When the fight between Edson Barboza and Kevin Lee was announced, of course we were excited. One of lightweight’s top 3 strikers against its second-best wrestler? On a free card no less? But weirdly, my thought wasn’t “this is a close fight,” but rather “Barboza has this.”
You know the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” It was the one part of the Kelly Clarkson song you couldn’t get out of your brain? Well, Barboza flirted very close to the line in the Khabib fight.
It may be rich to call the fight a “victory”; Barboza lost badly. He ate ground and pound so brutal that local seismologists thought their equipment was malfunctioning. His contributions amounted to a few isolated body kicks that were mostly ignored. In the clinch, he looked like a man trying to wrestle his big brother.
But the fact the fight made it out of the first round is impressive in itself. At the end of the opening frame, Barboza looked beat. He held an expression that was a mix of resignation and terror. Yet he endured all the way to the final bell.
Second-best by a wide margin
A mere 25-years-old, Kevin Lee is 16-3 with 12 fights in the UFC. Before meeting Tony Ferguson, he finished four straight opponents. And considering Ferguson is the best lightweight in the world, taking him to three rounds with a staph infection is quite the feat. To any lightweight, he poses a credible threat.
I say all that to indicate that calling Lee “second best” is not an insult; Khabib is just otherworldly. Lee is the more explosive athlete, but only for a very short period. Khabib sustains his brutal assault for the entire fight while Lee visibly gasses. Both love haymaker swings, but Khabib uses his more intelligently.
There’s also the issue of Khabib being part caveman; he can absorb tremendous punishment.
To be clear, Khabib does not get hit a lot. It’s quite difficult to absorb punishment when you’re on top and drilling for oil in an opponent’s face. But the few shots he does eat don’t seem to affect him at all. Michael Johnson and Al Iaquinta hit Khabib with clean haymakers and received a blank stare of death in return. Barboza’s own body kicks bounced off Khabib’s trunk like it was a sequoia.
Lee won’t bring anything nearly that potent.
Measured by similar competition
Both have lost to Ferguson, and Lee lasted longer.
But it should be noted that before an illegal strike dazed him, Barboza was going toe-to-toe with the soon-to-be champ. He was diving in and ripping body shots to complement his leg kicks and was the only fighter besides Lando Vannata to make Ferguson look uncomfortable on the feet. Ferguson’s counters are smooth, but Barboza’s are like lightning.
Barboza’s guard may not be as active, but the leg and body kicks will have a disproportionate effect on an athlete like Lee. There’s still a chance that Lee will rag-doll and choke Barboza.
But if Khabib couldn’t, what are the chances Lee will?