The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for UFC Fight Night 128 with another 155-pound showcase. Lightweight is the consensus best, deepest division in mixed martial arts, so it’s no surprise that it would be the centerpiece of three straight weekends. But as my colleague Pressley Nietering astutely noted this week, what exactly lightweight contenders Edson Barboza and Kevin Lee are contending for is unclear. Still, the pair provide a fun, intriguing, relevant matchup showcasing the highest level of the sport. That is not nothing. They might not be household names, but show a casual fan 30 seconds of a Barboza highlight reel or Lee swaggering and jawing, and he or she will quickly find reason to care.
In the co-feature, grizzled fan favorites Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson will vie to reinsert themselves into the featherweight title picture. But the most talked-about storyline surrounding their bout isn’t whether Swanson will be able to exact revenge on Edgar; it is on the disquieting fact that Edgar is jumping back into the cage so soon after suffering the first knockout loss of his Hall of Fame career. But the Jersey faithful want to see “The Answer,” and he wants to be there for them, so here we are.
As for the rest of the slate, we may have lost the nuclear-level brutality between Paulo Henrique Costa and Uriah Hall, but the card does not lack for violence. Middleweights David Branch and Thiago Santos will try to obliterate each other for a shot at the top five, and unbeaten prospects Aspen Ladd and Brett Johns look to graduate to legit contenders in their respective divisions.
Let’s get to the odds and analysis for UFC Fight Night 128.
FS1 Main CardLightweights Edson Barboza vs. Kevin Lee
Odds: Lee (-145), Barboza (+125)
The two men headlining the show this Saturday each have an elite skill set, a prerequisite for reaching the pinnacle of the sport in an age when everyone is well-rounded. Lee is a preternatural grappler with an athleticism and physicality that allows him to out-position and outmaneuver other sensational jiu-jitsu stylists. Barboza has the most visually impressive striking in the sport, dropping jaws as routinely as he drops bodies. It is a tired trope, but no less true: the winner of this fight is the one who controls where it takes place.
When fighting Barboza, dictating the location first comes down to forcing the fight in a certain direction: namely, backwards. The Brazilian’s Achilles’ heel is pressure. That has been common knowledge since 2015 when Michael Johnson decisioned him, but it was visible all the way back in his shocking first loss to Jamie Varner in 2012. Both Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov followed this blueprint to a T.
The Mark Henry-trained striker is exceptionally well-conditioned and durable, but pressure still tires him out for a few reasons. Despite being so imposing, tough, and experienced, Barboza still does not react well under fire. His defense relies on blocking and moving his feet rather than moving his head. He wings haymaker counters to get his foe off of him and looks to get the heck out of Dodge. The other reason is that Barboza does not have great defensive footwork. He sprint-shuffles sideways until he can circle back near the center of the cage, and he’s fast and athletic enough to make it work, but it is not efficient.
Barboza and his coaches seem to know this about him, because he makes opponents pay when they encroach on his space. As everyone knows by now, Barboza possesses probably the fastest kicks in MMA, whipping his legs at poor foes with major league bat speed. He can do this with either leg - his switch kick is just as shockingly fast as rear-leg power kick - to the legs, body, and head with no hesitation, tell, setup or the slightest reset. He prefers the space and time to pick his shots, but when pressured, he lets them go with a vengeance. He’ll throw down with his hands, too, but they aren’t as lethal and are easier to counter. They are still blindingly fast, though, and come out two and three at a time. If his adversary is tentative about closing the distance, Barboza snakes out a quick jab, blocking forward motion.
Rare is the fighter who can consistently close him down and make a pressure gameplan work. It takes a tough, quality boxer who has the fortitude to eat several kicks and the head movement to avoid Barboza’s salvo of punches while delivering his own.
Lee will try to impose his own elite skill set, wrestle-grappling, on the striker. “The Motown Phenom” has earned that sobriquet. Not yet 26 but with a 9-3 record and a shot at an interim title already under his belt, Lee is just entering what should be his prime. Most of his takedowns are counters to opponents’ strikes. He ducks under punches or follows kicks back to exposed hips. If he can run his man into the fence, he is strong enough to clasp his hands beneath them and lift them bodily up and away from the cage before dumping them. He is a fantastic scrambler if it comes to that, winning positional battles with Tony Ferguson, Michael Chiesa, and many others. Unlike Nurmagomedov, whom Lee is being compared to in the run-up to this fight, Lee is not a shut-down top-side pressure grappler. He is as happy to work his front headlock series and go to his back as he is to advance to dominant position to hunt the rear-naked choke. His inclination to aggressively hunt the submission has led to him losing position in the past. But if he gets the back and locks on the body triangle, that is usually the end of the road for his opponent.
Lee’s striking is still a work in progress, though it is worlds better than when he walked onto the big stage four years ago. Mostly an orthodox fighter, he frequently switches stances, delivering jabs, right hooks, and body kicks from southpaw. His back-and-forth win over Francisco Trinaldo was accomplished with a right head kick, which he delivers fast and without setup. His boxing mechanics have improved, too, as he’s less wooden and gets better weight transfer into his shots. But his head movement is still a major issue.
Lee’s problem in this fight is two-fold: he is not a pressure fighter and he is not all that durable. He has been hurt by jabs and body shots on multiple occasions. Barboza’s takedown defense against the initial shot is very stout, particularly in open space, and he avoids the fence like the plague. Lee will have to hit a perfect reactive takedown or find a way to run Barboza into the fence. Both are doable but difficult. But I see Barboza doing work to the body and legs early, stuffing an increasingly battered and desperate Lee, and taking him out with a head kick in the second or third round.
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