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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on ESPN 2’s Edson Barboza

Brutal Muay Thai striker, Edson Barboza, will duel with fellow low kicking marauder, Justin Gaethje, this Saturday (March 30, 2019) at UFC on ESPN 2 from inside Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It’s difficult to reconcile just how beatable Barboza can appear with just how dominant Barboza can be. In 2018 alone, Barboza was made to look helpless by Kevin Lee and battered for nearly 25 minutes straight, getting thrown down and smacked around so much that it was difficult to watch. Seven months later, he was on the right side of one of the most soul-crushing, leg-tearing, liver-busting performances of all time against Dan Hooker, hammering a legitimately tough and talented contender into a lump of bruising.

With Barboza, it always seems to be one extreme or the other. Gaethje is arguably the same way — he does not lose in the same form of prolonged beating that Barboza is prone to suffering, but Gaethje either destroys or implodes in dramatic fashion.

It’s going to be violent when both men are in the cage. Until then, let’s take a closer look at Barboza’s skill set.

Striking

As a Muay Thai fighter in Brazil, Barboza built up a professional record of 25-3 in the sport before moving to America and transitioning over to mixed martial arts (MMA). Already a fantastic kicker, Barboza’s years with New Jersey-based coach Mark Henry helped improve his boxing significantly, although he does still have exploitable habits. Recently, Barboza relocated to American Top Team, a gigantic camp full of talent, and it will be interesting to see where how his development continues.

Inside the Octagon, 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. Last time out against Dan Hooker, Barboza finished the fight by slipping over and firing his left hook to the body. In fact, Barboza was attempting to double up on the hook (which was working well) and missed his second hook to the face solely because the body shot had crumpled his foe.

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 habit and looked to time him. Dariush was shooting with his head on the inside, towards Barboza’s power side — that turned out to be quite a mistake (GIF).

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. This is true for most of Barboza’s kicks, as his setups are not spectacular or particularly tricky, but his speed and power is exceptional.

Aside from the low kick, Barboza’s next best weapon is likely his switch kick (GIF). 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.

Barboza’s last fight with Hooker proved to be something of a greatest hits collection for the Brazilian. Prior to the fight, Hooker was seen as a real threat to Barboza, a talented kickboxer with knockout power, length, and a solid pressure game. Instead, Barboza kicked apart his leg early. With an ultra tough fighter unable to do much but stumble towards him, Barboza landed dozens and dozens of power shots.

Some sadistic bastard made a highlight reel of all the kicks Barboza landed in that bout, and it’s worth-watching if you have a distaste for healthy quads or functioning livers (GIF).

Finally, a great offensive habit of Barboza’s that comes from Muay Thai is to counter kicks with kicks. Since this habit is of particular relevance against Gaethje, we analyzed it in extra detail for this week’s technique highlight.

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 with damaging linear blows like the spinning back kick. Nevertheless, each of the four men to beat Barboza in the last few years — Kevin Lee, Khabib 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.

Gaethje said Barboza quits when pressured, and that is not true — the Brazilian does not give up even when absorbing crazy damage. However, he does become much less scary and seems to have difficulty re-asserting himself back into the fight.

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.

It’s really odd to say that Barboza’s takedown defense is pretty great when his two most recent losses came to wrestlers who put him on his back, but it’s kind of true. The Brazilian has 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.

Lee and Nurmagomedov are special fighters. They have the same special ability: while fresh in the early rounds, no Lightweight (yet) can stop Nurmagomedov’s takedown chain or Lee’s long-armed double against the fence, and that includes Barboza. Barboza’s bigger issue is not really takedown defense, it’s that Nurmagomedov and Lee were able to thoroughly overwhelm his defense once actually on the mat.

After getting thoroughly pulverized for five minutes, Barboza did not enter the second round the same athlete in either fight. Had he been able to defend and limit damage, there’s a real chance he would have been able to shift the momentum back into his corner as his foe’s takedowns became less fearsome with time.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Though he’s a brown belt, I’ll be honest and admit that I cannot 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. Those are both excusable situations: it’s the inability to maintain a defensive guard or simply lock a foe down and stall that has plagued Barboza on the mat.

Conclusion

Barboza is such an exceptional kicker that it still seems like he’s just a few answered questions away from the belt. Could anyone stop Barboza if his lateral footwork improved, or he was better able to protect himself from bottom position? At 33 years of age, the door is not necessarily shut on Barboza to make these changes, and a camp switch could be the fix needed. One thing is certain: Gaethje’s raw aggression and pressure will force Barboza to prove his development.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter 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.