After 2018 went so bizarrely poorly for Felder (losing multiple bookings and falling slightly short against Mike Perry on short notice at a different weight class), the start of 2019 was a welcome return to winning ways; the bout against James Vick was arranged a second time, and Felder put on a show despite sustaining a punctured lung. His fight in Abu Dhabi is a rematch against the first man to hand him a professional loss, and beating him at this point means just as much as it would have in 2015; Felder’s too deep into his career to be called a prospect, but a win at 242 would be the one to truly turn him into a contender.
His opponent is a mainstay of the division, Edson Barboza, a fighter who has looked almost as dangerous as he is solvable; while his recent record belies his skill and the skill level of the opponents that he’s been facing, the same few flaws have cropped up again and again with Barboza (and he’s probably too deep into his career to fix them). That said, the last time the UFC looked to build someone lower in the rankings off his name, Barboza frustrated the attempt with a ferocity that he hadn’t a chance to show in his two previous fights, battering Dan Hooker from head to toe (quite literally). After the quick and brutal loss to Justin Gaethje, Barboza is looking to bounce back again, at the expense of a man he defeated over four years ago.
At this point, Edson Barboza is one of the most well-defined fighters in MMA, for better or worse; similar to Donald Cerrone, he’s faced basically everyone relevant in his generation, and his strengths and flaws have become abundantly clear in the process. That isn’t to say that Barboza’s easy to deal with, but in recent times, he’s almost become a bit of an IQ test; nearly unbeatable in his sort of fight, nearly helpless in another sort of fight, so beating him comes down more to broad strategy than to narrow tactics. Regardless, as the fights against Beneil Dariush and even Kevin Lee showed, Barboza is exceedingly dangerous moment-to-moment, which is part of what has kept him a top contender; whether it’s in terms of attrition work or just flattening an opponent with one kick, Barboza’s offensive potency is nearly unparalleled. While lightweight seems booked at the top for the foreseeable future, a win at 242 at least keeps the Brazilian in the conversation as a top fighter.
Barboza’s a fine boxer, as he showed against Anthony Pettis (schooling him in the pocket, showing even things like pivots and a left hook to the body), but his calling card is one of the most brutal kicking arsenals in MMA; where it isn’t all that versatile, Barboza’s kicks are sharp and quick and devastatingly powerful, and very few fighters have made it to the scorecards by hanging out at range with him. Barboza’s most iconic finishes have been head-kick finishes (the spinning heel kick to starch Terry Etim, and pulling the fight from the brink against Beneil Dariush), but his attrition work is generally a far more consistently successful component of his game; the Hooker fight showed Barboza’s kicking game against an opponent mostly happy to stand at range with him, and Barboza broke down both his legs and his body to a third-round stoppage that was a long time coming. Putting Barboza in a situation where he can fire at will, he’s difficult to look good against.
However, when taken out of his sort of fight, Barboza generally looks fairly inept; under pressure, not only is his kicking game nonviable, so is every good part of his game. Barboza doesn’t have a strong pivot on the backfoot or great counterpunching to put an opponent off pressuring him, and his footwork when he’s near the fence (the sort of sideways-jog that’s too easy for his opponent to keep up with) doesn’t help matters at all. In the fights he’s lost, the common thread has generally been pressure; Michael Johnson and Justin Gaethje pushed him back to batter him against the fence, where Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee did the same to get Barboza in a position to be cage-wrestled. Even Beneil Dariush (a skilled and smart fighter, but athletically several tiers below Barboza) was soundly beating Barboza before Barboza landed a flying knee that ended the bout. Barboza can get bailed out of bad spots by that sort of big moment, but it also isn’t remotely difficult to force him into those bad spots, and in recent times (facing elite fighters consistently), the latter is gaining more prominence.
The Irish Dragon
Paul Felder’s in a weird place as a lightweight hopeful; where his win over James Vick was impressive (even more due to the circumstances surrounding it, with Felder’s lung compromised late in the fight), Vick has hardly held up as a top-level win, and Felder has gotten precious few chances to otherwise build a strong resume at 155. With the opportunities that he’s been able to actually seize, though, Felder’s done a fantastic job; between the win over Vick and three consecutive finishes via elbow, Felder lost very little momentum by losing his nonsense fight at 170 against Mike Perry. A solid top-10 fighter, a win over Barboza would be the best of Felder’s career, and a way to make a solid step towards a title shot.
Felder’s best moments tend to come on the counter, as a fairly big lightweight who most opponents have to try to close distance on; Felder can consistently punish those times where his opponents step into him, with everything from the check hook (with which he stumbled Vick) to counter knees and elbows (the elbow finishing Alessandro Ricci) to even spinning elbows and backfists (the latter leading to his statement finish over Danny Castillo). If his opponent doesn’t step into him, Felder’s game on the outside is perfectly serviceable; he’s a damaging kicker on the outside as he showed against Vick, giving him a limp by round 3, and he isn’t bad with his hands floating around at range. It isn’t the sort of game to carry him without any of his other favored tools, but against Alessandro Ricci (who did a genuinely good job dealing with most of Felder’s kicks), Felder’s boxing looked fairly good; he was able to put together combinations off his check hook when Ricci saw them coming, and use his right hand fairly smartly (straight off the jab, or the straight/uppercut off the left-hook as Ricci widened his guard to block, or on the counter).
Felder isn’t defensively great (especially in the pocket, where Ross Pearson found some success, although his game is built well-enough to keep his opponents from crashing the pocket at will), but his more exploited flaws tend to be more mental than technical; while he’s capable in every range, he can be convinced to fight in an area that doesn’t necessarily favor him. This was true of the first Barboza fight, where he spent most of the time spinning at range with him, and true of the Oliveira fight (where after escaping a deep front choke and dropping Oliveira from the clinch, he engaged the dangerous grappler on the ground in what ultimately looked like a reskin of Belcher/Palhares). Felder isn’t necessarily a top contender in waiting if he imposes his game every time, but his failure to do so has made a few of his performances closer than they should’ve been.
Conclusions and Capping
There’s definitely a way that Felder can defeat Barboza, but it isn’t all that consistent with the way Felder tends to fight. Felder isn’t a consistent pressurer, but even just the impression of forward movement sends Barboza’s feet into a tailspin, and Felder could conceivably put together a winning performance based just on that and on using the pressure to track Barboza into the clinch (where Felder’s a fairly damaging presence, with his size and his love of elbows and knees); that said, Felder’s usual game is to be at range and kick until his opponent looks to close him down, and Barboza just isn’t the man to try that against. Barboza has no need to close distance, and Felder likely won’t outkick him; Barboza’s kick-defense isn’t as good as his offense, but he brings so much horsepower given the space that it isn’t a wise way to face him. Vick had some success kicking with Felder (despite not having the defense), and Barboza’s much more dangerous in that regard. Without the pressure, Barboza probably outboxes Felder as well; Barboza is stronger in the pocket than Felder when he’s given the room to maneuver, and Felder’s boxing game is mostly built to maintain a range that he probably doesn’t want against Edson.
It’s always possible that Felder fights against type to beat Barboza, the way Michael Johnson did to pressure him; after all, all it took for Nurmagomedov to back Barboza up was to just run towards him, and that isn’t something Felder can’t do. It just isn’t something that should be expected for him to do, given all the other fights he’s had. Felder doesn’t have the sort of deeply undermining flaw that Barboza does, but he’s too often in the path of Barboza’s win condition to favor him.
Prediction: Barboza via UD. This writer caps Barboza at -130.