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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 128’s Edson Barboza

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A man put on this Earth to kick people, Edson Barboza, will square off with powerful young wrestler, Kevin Lee, this Saturday (April 21, 2018) at UFC Fight Night 128 inside Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

All that people talk about regarding Barboza lately is that Khabib Nurmagomedov smashed him. To be fair, he did, and it was ugly. Just before that fight, however, Barboza was on the best three-fight win streak of his career, showing continued improvement all around and rising into the top five. In fact, prior to the actual “Eagle” fight, Barboza was a popular dark horse pick in defeating Nurmagomedov thanks to his stellar skill set. The bottom line here is that Barboza is still a great fighter despite the loss. He faces another dangerous top control fighter in Lee, but that doesn’t mean Lee will be able to run him over.

Let’s take a closer look at Barboza’s skill set:

Striking

A Muay Thai fighter in Brazil, Barboza built up a record of 25-3 in the sport before moving to America and transitioning over to mixed martial arts (MMA). There were some growing pains as the level of competition rose, but Barboza’s style translated well into the Octagon and has only been improved under the tutelage of Mark Henry.

Barboza has finished two men via low kick (GIF), one via body kick (GIF), and has a wheel kick stoppage on his record as well.

Fighting Barboza is a game of range. On the whole, Barboza is constantly trying to maintain the kickboxing range and prevent his foe from closing the distance. He has different strategies to accomplish this task, but the techniques involved are generally pretty similar.

Opposite Gilbert Melendez, for example, Barboza rarely jabbed — likely to limit Melendez’s chances of coming over the top with his right hand. Instead, Barboza used his low kick as his jab, punishing the lead leg each time Melendez tried to advance into the pocket (GIF). Barboza ate a few punches while kicking the leg, but it quickly paid off in limiting Melendez’s mobility.

In his bout with Anthony Pettis, Barboza jabbed far more frequently to stop Pettis from gaining the pocket. Pettis did a far better job than Melendez of feinting his way inside and not giving Barboza an easy target for his right low kick, but Barboza’s jab to the head and body stopped Pettis in his tracks. Often, Barboza would then sneak an inside low kick, which are not as immediately devastating but still built to great effect.

The most improved area of Barboza’s kickboxing is his counter punching. Earlier in his career, Barboza would plant and throw a sloppy right hand just about every time he looked to counter. Currently, Barboza focuses far more on the left hook, squatting down a bit as he opponent advances with punches and firing a tight hook.

That left hook is Barboza’s go-to counter punch, but he has other options. While his foe is punching, Barboza will often slip to his left, countering with either a body shot, left uppercut, or left hook. Opposite Melendez, Barboza found ample opportunities to drop down and attack the body on both sides.

While talking counters, Barboza’s flying knee knockout of Dariush must be mentioned. It was a classic example of a veteran striker picking up on his foe’s habits, as Dariush was setting up every takedown with the jab. Eventually, Barboza recognized that and timed him with the knee (GIF).

That fight was also a great display of how Barboza’s kicks where on a fighter. Dariush pushed a hard pace and pressured the Brazilian, clearly winning the first round. Even prior to the jump knee, however, the tide was shifting. Barboza wasn’t able to fully dictate range and punish Dariush’s leg/body consistently, but the kicks he did land were slowing his opponent down and causing him to ease up on the pressure.

All of this counter talk is so necessary because fighters have absolutely no interest of being in the kickboxing range with Barboza. He’s absolutely devastating there and can quickly dominate even great fighters when given the space to work.

Barboza’s low kicking is the most famous aspect of his distance kickboxing for good reason. His low kicks are ludicrously fast with little tell. In this week’s technique highlight, we looked at a few ways Barboza ties his kicks together with punches.

Aside from the low kick, Barboza’s next best weapon is likely his switch kick (GIF). Like the low kick, it’s remarkably fast and does big damage. Generally, Barboza attacks to the body, countering any attempts to circle away from the low kick. There’s also Barboza’s spinning kicks, both the wheel kick that knocked out Terry Etim (GIF) and the standard back kick to the gut. All of these kicks are damaging and thrown with such speed that Barboza rarely needs to set them up to land effectively.

Finally, a great offensive habit of Barboza’s that comes from Muay Thai is to counter kicks with kicks. When Barboza faces a fellow kickboxer — like Pettis or Paul Felder — he’ll commonly look to catch kicks and return with the low kick. Felder in particular threw a lot of spinning and karate kicks while stalking Barboza, but he came up short and ate a return kick much of the time (GIF).

Defensively, Barboza has improved greatly from the time when Jamie Varner chased him down with right hands, but the core flaw remains: Barboza does not handle pressure all that well. Nowadays, it has to be smart and determined pressure to undermine the Brazilian, as he’ll counter sloppy aggression. Nevertheless, each of the three men to beat Barboza in the last few years — Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, and Michael Johnson -- did so by pressuring forward with combinations, takedowns, or both. Pressure suffocates the Brazilian’s kicks, limiting his best weapon, and he tends to become far less tight defensively when forced constantly onto his back foot.

Wrestling

Barboza is a large Lightweight with great athleticism, which is a huge benefit in the wrestling department. Overall, Barboza has managed to surprise some foes with takedowns and is generally quite difficult to drag to the mat.

When Barboza looks to get on top, it’s generally with that MMA-style running double leg/clinch body lock that lanky strikers love. It’s easy to understand why it’s effective: Barboza plants his feet and catches his opponent off-guard with a surprisingly fast spear to the waist.

Barboza also has the option of trying to trip out his opponent’s leg after catching a kick (GIF). Dumps are a major part of Muay Thai, so it should be no surprise that Barboza is skilled with those techniques.

Barboza’s takedown defense is excellent, and I say that while fully acknowledging what Nurmagomedov just did to him. Even after getting out-wrestled in that fight, Barboza’s takedown defense remains at a stellar 83 percent, according to Fightmetric.

A lot of that successful takedown defense comes from Barboza’s excellent hips. Even when fighters manage to time a shot well and land on Barboza’s waist, he bounces back immediately. Barboza also does a great job of yanking up on an overhook to change a double leg shot into a clinch, where his physical strength and balance generally keep him upright.

The only person who managed to take and hold down Barboza consistently is “The Eagle,” and that man is a special fighter.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Though he’s a brown belt, I’ll be honest and admit that I can’t remember a single time Barboza’s offensive jiu-jitsu really came into play. Generally, his focus is on kicking people to pieces and scrambling up when taken down, neither of which involves submissions.

Defensively, Barboza fell to a rear naked choke while stunned and Ferguson’s masterful snap down into a d’arce. There’s not much technique to critique there, but it’s worth-noting that Barboza had no real answers to Nurmagomedov’s leg triangle. The Brazilian repeatedly tried to wall-walk to no effect except pain, when perhaps kicking off from guard or elevating with a butterfly hook would have produced better results.

Conclusion

Barboza was closing in on a title shot prior to his last loss, which definitely hurts his chances. At the same time, Lightweight is historically a very difficult division in which to remain champion, and there are top contenders like Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez who Barboza has never faced. Any of those three could capture the title and suddenly Barboza is back in the mix, but only if he defeats Lee on Saturday night.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional fighter and former amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.