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UFC on ESPN 2 Predictions: Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje

UFC on ESPN 2 Predictions: Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje

Justin Gaethje looks on during his fight with Eddie Alvarez during UFC 218

Originally intended for Gaethje’s UFC debut, Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje was marked as a uniquely interesting contest since it was first possible. Gaethje’s style was doubted upon his entry into the UFC; a glutton for punishment with a wrestling pedigree he only uses for keeping the fight on the feet, Gaethje’s first fight with the promotion was against a top-5 lightweight and an unforgiving style matchup for him. One “Fight Of The Year” later, Gaethje was proven to be UFC-level, as he drowned Michael Johnson with his pace in round 2. Gaethje has gone 2-2 in the UFC, but his losses have been to the absolute cream of the crop in brutal and draining contests; he looks to force Barboza through the same kind of fight, and a win would allow him to reintroduce himself as a legitimately elite competitor.

Edson Barboza’s position is a lot murkier. He’s off a decisive win over then-#14 Dan Hooker, but it didn’t do much except to convince people that Hooker wasn’t ready for the elite; as impressive as that win was, Barboza was still the same fighter who had lost insanely lopsided bouts to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee in his two previous fights. Barboza will have a very hard road to top contendership, considering his losses to Nurmagomedov and to Tony Ferguson; the fight against Gaethje is mostly just to keep from falling further into defined gatekeeping, and perhaps show improvements to his game against an opponent who seems poised to exploit his greatest weaknesses.

The Highlight

Justin Gaethje’s reputation as a consistently violent lightweight is well-earned; Gaethje’s relentlessness combined with his underrated technical game on the feet allow him to push his opponents back and force them to fight his kind of fight. Combined with his absurd resilience and his wrestling background, Gaethje is a very hard man to deny; it has taken career-best performances from cream-of-the-crop lightweights to get past “The Highlight”, and he has an opportunity in Philadelphia to re-enter the top 5.

The most striking aspect of a Gaethje fight is the pure pace of it; Gaethje’s pressure is sound, but it’s also at a far more frantic tempo than even the average pressurer’s. Gaethje encourages unsustainable volume for his opponent with his style, constantly pressing them into the fence and forcing them to throw to back him off. He’s able to do that thanks to excellent pressure mechanics; cage-cutting footwork to keep up with his opponent trying to circle off, feinting forward, and a jab he showed against Alvarez to push him back.

In the exchange, Gaethje’s excellent; he can counterpunch well in the pocket (visibly hurting Poirier with a right hand after slipping the left straight in round 3), and he possesses thunderous power as one of the more athletic fighters in the division. Gaethje is defensively a mixed bag, but that’s a good step up from his public perception; while Gaethje gets hit frequently, that’s part-and-parcel with being as aggressive a pressurer as he is. For his part, Gaethje does a lot to mitigate that threat; his high guard is generally effective without especially nuanced effort to dismantle it (Alvarez and Poirier drawing his guard to punch the body or finding uppercuts for his hunched stance), and he can roll with and slip shots reasonably well. It isn’t exactly defensive mastery, and many of his opponents (especially the ones who pocket-box well: Johnson, Alvarez, Poirier) have found ways past it, but he isn’t much easier to hit clean than the average pressure fighter.

Gaethje’s greatest skill is in the long game; this isn’t just in pushing a pace with his pressure and pocket exchanges, but with a unique and brutal attrition skillset that keeps his opponent from being able to keep up with him. This is primarily the leg attack; Gaethje is one of the most vicious leg attackers in the entire sport, and one of the more versatile. He can lead with the kick, but the most devastating ones that Gaethje lands are on the counter; Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier had the lead legs knocked out from underneath them multiple times a round, as Gaethje either timed their entry or their exit with a kick (which knocked them out of their stance and kept them from effectively following up many entries, and dealt damage that visibly piled up through the rounds). Gaethje also leg-kicks out of the clinch, which is fairly uncommon; in general, Gaethje is a monster in the clinch, using knees to the body and uppercuts to fold Johnson, and the leg kick is another tool.

Gaethje’s approach isn’t foolproof by any means; his pressure was expertly defused by Eddie Alvarez, who also wrecked his body to exhaust Gaethje and slow him down, and Dustin Poirier was able to time leg kicks with the straight left (and do the same thing Alvarez did, drawing the guard to string together longer combinations around it). However, fighting Gaethje has never been easy for anyone; put against three of his worst possible matchups in the division in his first three fights with the UFC, Gaethje went 1-2, and the two who beat him had their lead legs ripped apart. There’s been no way to beat Gaethje that doesn’t involve some measure of being able to take punishment top to bottom, and Gaethje can do that as well.

Junior

Edson Barboza’s win over Dan Hooker was one of the most disgustingly vicious in recent memory; Hooker was worked over at range from head to toe, eventually dropping to the last in a series of body shots. Beating such a well-esteemed prospect seemed to re-establish Barboza as an elite presence in the division, but Barboza’s ceiling is also very well-known; with decisive losses to three of the five fighters above him, Barboza seems to be stuck in a high-end action fighter niche more than anything else. A win over Gaethje would do a great deal to help him escape that role.

Edson Barboza is a solid striker who’s mechanically stronger than the vast majority of fighters in the UFC; this has translated into extremely quick and powerful attacks, but he’s also relatively limited in how he can use his kicking game. Barboza looks like a legitimate world-beater when he gets his fight; when given room to kick freely and move around without constraint, Barboza’s extremely hard to beat. Barboza’s kicking game is often flashy (spinning kicks to Etim and Lee, and the knee to steal the fight against Dariush) but is overall strongest when kept to the basics; the Pettis fight featured Barboza jabbing his opponent up and landing clean counter combinations, and also saw Barboza stick to a low-kicking game chained off his boxing that badly bruised the leg of Pettis. Barboza has an obvious appreciation for attrition tactics with his leg and body work, but he also has the immediate stopping power to bail himself out of a bad spot with a single connection.

The biggest issue for Barboza is that every single thing he does well is unraveled by pressure. Barboza isn’t an entirely linear fighter; he’s shown the ability to pivot nicely in the past (and the one time he did against Khabib Nurmagomedov, Khabib ran face-first into the fence). However, Barboza has no reaction to being pressured that isn’t either a Hail-Mary kick or running sideways; his kicks are nulled if his space is taken away, and Barboza doesn’t have the comfort under pressure to create the space he needs. The first one to fully take advantage of that weakness was Michael Johnson; normally an outfighter, Johnson made a committed effort to pressure and Barboza was backed up disturbingly easily to get forced into boxing exchanges against the faster man.

While Barboza had his best technical showing after the Johnson fight (against Pettis), he had similar issues against Beneil Dariush until he landed a flying knee in a fight he was comfortably losing. This came to a head in his two-fight skid against Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee; neither pressured him particularly cleanly (Nurmagomedov in particular just ran towards him), but all it took was the suggestion of being forced into the pocket for Barboza to get to his old habits. This had impacts on his ability to stop takedowns; while both Nurmagomedov and Lee had to work hard to get takedowns once they made contact, Barboza helped them greatly by being so easy to back to the fence.

There’s reason enough to be optimistic about Edson Barboza after his last showing; Dan Hooker is a legitimately excellent fighter, and Barboza dominated him. That said, Hooker is also a fighter who works at a relatively long range, where it was already fairly well-known that Barboza was at his best. However, beating a swarming pressurer like Justin Gaethje may be evidence that Barboza’s best-known flaws have been put behind him.

Conclusions and Capping

The theoretical nightmare matchup for Edson Barboza would be fairly similar to Justin Gaethje. Gaethje’s strengths in this bout dovetail extremely well with Barboza’s most troubling and ubiquitous weakness; there’s very little that Barboza offers to keep Gaethje from forcing him to the fence and beating him up as he tries to get away. Barboza is a strong range boxer given his preferred fight, but the opponents who have given Gaethje trouble in the UFC have been able to defuse and punish his pressure; Eddie Alvarez’s sound outfighing gave Gaethje a lot of trouble, where Poirier and Johnson had the ability to sting Gaethje in the pocket, and Barboza isn’t comfortable enough moving backwards to do any of those things. Barboza has the offensive potency to take an unfavorable fight at any time (as Dariush found), but Gaethje’s style is one that seems uniquely difficult for Barboza to consistently beat.

Prediction: Gaethje via TKO (Round 3). This writer caps Gaethje at -400.



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