UFC Philadelphia has what many predict to be a Fight of the Year candidate as perennial contender Edson Barboza takes on the ever popular Justin Gaethje.
With the drama circling the top three in the UFC lightweight division, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how special the other players on the roster are. Saturday’s main event at UFC Philadelphia is a great example. Perennial top-ten contender Edson Barboza will look to hold his place in the rankings as he takes on one of the most popular fighters in the sport in Justin Gaethje.
Ever since he made his UFC debut in 2010, the MMA world has respected the striking abilities of Edson Barboza. A year into his time in the promotion, he recorded an all-time great knockout of Terry Etim. Over the years, he’s notched victories over the likes of former champion Anthony Pettis, Paul Felder, and Gilbert Melendez. He’s also faced some of the best in the world in Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. In victory and defeat, his explosive Muay Thai attack has garnered the utmost respect from his opponents.
Any observer will tell you that Edson Barboza’s ground game is his Achilles heel. His losses to Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee would certainly prove that fact. The fact that he has only six losses in nine years and 20 fights in the UFC is often overshadowed by that criticism. But his abilities overall have never been in question and it is why he has been chosen to headline the second event to air on television on ESPN. Whether he gets matched up with a top five opponent after the fight depends on the plans of the UFC, but a victory would assert that he is the biggest threat to the top four.
Outside of the UFC’s most popular champions, very few fighters have made themselves must-see television like Justin Gaethje has over the last two years. “The Highlight” entered the promotion with tons of fanfare and it is an understatement to say he hasn’t disappointed. He had not one but two Fight of the Year candidates in 2017, another in 2018, and Saturday’s match-up is expected to be his entry for this year. Even Thiago Santos, who is currently carving a path of destruction at 205, needed several years in the company to become the star attraction that Gaethje has become.
But while he has fulfilled his promise to put on a show, he also has publicly acknowledged the benefits of using more wrestling to help both his record and long-term career. He has already admitted to being averse to focusing on getting takedowns in the past, but he is also in the prime of his career with several incredible battles already on his resume. If it is about getting the most lucrative fights possible, those that include championship belts for example, then it means putting wins together in one of the most competitive divisions in all of MMA. So far, he hasn’t used wrestling to help him win. But the fight with Barboza is a very logical time to start.
This makes the fight with Barboza a very interesting one. Gaethje moves forward and forces his opponent to the cage and rips powerful shots to the body. He is incredibly well-conditioned and delivers an incredible amount of damage with this strategy. It also puts him in a good position to use the clinch against the fence to wear down Barboza if he chooses to grapple. Gaethje is a former Division I All-American wrestler and figures to be able to hold down the Brazilian powerhouse if he is able to get top position.
Two high-level strikers.
— UFC (@ufc) March 27, 2019
To Barboza’s advantage, Gaethje has a penchant for taking shots in order to land his own. It is an opening that Barboza can exploit with straight shots down the middle as “The Highlight” looks to close the distance. He will have to deal with Gaethje’s durability so circling the cage will be crucial if he is looking to land his devastating leg-kicks. However, he could have a huge opening as Gaethje lowers his head to surge forward and that could give Barboza the space to land a flying knee if given enough space.
The winner of the bout would be in prime position to move up in the lightweight division, but there are few options available. Between suspensions and the interim title on the line next month, a top-three opponent is unlikely for 2019 unless there is a turn of events. However, a match-up with the winner of the Donald Cerrone and Al Iaquinta bout in May could be the best option as all parties involved will be looking to book a high-profile fight as the title picture gets sorted out.