February 12, 2013

A little over a week ago, we saw a super fight that, because it pitted a reigning featherweight champion against a dethroned lightweight champ, the UFC hyped as a superfight.

An even bigger event is slated for the weekend after next, when the 20-year-old fight promotion puts on its first women's contest. It's history in the making and a championship bout. The latter status allows it plenty of hoopla as a main event on an otherwise impressive card.

In between these two headline grabbers? No, not just an edgily idle waiting period. There are fights this weekend, too, one of which will have a belt on the line. You're forgiven if you haven't noticed.

Unfortunately, Saturday night's championship is a fourth-tier UFC event. If pay-per-views are the promotion's crème de la crème, Fox network fights are the next best thing, FX events one more step down and fights on Fuel TV ? like this weekend's ? a drop below that. Far below when you factor in that Fuel, while a growing platform in the Fox family, is still available in what seems to be just a smattering of American households.

Further obscuring this weekend's fight under the radar is that it will be fought in London, which, with the time change, will mean no primetime U.S. television audience. How big a deal can it be if you have to stay home on a Saturday afternoon to watch?

And finally, even though it's being touted as a championship fight, this matinee is only for the interim bantamweight title, a faux honor that entitles one to walk around wearing the brass-and-leather belt only until the real champion shows up and demands its return.

So why are we even bothering with Renan Barão vs. Michael McDonald?

Because it could be great. This collision of astounding young talent could be a glimpse at the future of the UFC.

Barão, the soon-to-be-26-year-old who owns the belt, became the temporary champ with a dominant decision victory over Urijah Faber in July. It ran the Brazilian's unbeaten streak to 30 fights. The first 25 of those bouts were in his home country, and in 2010 Renan joined the WEC. Following a pair of submission wins in the UFC's corporate cousin promotion, he moved on to the big show, where he's won four in a row. The guy hasn't lost a fight since his professional MMA debut, when he was barely 18.

McDonald could look at that resume, though, and call his opponent a late bloomer. "I've been fighting professionally since I was 16," he said in a video interview released by the UFC. "I've been fighting grown men since I was 14."

His most recent fight, last April at age 21, was against former WEC champ Miguel Torres, who like Barão knows a thing or two about winning streaks: The Torres resume shows separate runs of 20 and 17 straight wins. But by the time the then-31-year-old veteran of more than 40 pro fights stepped into the cage with McDonald, his career was a roller-coaster of ups and downs. And young Michael gave that ride a severe jolt with a first-round knockout. It was the Californian's eighth straight win, half of them by KO.

So here we have a 29-1 (one no-contest) champion vs. a 15-1 challenger. Unbeaten streak of 30 fights vs. eight wins in a row. Nineteen finishes vs. 13. Submission ace (13 for Barão) vs. knockout artist (nine, McDonald). Conqueror of Faber vs. smasher of Torres. Yet in the big picture of the UFC ? a family portrait in which Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre stand front and center ? these two are unimaginably obscure figures, other than to the diehards who live and breathe MMA. Will a main event on Fuel TV change that? Probably not.

But the fighter who has his hand raised Saturday at Wembley Arena will have put himself in position for higher profile moments to come. And that will be cage justice, considering that Barão is a rarity among UFC interim champs in that he's actually putting the belt on the line (isn't that what it's there for, Mr. Condit?), and that McDonald is a rarity among championship challengers in that he's actually fought for this opportunity, rather than taking the modern route of talking or texting your way into a title fight. (Who ever said no pain, no gain?)

This one is worth seeking out. Catch a flight to London or find someone with Fuel TV, whichever is easier. Warm up with an undercard featuring a promising featherweight co-main event, Cub Swanson vs. Dustin Poirier, along with some Brits trying to rebuild a little momentum (Paul Sass, Che Mills). Then brace yourself for the explosiveness of two of the sport's young lions, who'll surely give us something to roar about.

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