The Ultimate Fighting Championship generally struck a nice balance between big names, intriguing prospects and entertaining action during its run on Fox. While much the same was expected when the promotion signed its deal with ESPN, the jury remains out. Matchmakers nailed the UFC on ESPN 2 main event this Saturday in Philadelphia -- every Justin Gaethje fight is appointment viewing -- but beyond that, there is not a lot of star power or immediately relevant pairings on the card.
The lineup manages to look better the more you look at it, as Karolina Kowalkiewicz-Michelle Waterson carries importance at 115 pounds, but the hangover effect from the UFC loading up its shows earlier this year has begun to make itself apparent. Look no further than the co-headliner between middleweights David Branch and Jack Hermansson.
Now for the UFC on ESPN 2 “Barboza vs. Gaethje” preview:
LightweightsEdson Barboza (20-6) vs. Justin Gaethje (19-2)
ODDS: Barboza (-175), Gaethje (+155)
Success is a relative measure. From a pure won-lost standpoint, Gaethje’s run since moving over from the World Series of Fighting might be a bit disappointing, but he has been one of the few fighters to succeed in making each of his fights an event, due in his case to a pure festival of violence. Gaethje comes from a wrestling background, but you would never know that watching his fights, as “The Highlight” only uses it to keep the fight standing; and from there, the pain begins. Gaethje is committed to winning through power and attrition, constantly moving forward while throwing a combination of ridiculously powerful strikes. His leg kicks are among the hardest in the game, and Gaethje uses a purely shell defense, throwing his hands in front of his face solely so he can return fire as quickly as possible. Add in that sometimes Gaethje just does not bother with defense and relies on his ridiculously durable chin, and outside of the UFC, opponent after opponent found himself helplessly marched down and overwhelmed even if he managed to get his licks in first. In the UFC, Gaethje’s immediate contender aspirations were dashed. Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier each had to walk through hell to beat Gaethje, but both did so through a combination of constant movement and picking their shots. Most concerningly, both men managed to finish Gaethje in the later rounds, suggesting that the former WSOF’s years of fighting a style best described as concussive are finally taking their toll. Even if he is not an elite contender, Gaethje’s UFC career basically consists of the three best fights in the promotion since he debuted and an absolute nuking of James Vick, so it is hard to complain, particularly when he continues to get matched with fellow elite violence-bringers like Barboza.
It took a while, but Barboza managed to make his way through the UFC’s matchmaking meat grinder to finally become a top lightweight in recent years. Barboza was ridiculously raw when he was signed back in 2010, just a year and a half into his pro career back when that was not the norm. However, a string of flashy wins, including an all-time great highlight-reel knockout of Terry Etim, led him into some increasingly aggressive matchmaking. Thanks to an upset loss to Jamie Varner and a comeback loss to Donald Cerrone, Barboza eventually earned a reputation as a frontrunner. When his vicious kicking game was going, he would quickly go downhill in inflicting damage upon his opponent, but as soon as things turned against him, he would break and fold just as quickly. Still, Barboza quietly kept at it, fine-tuning his style and getting more comfortable when things go wrong, and after a few years, he was suddenly the fringe contender that everyone expected. There is still a clear game plan to beat Barboza, as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee showed. He still does not react all that well to constant pressure, and both men managed to force Barboza to keep moving and retreating, if not outright get pinned against either the cage or the mat. Even so, Barboza did not break under that tough pressure, and his last fight against Daniel Hooker was a reminder that his opponent still needs to be a strong athlete and a strong wrestler to win. Hooker was neither, and constantly pressuring just led to his getting absolutely destroyed in an extended beating. Another run towards the top of the lightweight division continues here; hopefully, Barboza gets the right matchmaking to succeed.
Gaethje also applies constant pressure, but it is unclear where on the Lee-Nurmagomedov-Hooker spectrum he falls. He is probably closer to the former two in terms of power but not speed, and while Gaethje is theoretically able to wrestle, he never actually tries to do so. If Gaethje relentlessly moves forward without the threat of a takedown, how comfortable is Barboza standing his ground and trading? Gaethje’s pressure still looks like it will turn Barboza into a backwardly mobile fighter, at which point it becomes the Arizona native’s fight to lose. Barboza is at his best when he can plant to throw his power, particularly in the kicking game, so he seems less adept at pulling off the stick-and-move game plan that Alvarez and Poirier managed to get away with. However, if Barboza has made enough mental strides and adjustments that he is willing to meet Gaethje on his own terms, well, then this will be absolutely ridiculous. Instead, the expectation is Gaethje charging down Barboza until he pours on enough power and volume to stop the fight. The pick is Gaethje via third-round stoppage.
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