able to solve until Shogun Rua. Their first fight at UFC 104, insanely controversial, necessitated an immediate rematch and Rua went from being one round away from a title win to an emphatic KO at UFC 113 because of the 25 minutes they spent together the first time.
Machida’s style is such that it’s nearly impossible to duplicate in training unless you have Machida himself to train with. Rua got the best possible primer for a fight with Machida the first time, having to figure out his movement and timing on the fly. When they fought for the second time, Rua knew how Machida moved and was able to adjust from the first minute on. He wasn’t going to be baffled or confused by Machida’s ability to counter.
Look at the way Rua’s movement changed from the middle of the first fight to the first round of the second. This is someone who has figured out the mystery and knows how to counter it. Rua knew he couldn’t rush in blind and over commit; he needed to cut the cage off and make Machida fight in a smaller area. It’s what led to the KO in the second fight as well.
Rua knew what to expect. The Dragon was no mystery the second time around.
How Faber can apply this: Barao doesn’t fight anything like Machida, but Faber spent 25 minutes with him. He knows how hard the Brazilian phenom punches, kicks, his instinctual movements when defending takedowns, the type of sprawl Barao used on him, etc., in a way that you can only learn from fighting another human being.
There won’t be anything Barao does that will be new to Faber. Faber and Barao know each other fairly well at this point, as 25 minutes locked inside a cage with another person gives you a familiarity with one another that most training experiences can’t provide. It may have been 18 months ago but we’re looking at improved versions of both fighters, not completely new versions of the same fighters. If Faber has an edge coming in it is that Barao has spent a training camp preparing for Dominick Cruz and has to change course with less than a month out.
You can change course this close to a fight and not miss a beat, but a completely different fighter will mean a different game plan, which will be tough to install this close to a fight. Barao may have fought Faber before but he’s spent a camp preparing to take on Cruz. That could mean something. Faber gets to come in and face someone who he’s prepared for once already. He has to cram his planning into a short window but it’s a familiar one.
On the next page: The Spider returns to devastating form, and Frankie Edgar proves it wasn’t a fluke.