UFC champ Renan Barao makes sure nothing gets in way of a clear priority

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
UFC champ Renan Barao makes sure nothing gets in way of a clear priority
UFC champ Renan Barao makes sure nothing gets in way of a clear priority

LAS VEGAS – Stoic doesn't begin to describe Renan Barao. The UFC bantamweight champion isn't focused on the good life and the good times that a world title might bring.

He defends his title on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden against T.J. Dillashaw in the main event of UFC 173, attempting to extend his winning streak to 33 fights.

As Barao sits erect in his chair, arms crossed at his chest, his interpreter, Nilton Maia Leao, relates a story about Barao's near-monastic existence. Barao is 27, in the prime of his life and a mega-star in his native Brazil.

Little, though, interests Barao other than training or fighting. On New Year's Eve, with a title defense a little more than a month away, a member of his team offered him a glass of champagne to drink at midnight.

Barao declined. Nobody was asking him to break training and get wild and crazy for a night.

"Just raise the glass and take a little sip [at midnight] to celebrate the New Year," Leao said.

Barao shook his head.

"I didn't need it," Barao told Yahoo Sports. "I was training. Training is the most important thing for me."

He also turned down tickets to the Confederation Cup in Brazil last year while he was training for a fight. The tickets were a hot commodity and these were especially desirable. They were inside a suite and not only had a sweet view of the soccer pitch, but also would keep him away from all the autograph hounds who might want a piece of him.

Again, Barao declined, citing training.

As the saying goes, all work and no play make Johnny a dull boy. Barao is as straight-laced as it gets, but says it's by his own choosing.

Nothing seems to excite him, not even hearing UFC president Dana White's over-the-top praise for him.

White has been on a campaign to pitch Barao as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. While light heavyweight champion Jon Jones would get my vote, there is a strong case to be made for Barao.

He lost his first professional fight to Joao Paulo Rodrigues de Souza, dropping a unanimous decision in April 2005, less than two months after his 18th birthday.

"I was young and I was nervous and the adrenaline was too much and it got to me," Barao said. "I couldn't focus. No disrespect to my opponent, but I lost to myself. I was so nervous and I doubted my capabilities."

It was bad enough that he considered quitting fighting. This was a guy who grew up fighting on the streets and in school, the son of a noted boxing instructor. But when he got into the cage for the first time, he was completely overwhelmed.

Barao, though, was persuaded by his training partners, many of whom are still with him nine years later, to persevere.

He did, and everything he's done since has helped to make White's case for him as the world's best fighter.

He's scored knockouts with his hands, his knees and his feet, and he's gotten submissions via choke, and by arm bar and knee bar.

"Every [expletive] way you can win a fight, this kid has done it," White said, rolling at a high emotional pitch. "Are you [expletive] kidding me? The kid is a beast and all he does is finish people."

White isn't shy about sharing his opinions about his fighters, good or bad, and a few good words from the boss put a big smile on most fighters' faces.

Not Barao, though. Hearing White's words of praise didn't change his stoic appearance a bit.

"Hey, you always want the boss to say good things about you, not bad, but I can't worry about what Dana is saying," Barao said. "I just have to do my job."

There is little that gets him excited. Ask him about his lengthy streak and how remarkable it is and he simply shrugs his shoulders.

"I don't think about that," he said. "I just worry about the fight in front of me."

Similarly, none of his previous performances gets him motivated. He's all business, all the time.

He's not, he said, too concerned about money and he's not looking to become the most popular man in Brazil. He's not looking to surpass former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in notoriety or name recognition in his native land.

"Anderson is the man who made everyone pay attention to MMA," Barao said. "MMA is so popular in Brazil because of him."

Barao has the unique ability to keep a laser focus on one thing. He's only concerned, he said, with getting better each day.

How, he was asked incredulously, is it possible to get any better than he already is? He seems stunned that someone would seem to think he's already as good as possible.

"I can get better for sure," he said in words that must send chills up and down the spines of potential opponents. "I can move better. I can position myself better. There are a lot of things. That's why I pay so much attention to my training.

"The most important thing in my life is being better, and I'm not going to let anything get in the way of that."

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