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UFC Fight Night: Bigfoot vs. Silva - Toe to Toe Preview: Edson Barboza vs. Michael Johnson

Phil and David break down anything and everything for two entertaining Lightweight strikers looking to steal the show from a main event they're easily more exciting than.

When did Edson and Michael become amputees, and how did this get sanctioned Phil?
When did Edson and Michael become amputees, and how did this get sanctioned Phil?
Phil MacKenzie

Edson Barboza takes on Michael Johnson at lightweight in the co-main event of Ultimate Fight Night 61 on February 22, 2015 at the Ginásio Gigantinho in Porto Alegre, Brazil

One-sentence summary?

The guy who no-one expected to become an elite striker fights one who everyone expected to be an elite striker.

OR...

The guy everyone expected to feast on wrestlers with striking takes on the wrestler everyone expected to feast on strikers with wrestling.

Stats?

Weight class: Lightweight (155 lbs)

Edson "Junior" Barboza
15-2 Odds: -160

Michael "The Menace" Johnson
15-8 Odds: +150

History lesson / introduction to the fighters

Phil: Edson Barboza was a carefully matched young kickboxer during his early UFC career. In stark comparison to today's prospects, he was lovingly fed BJJ specialists with bad takedowns, like a chick in the nest being given pre-digested meals by mama bird Joe Silva. When it was time for him to fight a wrestler, the UFC gave him Jamie Varner, a prior WEC champ fallen on tough times and judged sufficiently de-fanged to present minimal threat. Varner knocked him out. Baby bird Barboza was fed some more BJJ specialists to recover his confidence, then he sneaked past wrestle-boxer Danny Castillo into the wide open arenas of upper level UFC competition.

Why am I being so mean to Barboza though? We often talk about how prospects need to be given more gradual development.

David: Expectations lead to attachment, and attachment is an intimate process. It's only natural for us to take expectations that fall short personally, and Barboza represents this Buddhist principle. He's damn fun to watch, and is imposing on top of that, yet he treats every overhand right like he's about to get kicked in the nuts by an asteroid belt.

Phil: Michael Johnson's UFC career has similarly been a little bumpy. The top pick for his season of TUF (or at least nominally, due to some hilarious gamesmanship from GSP), he lost in the finals when he was outworked by Jonathan Brookins in one of those uniquely MMA moments. The Menace is one of those people where where we've constantly been asking ourselves: ‘Can I get excited for him yet?' right before he'd blow any momentum he'd gained in some catastrophic way. At least part of this has been the growing pains of a complete transformation from a generic wrestle-boxer into a powerful and gracefully violent stand-up technician under Henri Hooft. He's finally on a decent stretch of wins, taking out Joe Lauzon, Gleison Tibau, and Melvin Guillard.

David: I always have to do a double take when I look at his four losses. I consider him elite when not reflecting, and yet I look at his record and think "who, him?!" It's not a matter of growing pains in any thorough way either; he's 28. The time to learn new things and turn them into violent habits has long since passed. And yet I feel like his losses to guys like Madadi, Sass, Jury, and Brookins don't tell the whole story even if that list overwhelms you in the context of a so called "elite fighter". Wins over Castillo, Guillard, Lauzon, Tibau, and Ferguson is no joke and certainly not a punchline.

What are the stakes?

Phil: Both of these fighters have illustrated that developing solid distance kickboxing games is very difficult. I think this is generally because it requires a specific understanding of range: someone who marches in and closes distance cannot overshoot, but a mid-range kickboxer must take and hold a very specific sliver of real estate relative to their opponent. However, kickboxing also something that fans enjoy watching, and so there's a little bit of bias on their performances: a win gets them further than an equivalent win from a more generic fighter would, and a loss doesn't drop them as far.

While the Pettis dance-card is full for the time being, there really aren't many fights after the Khabib-Cerrone winner that would make more sense than the winner of this bout. Most likely, I think that man will be dropped into a #1 contender's matchup, perhaps with someone like the Masvidal-Iaquinta victor, or whoever else is "in the mix" at the time.

David: For a fight of this magnitude, it sure feels middling as a matter of hierarchy. Then again, who wouldn't love a Pettis vs. Barboza fight? I think the stakes aren't significant until we get someone moving up from FW. Aldo, McGregor, and a handful of other guys would make Lightweight even more interesting, and certainly moreso then these two, who have proven to be too flawed in certain aspects.

Where do they want it?

Phil: I think they want this one at approximately similar distances, but with a subtle difference. Johnson is going to want the fight at the end of his punches, and Barboza is going to want it on the end of his kicks.

Barboza is by far the more physically imposing specimen. He's not the tallest lightweight around, but he's wreathed with fast-twitch muscle. In a division loaded with deadly kickers, he might be the most purely destructive of them all, asnd he planked Terry Etim with a wheel kick, eviscerated Evan Dunham and kicked Mike Lullo's leg off. His boxing has generally lagged behind his kicks, and has illustrated a major problem with his career so far, which is putting a throttle of sorts on his sheer physicality.

Unlike many explosive fighters, he doesn't get tired exactly, I just get the sense that he gets carried away with his own physicality. His camp apparently genuinely has problems finding sparring partners for him, and I often felt like he got either drunk on his own strength, or just confused at why people aren't immediately crushed by it. Nowhere was this loss of control more apparent than the Cerrone fight, where he started throwing whizzing barrages of punches, gaining momentum like a kid allowed to ride his bike for the first time with the stabilizers off and rolling down a hill faster and faster. "Look at me, everyone... I'm BOXING!" Then Cerrone hit him with a jab and choked him dead, and the kid rode his bike straight into a tree.

David: Brilliant analogy by the way.

Phil: Barboza has ameliorated this problem in more recent fights by punching in bursts to get people off him and forcing them back to the mid-range, where he can return to kicking.

David: Part of it is getting comfortable throwing more than just an overhand right. I feel like he loses that fight with Green two years ago. Now he's finally allowed himself to settle into a rhythm that doesn't rely solely on his kicks. I think his problem has been philosophical as well as physical; being an active kicker is great, but when you're kicking because your boxing is exploitable it develops a false sense of distance, and pretty soon you're running out of real estate you thought you always had. The thing with kicking specifically is that they're low risk, high reward strikes on the surface. But take timing out of the equation, and introduce anticipation and counterpunching and it's reversed; just look at how often some guy with a fight club membership at the Crossfit gym throws a leg kick right in front of his opponent's face. Think Gonzaga vs. JDS.

Phil: While Johnson is also an excellent kickboxer, he certainly has the cleaner hands of the two. He has excellent lateral movement, and as a southpaw tends to circle towards the common outside angle, then suddenly knife inside for a crisp jab or a powerful left straight. His defensive fundamentals are excellent, as he maintains posture and pulls his head off the centerline, combining footwork and head movement to keep himself safe which is fairly rare in MMA. Like Barboza, he's been tweaking his approach a little of late: in his earlier fights, his more clean weight transfer made him a little easier to take down, so he throttled it back a little for Lauzon, but showed that he was still capable of bringing his power out when he knocked out Tibau.

David: Johnson has been super impressive on the feet lately. It's not simply the movement though. It's his way of moving and pressuring all at once. Lauzon has never been a good, technical boxer, but it's rare to see him picked apart so easily without looking to threaten in response. Johnson made it look easy. He's settled into the perfect hyperspace for a fighter with his style; movement to avoid takedowns with the striking to prevent octagon inertia.

Insight from past fights?

Phil: A long, tall fighter who is going to fence with Barboza and try to box him sounds pretty similar to Bobby Green, and we both picked Barboza to beat him (and were, I think, alone in the BE staff in that). However, there are a few key differences- firstly, Johnson is far more skilled at utilizing angles and lateral movement than Green was. Green would generally follow Barboza around, and then try and deflect and diffuse his strikes, but Barboza simply packs too much power to be able to deflect and no-sell him. Johnson has a far faster and sharper approach. I also think he punches harder than Green, and is far more capable of cracking Barboza's suspect chin.

David: Yea I don't know who's running things in the Bloody Elbow truck, but those other staffers are suckers. Anyway, I think Danny Castillo is a better blueprint for what to expect. Granted, Castillo is far less skilled and agile than Johnson, but he's like Johnson in his ability to strike, reset, and grapple when called upon. However, Barboza has improved just enough to think a rematch would be more emphatic in Edson's favor.

X-Factors?

Phil: In one of the odd inversions of this fight, despite his wrestling background Johnson has been borderline-hopeless in grappling exchanges, while Barboza has simply flung almost every single takedown off. In fact, I'd argue that Barboza bites on faked takedown attempts way too often. I sometimes think this might be because he trains with Edgar, and he just has an implanted fear of getting taken down. However, Johnson does have a really surprisingly nice double-leg that he throws very sporadically, so I think he might use it to try and steal rounds, or even get Barboza to drop his hands as he is so wont to.

David: I disagree. With more comfort in his boxing, I don't see him biting the way he usually does; it's why developing better boxing has been critical to his game lately. He doesn't feel the pressure of having to sift, calculate, and attempt kicks that can more easily result in takedowns, which allows him to be free to throw violent caution into the octagon wind.

Prognostication:

Phil: Astonishingly close fight. Barboza's sheer power makes him both a knockout threat, and an attritional threat with his leg kicks. However, I feel like his boxing has been tuned in its approach rather than its fundamentals, and I still feel like Johnson can cut inside and hurt him. He may not be able to finish Barboza, but I do think he can win two out of three. Michael Johnson by TKO, round 2.

David: Ooh, finally something that feels like a hot take. Edson Barboza by TKO, round 3. I think tuning his approach has allowed him that change that feels like a fundamental part of getting better. He doesn't need to learn how to throw a check left hook to keep himself in the driver seat; he just needs more polish with those hands. I think Johnson's activity will play into Edson's hands, allowing to react naturally, and initiate organically. Barboza is best when moving forward, and staying active because his game isn't so overzealous that he's less effective the longer it goes. Johnson's style taps into Edson's basal ganglia, which is where Edson needs to be; out of those rational centers of the brain, and back to the primitive.