Edson Barboza leaned forwards and let out a sigh as Bruce Buffer announced his split decision defeat to Dan Ige at UFC Jacksonville on Saturday. The Brazilian, who had moved down from lightweight to make his featherweight debut, dropped his foe but Ige traded in the pocket to eventually take the judges’ verdict. Barboza looked bereft when hearing his fate but he should have known his move south to 145 pounds would be tough.
Many celebrated lightweights have attempted the same challenge as Barboza yet have failed miserably against smaller and faster opponents. Gilbert Melendez slumped to 0-2 when moving down in 2017, having previously broken the record for Strikeforce lightweight title defenses (six). Michael Johnson dipped to 1-2 at featherweight between 2018 and 2019, despite his success at lightweight over Barboza, Tony Ferguson, and Dustin Poirier. (His victory over Artem Lobov in 2019 – originally slated for featherweight – moved to a catchweight when Johnson missed weight).
The list doesn’t end there. BJ Penn, who owns the joint-most UFC lightweight title defenses with three, looked a shell of his former self as he went 0-3 at 145 pounds between 2014 and 2017, although unlike Barboza, he stepped straight down from welterweight. Anthony Pettis, the former WEC and UFC lightweight titlist, also had a rough ride when journeying down in 2016 – he overcame Charles Oliveira and then conceded a decision to Max Holloway, missing weight by three pounds.
This poor track-record of slimmed-down lightweights will not make pleasant reading for Barboza. His new division is historically difficult to crack and since the UFC introduced the featherweights in 2011, the full belt has changed hands only five times. Barboza will know all about the dominant runs of former champions such as Jose Aldo, whose first reign lasted 1,848 days, and Holloway, who ruled for 925 days.
Still, one man Barboza has trained in close proximity to, Frankie Edgar, bucks the trend of lightweights struggling for victories against the smaller men. Since scaling to featherweight in 2013, “The Answer” has defeated world-class competition such as Chad Mendes, Jeremy Stephens and Cub Swanson (twice). The current 145 pounds king, Alexander Volkanovski, also came down from lightweight, though his only 155-pound appearance in the UFC was his Octagon debut in 2016.
In that sense it shows that Edgar and Volkanovski are exceptions to the rule – smaller lightweights who had the guile, fight IQ, and skillset to thrive at featherweight. Similarly, Barboza had to bulk up to make 155 pounds and will still be able to load up on carbohydrates at the lower weight class, as Paul Felder revealed when commentating on Barboza’s bout with Ige.
It must be said that Barboza showed promise in defeat on Saturday, earning an early knockdown and banging to the body in a back-and-forth thriller. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Barboza is the only man in UFC history to grab knockouts with a head kick, a body kick and leg kicks (twice), and he showed that stand-up acumen when his overhand hook crashed into the side of Ige’s head, sending the American scrambling to the canvas.
Barboza couldn’t capitalize with ground-and-pound and after the rivals traded boxing assaults at a furious pace in the middle round, Ige inched ahead in the decider, striking with malice and completing a high-crotch takedown. Barboza perhaps had a right to feel aggravated by the verdict, but the element of “perhaps” showed how close it was.
One thing which is clear though is that Barboza is in deep waters at featherweight. Ige, ranked #15, was as game as they come. His punching was crisp and he responded to heavy fire in round one by connecting with an athletic flying knee. Signed by the UFC in 2017 after submitting Luis Gomez on Season 3 of Dana White’s Contender Series, Ige will now be aiming for a big fight at featherweight, while Barboza will slip down the pecking order despite his strong showing.
The Ricardo Almeida-trained star might want to face another ranked featherweight next, but Sodiq Yusuff, #14, is looking at a higher opponent, and Ryan Hall, #13, is awaiting the rescheduling of his bout with Ricardo Lamas.
Barboza could tackle Josh Emmett as that meeting was postponed this month due to the coronavirus pandemic, or maybe he’ll collide with Swanson. The American Top Team man is still placed at #11 in the lightweight standings but whatever happens, if Barboza does make a success of his trip to featherweight, it will be an audacious task which many of his peers have attempted and failed.
Alistair Hendrie is a freelance writer for The Body Lock MMA. He has previously written for Mirror.co.uk and Fighters Only. Check out his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring interviews with Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more.