Edson Barboza vs. Kevin Lee headlines UFC Fight Night 128 this April 21, 2018 at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Odds: Edson Barboza +140 | Kevin Lee -150
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Barboza has been a mainstay in the division thanks to being a much closer version of the Che Mills that exists in Joe Rogan’s head than actual Che Mills. He’s a meat mallet of leg smashing, and over the years he’s become a much more dynamic puncher after previously sticking with a right hand and not much else. He’s coming off a brutal, unforgivingly prolonged beatdown at the hands of Khabib Nurmagomedov, but it’s Khabib, so no surprise.
Phil: Looking at Barboza, you might be forgiven for thinking that he was going to be one of those incredibly athletic fighters who received some pushback and then drifted out of the sport. He has that tendency just look slightly worried in his fights, like he’s never fully comfortable. That has made it more impressive to me that he has steadily improved over time. Underneath the athleticism and the ever-present tendency to get freaked out by his opponent’s offense, there’s a courageous workhorse of a fighter who comes back and tries to get better with each outing.
David: The gold standard for “prospect bust” is probably Melvin Guillard - regardless of how misplaced. When Lee debuted in a loss to Al Iaquinta, I thought maybe Lee would be the kind of fighter people thought Guillard is but wasn’t; a fighter that could threaten, but not a fighter with potential (in the broad nebulous meaning of the term). Lee is a lot like Barboza in some ways; fighters who threaten because they have potential - not because they’re woefully deficient in some specific area, or can be easily neutralized. This is the perfect fight for both men who are like the Beebop and Rocksteady to Tony Ferguson and Khabib’s Shredder and Krang.
Phil: When Lee came in and fought Al Iaquinta, Ragin’ Al was considered to be one of the top prospects in the world, and Lee was still studying for his biomedicine degree, and fighting on the side. He also fought with a weird, budget Mayweather style which didn’t really work at all, which made it all the more impressive that he still almost managed to choke Iaquinta out. Since then, he’s been steadily working his way up, with a couple of bizarre setbacks (Leonardo Santos?!) and steadily more impressive performances.
What’s at stake?
David: Quite a bit. Not just because it sets up another number one contender fight, but because there’s so much competition. A loss could be a bigger setback than first glance could indicate.
Phil: The Conor-Khabib sweepstakes are incredibly valuable, and positioning is important not just to get a crack at the belt (lol!) but because so few of the participants in question are terribly reliable at making it to a fight. There’s no real direct path for a Lee-Barboza winner to the big bucks, but the MMA Gods have been wielding the Injury Staff with impunity lately.
Where do they want it?
David: Barboza is doing what fighters like Robbie Lawler laid the groundwork on; small changes to great strengths can reap bigger rewards than great changes to big weaknesses. Barboza has focused on his striking by improving on what was already there, incorporating a proper left hook into his general arsenal, and keeping an overall flow to his heavy midrange kick presence. He’s a fighter that needs just enough space to work that enter the dragon violence, and without feeling rushed. His takedown defense is good, and good enough to keep Lee away for a round or two, but it’s Lee’s general approach that will be the difference.
Phil: Barboza’s kicks are what everyone talks about, but it’s noticeable that most successful fights lately have been enabled by his boxing. His positioning occasionally lets the perfect be the enemy of the good, as he can be forced into abandoning his pivots by determine pressure when he doesn’t see the perfect shot becoming available, but this normally requires a baseline level of durability and athleticism to navigate past his jab, left hook and body shot. I’m always slightly puzzled as to why Barboza doesn’t stun people with his hands more- his shots tend to have a slight tightness to them which means that they neither club or crack, but he can clearly hurt and discourage all but the most determined fighters. Like many out-fighters, his main weakness is that he has little to offer past his area of strength: he doesn’t attack much in the clinch, and obviously never shoots for takedowns. It means that while his basic tools are far superior to, say, Anthony Pettis’, he can be forced into a few of the same unfavourable positions, and lacks Pettis’ submission game to occasionally bail him out. Still, you can see the logic behind Barboza’s game- if he keeps working on it, then he presumably hopes to make that boxing / kicking game impermeable enough that the parts behind it never get exploited.
His scrambling has improved and he remains lightning fast, so that it’s pretty difficult to get in on his hips, but Lee is definitely one of the few fighters in the division who can contest him on pure athletic velocity.
David: Lee’s strengths are the way he sifts strikes into clinch/takedown entries and then chains that into grappling prowess. On the feet, despite his athleticism, he’s kind of slow and almost inert. He bounces around, and moves back and forth, but never with tangible agility. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; when striking, he swivels his hips a lot, sometimes switching stances to fake punches with his power hand. He’s not a knockout puncher (just one KO win, after all), but he’s strong enough to keep opponents at full alert, and when he’s ticking his jab in their face, and pumping that overhand right, he’s effective. He has strong leg kicks he weaves into his overall attack, but it’s such a bare bones display you almost wonder how he gets away with it. Then you see how swift he is on the ground, and realize what’s obvious. I wasn’t surprised to see Lee scramble with Tony Ferguson, but watching him get mount was somewhat of an eye opener.
Phil: Like Conor for featherweight, Lee has a frame which is scraping up at the edges of being absolutely perfectly sized for the division... if it wasn’t just slightly too big. Packing approximately the same reach as James Vick(!) despite being about five inches shorter than him, Lee combines normally excellent cardio with freak strength and power. He’s one of those wrestlers who is a natural submission grappler, and one who attacks the back mount with startling voracity. Those long, powerful arms make for a nasty squeeze, and he strangled the RNC crown away from Michael Chiesa.
On the feet he’s well-coached and determined. He’s abandoned the non-functional bootleg Floyd style, and pumps a long jab while keeping the opponent honest with a quick and nasty head kick. It’s almost (but not quite) at the point where he can rely on it fully, but still serves as second fiddle to his wrestling. He still flinches and over-reacts to incoming strikes... but said wrestling is very, very good. That shot into body lock slam he hit on Ferguson? Whoa.
Insight from Previous Fights
David: There’s no real fight that sticks out between them so much as what their general patterns predict. Barboza, despite all of his improvement, is still prone to being pressured and pocketed. Lee is still a fighter who’s gonna get picked apart by real technicians. Neither fighter needs to be overcoached on this one. They just need space; either Barboza’s space to attack at midrange, or Lee’s ability to crowd Barboza’s space for a takedown. Lee can Jamie Varner his way to victory. Barboza can counter, and has a counter striker’s acumen, but he can’t execute like a pure counter striker (see his very marginal victory over Ross Pearson). Conversely, Lee can pressure, and has a pressure fighter’s acumen, but he doesn’t execute like a pure pressure fighter (see his loss to Leonardo Santos). Am I the only one who feels like this could be a really terrible fight?
Phil: I think you nailed it perfectly. This is essentially a matchup of who can stay out of their own Room 101 and find the keys to their opponents. But I don’t think it will (or can be) a particularly bad fight. If Lee can get his wrestling rolling he is simply too much of a dynamic threat to not be able to put a hurting on the consistently fragile Barboza. If he can’t, then Barboza is a specifically horrible attritional threat (leg kicks and body shots) to be stuck in there with for 25 minutes.
David: Lee missed weight. What are the stats on win/loss records after a fighter missed weight?
Phil: I feel like they’ve been doing pretty well of late. Given how enormous Lee is, and how predicated on overpowering Barboza his gameplan likely is, it probably would have been a good (if cynical) idea for Lee to shorten a rough cut and take the financial hit. I don’t think he wanted a replica of the Ferguson / staph debacle.
David: Lee has had mixed success against “strikers.” As I said, he’s got a pressure fighter’s talent, but not a pressure fighter’s mindset, which (to me), helps explain why it seems like he’s often caught; opponents don’t sense the urgency when they should, and BOOM. As such, I think Barboza can avoid takedowns with his general athleticism, and Lee will give him enough room to soften him up for the later rounds if not flat out catch him with something if Lee gets adventurous. Still, my general impression is that both are somewhat neutralized by each other’s flaws, and Lee loses a five round fight in this situation. Edson Barboza by Decision.
Phil: Aha, but Barboza has also had mixed success against wrestleboxers. Much as I love Edson, I realized against Khabib that he still has that ever-present tendency to bite on level change mixups which has haunted him from Varner to Castillo to Khabib. Even Dariush was winning the level change fight until he wasn’t, and if Barboza’s response to phase-shifts is to try and land a perfect flying knee, then that’s a scary gamble to take against a ground fighter as dangerous as Lee. I’m a big fan of both guys, and really don’t like to see either one lose, but Kevin Lee by submission, round 2.