For the second fight in a row, Justin Gaethje slept an opponent in the first round. What was billed as a bloody war of attrition was instead a surgical execution. Tonight’s unlucky corpse belongs to the highly dangerous Edson Barboza. Despite lasting just long enough to finish half a tall beer, this fight taught us some very important things about both fighters.
1. Gaethje is the best leg kicker in the UFC
If both Gaethje and Barboza were proud of their leg kicks, they seemed offended that people gave the other man credit. And so, when the fight started, they stood across from each other and took turns hacking at each other’s lead leg. Gaethje would channel his hate into his shin and then politely stand back while Barboza expressed his loathing in turn. They both gave each other their best until Barboza backed off.
Winning a leg kicking contest against Barboza is like winning a power punching contest against Francis Ngannou. It’s like winning anything against Jon Jones. Barboza, for all his talent, couldn’t keep up with Gaetje’s technique and damage. That’s not even considering the psychological blow Edson suffered watching his best shots get one-upped.
With an aging Jose Aldo relying on powerful counter boxing, Gaethje stands tall as the best leg kicker in the league.
2. Gaethje 2.0 is terrifying
No one denied that Gaethje needed to fight smarter, but we weren’t sure what that’d look like. Could a Gaethje who restrained himself perform optimally?
The answer is a shuddering, concussive YES.
Gaethje still walked forward and applied monstrous pressure, but he wasn’t whiffing with power shots or leaving himself open to big counters. For the first time in Gaethje’s entire career, I never felt he was in danger. Yes, Barboza tagged him but he could never find the angle to hurt him. And whenever they traded, Barboza clearly wore it worse. As it turns out Gaethje doesn’t need volume to be effective. His toughness, monstrous power and timing are more than enough in small doses to finish high caliber opponents. And he eats exponentially less damage in turn.
Honestly, he looked better in this fight than against James Vick. And considering Vick stands 6′ 3″, he can be forgiven for eating a few kicks to the liver.
And watching the replay of the knockout punch, Barboza doesn’t absorb all the blame. Right before Gaethje launched the knockout blow, he actually shoves Barboza. The natural reaction to getting pushed is to lower your hands to aid in balance. Sneaky boxers and kickboxers do this all the time; push out of the clinch and fire a strike over the guard.
3. Edson Barboza is no longer elite
While I didn’t buy into the same hype as his most ardent fans, I believed that Edson Barboza was an elite lightweight. No longer. With all due respect to the elite striker, Edson doesn’t have the toughness necessary to hang with the best.
The body-melting and leg breaking kicks lose all potency. His long but surgical power punches begin to flail and run wide. A gas tank that can deliver 3 rounds of punishment lasts about half that when backing away in a panic. It’s not possible to rise in the lightweight division when simple pressure fighting robs you of your potential. Even considering the accidental (and uncalled) eye poke, Gaethje would’ve won. It’s awful to say it, but there are points at which you can guarantee Edson will lose.
And even if he had the matchmaking clout of Conor McGregor, there’s no easy path to a title. Nurmagomedov, Gaethje and Ferguson all own dominant wins over him. I seriously doubt he’d do much better against Dustin Poirier. In a great career, Barboza has lost to everyone that matters in the conversation for standing among the best. We may have just witnessed Edson Barboza’s ceiling.
Though implying he should be ahead of Donald Cerrone (which I agree with) may play poorly with fans, Gaethje justifies top billing. Perhaps a date with another man who scored a ridiculous knockout is in the cards after all.