The first time Renan Barao laid eyes on Jose Aldo, they formed an instant connection.
Both were young and extremely poor Brazilians who were blessed with extraordinary athleticism and had dreams that extended far beyond the walls of the grimy gym in Rio de Janeiro.
Aldo was so poor, he was living in the gym, relying on his teammates to help him survive.
Barao, too, came from the favela, eager to learn, hopeful of using his gifts to leave his humble roots behind. He'd heard of Aldo's exploits and wanted to see for himself what made the man who would one day become his close friend so good.
On Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the two men will once again share a locker room. This time, though, they will do it not only as reigning UFC champions, but as two of the greatest fighters in the world.
Barao will defend his bantamweight title against Urijah Faber in the main event of UFC 169, while Aldo will put his featherweight belt on the line against Ricardo Lamas.
He wouldn't be where he is, Barao said, were it not for that meeting that day inside Rio's fabled Nova Uniao gym.
They remain remarkably similar today. Barao, 26, is 31-1 and has gone 31-0 with a no contest since losing his pro debut as an 18-year-old on April 14, 2005. When he walks into the cage, his unbeaten streak will be eight years, nine months and 17 days.
Aldo, 27, is 23-1 and has won 16 in a row since his only loss, when he was 19, on Nov. 26, 2005. Aldo will bring an unbeaten streak of eight years, two months and five days into the cage with him.
Barao and Aldo are fast friends, but Barao speaks of Aldo in nearly reverential tones. Much of who he is and what he has, he says, he owes to Aldo.
Despite being so close in age and in weight, there was never a hint of rivalry between them. They shared with each other all they knew, pushing each other beyond what they believed possible.
"Renan is an incredible worker and is always looking to improve," Aldo said.
Clearly, he had to at Nova Uniao, where many of the world's greatest jiu-jitsu players, Muay Thai fighters and mixed martial artists would gather to train.
Barao, who in 2011 became the 100th black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Andre "Dede" Pederneiras, slowly became more well-rounded day after day.
Aldo was the leader, Barao said, but it has been a team effort.
"We're a family, and as a team we have made a vow to remain humble," Barao said. "No one is bigger than the team. We all work together to help each other. We don't compare ourselves to each other. All we do is help each other improve.
"I see also and I admire [Aldo's] great will power. He is always training, always wanting to get better. He's a great athlete, but the thing about him that is noticeable is that he does things with great intelligence. He uses his mind, as well as his body."
Barao will need all of his tools – mind, body and spirt – on Saturday to get past Faber. Barao and Aldo have each defeated Faber, though Aldo's victory was much more dominant.
Aldo defeated Faber in a bout for the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight title in 2010, using wickedly powerful leg kicks to make it virtually impossible for Faber to stand.
Barao broke two of Faber's ribs with a knee in the first round of their 2012 match in Winnipeg, but their fight for the interim bantamweight title was decidedly closer.
Since that fight, though, Barao submitted Michael McDonald with an arm triangle and knocked out Eddie Wineland. Last month, when Dominick Cruz was injured and had to pull out of the bout with Barao, the UFC stripped Cruz of the belt and elevated Barao to full champion.
Barao had been asked so much about Cruz over the past two years that it was beginning to gnaw at him.
"For a long time, I regarded myself as the true champion, but it was always out there that Dominick was the champion and I was [not]," he said. "I am sorry he got injured and we couldn't fight, because I wanted to prove who was the best. But it was a relief to know I got rid of [the interim title tag].
"I want him to get better and get back to fighting, but I can't really think about him a lot now. I respect him, but I have to think about Faber. I want to decide this fight in the first or second round, with a knockout or a submission, and that's not easy because Faber is a tough guy and very improved. I need all of my energy focused toward him."
His brother in arms will be fighting immediately before he does, and Barao's warmup will no doubt be interrupted as he tries to sneak a glance at the television to see how things are going for Aldo.
He will use one technique he learned from Aldo to be as prepared as possible.
"No distractions and be completely focused on the fight in front of you," Barao said. "I think it's going to be a great night for our team and our family, but we all need to focus on what we need to do to guarantee [a successful] night."
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