Between the comments on my articles and the tweets and emails I receive, Edson Barboza has to be one of the most requested fighters for technical analysis out there. Having finally sat down with his career and given it the once over, the main thing that I can say about Barboza is that his game is remarkably simple. Knowing what I knew about Barboza coming in - the wheel kicks on Njoukani and Terry Etim being my foremost thought - I never expected such a man to rely mainly on the jab and the right low kick, and to have such deficiencies in his boxing. Barboza has only one loss on his mixed martial arts record, to Jamie Varner, but in that time we have seen his stand up game tested and at times exposed in areas where it was thought to be sound. Today we'll look at Barboza's go to techniques and the shortcomings in his boxing game in advance of his UFC on FX 7: Belfort vs. Bisping bout with Lucas Martins.
The first thing to be said for Barboza is that he kicks extremely hard, which is impressive because he rarely steps into his kicks all that much and often refuses to rotate very far on his standing leg - keeping it pointing far more forward than to his side. This makes it easier to get back to stance because the hips aren't fully committed to the movement - Fedor Emelianenko actively chose to kick in this way and Jose Aldo does so occasionally when on the back foot - but it also causes a good deal of torque on the knee joint which, of course, is not designed to take torque.
Notice that Barboza's right hip stays on his right side rather than moving in front of his left hip with a full hip rotation. Barboza's left knee is pointing more towards the target than it is to the side. While it is possible to kick harder by rotating the hips all the way and pivoting on the standing leg, Barboza's shorter kick provides him more control in withdrawing his leg.
To contrast, here is a low kick from Thiago Alves - notice how he points his stepping foot way out to the side, allowing his right hip to rotate much more fully than Barboza's. Alves, however, is far more committed to the motion than Barboza, who can withdraw his foot more swiftly in case of a retaliation.
Barboza's bread and butter seems to be almost identical to his countrymen Renan Barao and Jose Aldo - to back the opponent up with the threat of punches, then connect the right low kick as they retreat. There is a reason for this - it works extremely well. The skill of checking low kicks in MMA seems to be especially under-practiced. I doesn't fail to exist, in footage of almost any fighter on the Thai pads he will check kicks from his feeder, but come fight time they might as well have been practicing kata or training on the Muk Yan Jong - no-one actually uses the checks that they practice with any consistency.
Now of course there is a reason for men who can check a low kick in training to not check them in fights - the threat of a takedown in MMA is ever present and the narrower a fighter's base becomes, the more susceptible he is to being scooped up or swept. Frankie Edgar and Lyoto Machida have made a specialty of sweeping out an opponent's standing foot while he is on one leg - to many it seems more sensible to take the low kicks than to concede a takedown.
This brief highlight pretty much sums up Barboza's entire game on the feet. Outside of the spinning kicks it is almost entirely jabbing to the right low kick or the right roundhouse kick to overhand right. When he is being pushed backward Barboza will almost always respond by swinging his right hand at the opponent. It's a pretty minimalist fighting style, but it works against the majority of his opponents the majority of the time.
When he is against an opponent who will check his kicks or will simply not move back and allow him to land his punishing low kicks on a lightened lead leg, Barboza will use the right middle kick to right hook or straight. This is a pretty simple, but confusing tactic and is often used by the great knockout artist Melvin Manhoef. The punch coming off of the same side as the kick is unexpected and can confuse many opponents - Barboza was able to knock down Anthony Njoukani with this technique.
1. Barboza throws a right roundhouse kick to the midsection.
2. Barboza draws his right foot back under him.
3. Barboza lunges off of his landing foot to throw a right hand which clips Njoukani and drops him.
Wind to 4:40 of the below video to see Manhoef's version of this fantastic little set up against the unfortunate Yoshiki Takahashi - who has had the distinction of being beaten up by Igor Vovchanchyn, Melvin Manhoef, Bas Rutten, Ken Shamrock and Semmy Schilt among others.
The real holes in Barboza's game only start to show when his opponent begins to back him up. I have a dislike for the vague generalizations barked by cornermen but "back him up" is almost always the most appropriate advice against a strong kicker. You need look no further than Fedor versus Cro Cop to see how effective it is to simply jam a kicker's kicks by walking towards him constantly. It is impossible to kick effectively while moving backward - very few men can punch well moving backwards, but that is a skill which can be acquired through practice and understanding of the bio-mechanics - no-one alive can kick with a leg as they are stepping back onto it. Kicking while backing up is basically giving the opponent your leg and exposing yourself to counters while on one leg.
When a skilled kicker such as Barboza is pushed backwards his main weapon is removed and he is forced to go to his punching. The majority of men known for their kicks do not have great boxing and Barboza is no exception. In another parallel with Renan Barao, he has a good stiff jab, but as soon as he commits to other punches he looks sloppy and leaves openings. Both Barboza and Barao throw their right hand while leaning forward with their head out in front of their hips, then drop their right hand, leaving very little to protect them or deter a counter.
Notice how over-committed Barboza is to his right punch, and how it drops rather than coming back to his chin. Barboza's head is so far forward of his hips that he is completely exposed and will not be able to move his feet backward or throw a good left hook until he brings his head back over his hips.
Njoukani and Pearson both did an excellent job of backing Barboza up in their bouts with him and made him look very out of sorts on the feet, but ultimately Njoukani proved just a little more one dimensional than Barboza and got rattled by a good takedown, while Pearson faded from his pressure tactics after Barboza was able to land some hard blows.
Here is the first low kick that Barboza threw against Pearson - he quickly abandoned the tactic and you can see why. Pearson's punch isn't too meaningful (though body punches are also an excellent strategy against kickers, kicking is a tiring game) but his forward movement is driving Barboza off balance, jamming Barboza's kick from doing any damage, and Barboza's leg is pretty much there if Pearson wants to catch it. Furthermore Pearson follows almost every attack from his opponents with a counter punch - defending them is a lot harder when on one leg.
By taking away the kicks early, Pearson forced Barboza to box with him - and this is where Barboza and Renan Barao have struggled before. As soon as Barboza tried a punch to keep Pearson off of him, Pearson would slip and punish the less skilled boxer for his technical shortcomings.
Here Pearson's slips a good jab and comes up with a hard left upjab.
Barboza was able to drop Pearson with a hard left kick to right hook combination in the second round after Pearson attempted a kick of his own (gif of that here), and from there Barboza was able to edge ahead on the cards with uncharacteristic punch variety - but his inability to fight while moving backwards has been exposed on several occasions now. Jamie Varner ate a good few low kicks but stepped in as Barboza stepped in to punch and was able to get the better of him there as well.
Edson Barboza has the physical ability and razzle dazzle to become a fan favorite on the main card of pay per views, but to do so he must round out his game and either be willing to use the clinch more readily or develop the boxing acumen and technique to fight his way off of the back foot without hoping for his opponents to fade.