Justin Gaethje strikes Dustin Poirier in a lightweight UFC bout

It seems the MMA trickster gods grow weary from their followers’ tears. As if to compensate us for various fights being canceled, this weekend’s card is a dream match. When a child smashes two action figures together, this is the fight they imagine happening.

Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje are throwing down.

Explosive elegance

Edson Barboza first announced his presence with a wicked spinning-back kick KO of Terry Etim. Not to the body, but the head. From there he built his career on powerful kickboxing and flashy knockout wins.

In Edson’s case, you really can judge a book by its cover. You’d expect a lanky, ripped specimen like himself to fight with long, quick power strikes ala Tommy Hearns . . . that’s exactly how he fights. Edson throws kicks not to score points, but to break whatever is on the receiving end. His leg kicks audibly gouge muscle and tendon alike, leaving seasoned veterans grimacing in agony. The body kicks come so fast that just a toe-rake was enough to bring the notoriously tough Evan Dunham to his knees.

As the years have worn on, Edson’s hands have sharpened up as well. He still throws power shots, but they’re varied and change targets. He’s one of the few fighters I’ve seen land uppercuts to the body.

Wilting under pressure

When Edson can march forward and pick his spots, he looks like one of the best lightweights in the world. When forced to go backward… considerably less so. Some of his losses are expected, like wrestling phenoms Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee. He hung in there with Tony Ferguson until a foul seemingly weakened him.

But Jamie Varner? Michael Johnson? All due respect to the veterans, but those are not people who should convincingly beat Edson Barboza. Yet both walked him down and wore him out with relentless pressure. Had Beneil Dariush not become so predictable by dipping his head into a knee, he may have stolen a decision as well. Even Bobby Green looked like he stood a chance.

If forced to run away, Edson tires quickly. He still possesses KO power, but not at the level that he’d display if he controlled the pace. This is no walk in the park; advancing on Edson doesn’t mean you can finish him. More likely his opponent stays on high alert for the entirety of the fight. But when retreating, Edson is human.

Relentless advance

Fighters who advance and throw big power are a dime a dozen. What sets Justin Gaethje apart is that he systematically breaks his opponents down. His one punch humane slaughter of James Vick is an aberration rather than the rule.

For a wrestler turned power-striker, Gaethje possesses sublime leg kicks.

It’s not just the technique, as he turns his hip to deliver kicks nearly parallel to the ground. It’s the fact that he’ll throw it from inside a clinch or when he has an opponent pressed against the fence. He’ll wait till an opponent is punching and use it as a counter when all the weight is on the target leg. His switch leg kick carries terrific power despite little wind-up, as evidenced by Michael Johnson’s visible discomfort after eating a few.

This is before accounting for beautiful knees in the clinch and a competent single collar tie. And then there’s the haymaker power in his fists, of course.

Chin dependence

After going undefeated in WSOF and winning an absolute banger over Johnson, Gaethje suffered two consecutive knockout defeats.

In what is the finest tactical display of his career, Eddie Alvarez stood toe-to-toe with Gaethje and managed to counter him. Alvarez forced Gaethje to whiff over and over again on his power punches and, in the clinch, delivered deep body punches. Gathje’s fighting style was always exhausting, but Alvarez drained his tank even further. By the third round, Gaethje could barely stand and Alvarez mercifully crushed him with a knee to the chin.

Dustin Poirier’s display was less surgical but equally impressive. He too used the predictability of Gaethje’s hands to deflect most of the damage and tire him out. Poirier, who possesses loose and easy punching power, found the button and dropped him in the fourth round.

When Gaethje connects with what he throws, he can drag opponents into the muck and drown them. It doesn’t matter if he’s tired because his opponent is guaranteed to be in worse shape. But when those frenetic combinations and power shots get blocked or dodged, he drowns alone.

Keys to the other’s defeat

Edson hates pressure fighters and Gaethje will apply more than any previous opponent. Plus, Gaethje is either too brave/dense to be afraid of Edson’s power so he’ll have a difficult time deterring him. And at many points during the fight he’ll have his legs hacked, making it even more difficult to retreat and fight. But the types of counters that rattle Gaethje to his core are the long punches that come from odd angles. You know, the exact types of punches that Edson loves to throw. If he lands one as Gaethje marches forward, he has the type of power to sleep him.

So block off your Saturday’s folks. The gods reward us for our patience.

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