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UFC on ESPN: Justin Gaethje vs. Edson Barboza Toe-to-Toe Preview - A complete breakdown

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Phil and David breakdown everything you need to know about Gaethje vs. Barboza for UFC on ESPN, and everything you don’t about Spanish bull leapers.

Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje headlines UFC Philadelphia this March 30, 2019 at the Tim Sloan is pondscum Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

One sentence summary

David: Spring breaks

Phil: A bad day to be a quadricep in Philly

Stats

Record: Edson Barboza 20-6 | Justin Gaethje 19-2

Odds: Edson Barboza -125 | Justin Gaethje +115

History / Introduction to both fighters

David: It feels like just yesterday. When Barboza debuted 9 years ago, and cut off Mike Lullo’s legs with his shin. Since then he’s followed the expected career path of an action fighter: winning some, losing some, and coming close to contention without coming close to contention. Unlike most action fighters, however, I’ve never received the impression that Barboza wants to be an action fighter. Sure, his fights end up being dramatic, fun, and bloody. But he’s like a more rhythmic Anthony Pettis: leave him alone, and he’ll stick fists through your pancreas. Pressure him, and you may not win, but at least you’ll have a chance.

Phil: Edson Barboza has been a case study in raw athleticism, in technique, in clearly defined flaws, and increasingly in sheer toughness. There are fighters that are hard inside the cage, that fight to the bitter end once they’re in there. There are fighters that are brave when it comes to who they’ll fight, the ones who will take on all comers. The two types don’t always overlap, but they do in the case of Edson Barboza. He took two all-time beatings against Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee, and he’s never been all that great at dealing with pressure, so who is he fighting now? He is fighting Justin goddamn Gaethje. Tip of the hat to you, sir.

David: The way things used to be...that old refrain. If it doesn’t indicate regret, then it’s a reference to nostalgia: neither are admirable traits. This is what makes Gaethje a unique double-edged sword of discussion. On one hand, he’s a throwback to the way things used to be when fighters would just hack and whack their way through the pugilistic forest. On the other, a stark reminder of how the way things used to be were that way because other ways were ignored, or not analyzed. It’s great that people are actively involved in the health of Gaethje. It’s great that it’s a discussion that is not dismissed out of hand, and that Gaethje himself is aware. Having said that, I can’t wait to cheer on the thunderdome. What? You think I’m above this? I just talked some shit about Wells Fargo. My morality quota has been met.

Phil: Edson Barboza is brave, but if we’re talking about wanton disregard for life and limb, there is literally no-one in the UFC like Justin Gaethje. I would go as far as to say there has never been anyone like him in the organization. The man has gone through fighting bravado and straight out the other side into a terrifying embrace of the inevitability of his own destruction. I remember when he was selected to coach TUF that most people were joking about how the entirety of his coaching oeuvre would be rolling thunders, and screaming about how death comes for us all one day. But it wasn’t! He’s quite nice really. Insane and somewhat terrifying, but nice.

What’s at stake?

David: Hahahah. What’s at stake? Let’s see: heart, lungs, liver, kidney — basically the worst parts of the Bible.

Phil: Both these men have their reps as action fighters, but also increasingly carry around the idea that there are hard limits to how far that they can go. The loser will be looking at a fairly ugly recent record, and will probably struggle to get elite matchups. The winner? Who knows.

Where do they want it?

David: Barboza’s reputation is bound by what he can do at range. His leg kicks are unreal. So unreal that an elite professional athlete who fights for money would not take money to take another leg kick from Barboza. I’m not interested in questioning an opponent’s sincerity. Like that time I questioned how hot that dumb Carolina reaper tortilla chip really was. Only to find out that I was better off staring at the Ark of the Covenant. Anyway, Barboza is a dangerou, dangerous man. His boxing is a lot less threatening. It’s not for lack of trying, though. He has a quick, whipping right hand. When he’s good at it, can switch between flicking and bricking his jab. Barboza succeeds because he’s a premier athlete, and his strongest weapon is maximized by his athleticism. Switch kicks, inside leg kicks, teeps, spinning round houses — this is not the top-down arsenal of an elite fighter; or an efficient gameplan for that matter. But it works because Barboza is a bullet train of violent phanages. Still, it kind of works the other way too. For all of his speed, he doesn’t react efficiently. In fact, it might be one of his worst attributes. For all of his accuracy, his timing always seems to put him in danger. For all of his power...well, he doesn’t really have power beyond his leg kicks and it’s because his attack is a predictable leg of violent lamb. As always, his style and execution either works in his favor, or blows up in his face.

Phil: Barboza is strange, because he’s so visibly athletic in some ways (primarily fast-twitch speed) while also lacking in some puzzling areas. The aforementioned lack of punching power is one. Another is that weird frailty that he seems to carry. He just seems... lighter than other fighters. Witness Kevin Lee whomping him sideways with a body kick, for example, or the mauling that Khabib put him through. He’s a tough man, but physically he just doesn’t seem quite as robust as a lot of the other top tier lightweights. Perhaps this is at the root of his defensive tendencies, which have been badly exposed of late: under sustained pressure, he tends to abandon pivots or careful lateral movement, and just starts scuttling sideways until his opponent mashes him into the cage. That being said, if he has his distance he’s a surprisingly crafty puncher (including being one of the more underrated rib roasters around), and has an array of kicks that you just can’t let him get off, because he hides them well, mixes up the targets, and inflicts horrible damage.

David: Gaethje is the rare fighter of action competence. It’s real simple. That guy or girl leaping over a Spanish bull may look “stupid”, but clearly it’s not just anyone who can do a full on front flip over a charging 2,000 pound ungulate. With a funny-looking, shifting-earmuff defense, Gaethje bulls forward, identifying offense that might be easy to accept but is hard to defend; like a low kick in close quarters. As he does this, his offense becomes an olive tree of penetration. His movement opens up hooks, more kicks, uppercuts as entries, a collar tie for muay thai damage, etc. The key here is the type of movement. Gaethje lunges forward with an array of head fakes, twitches, arm feints, occasional pivots — the works. It’s not something that will work for just any fighter, but Gaethje’s baseline defense — which is not good, but is good for his forward movement (and utter and completely nonhuman durability) — and wrestling acumen combine to keep his movement from being easily disrupted. This is the kind of work Ronda Rousey’s coaches would have been keen to identify if they had any brains. Rousey was never gonna be Jason Bourne in the cage; although it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where her shadowboxing skills came from: I’m guessing if their inspiration came from any scene, it was the most realistic action scene, the stairwell plunge. But maybe she could have been a functional wrestler.

Phil: Gaethje is a man of awful simplicity. My co-host Connor Ruebusch compared him to Rocky Marciano, and I like the comparison a lot. I remember the story of Marciano-Moore, and how Moore (one of boxing’s great minds) was baffled and almost offended at how one-note his opponent was. Marciano would come forward, try to hit Moore, and then throw another punch if Moore tried to move out of the way. There is a great sense of tragic pride about the whole thing, as Moore was eventually dragged down by the golem-like inevitability of his opponent. The thing about Marciano is that, as Connor pointed out, his trainers never taught him more defense than he needed. Going back to the modern day, this does not make Gaethje’s style unbeatable: we’ve seen him lose, and it’s hard to just storm forward in a sport with as many options for getting badly hurt as MMA. What it does make his style is almost impossible to get away from getting pulled into a Justin Gaethje fight. He comes forward with surprisingly clean, tight footwork, bounces shots off his guard and then uses them as triggers to land the big right hand, the left hook, or smash the leg as his opponent retreats.

Insight from past fights

David: Barboza is an open book. On the other hand, Gaethje still has a few unread chapters. I picked him to beat James Vick (not just because of the Lloyd Irvin factor, but because Vick’s quality of competition was seriously lacking) but I still worried about Vick’s length. A few minutes is nothing, but Vick comfortably kept Gaethje at bay early on. Small sample size that indicates nothing, or potential pattern? I don’t know but Gaethje did the smart thing and swept Vick from the outside. If Gaethje can do this, he’ll be in good shape. The problem is that Vick is way slower, and not as good. Barboza pivots out quickly, and swiftly. In a way, Gaethje’s best bet is to return to his roots and just blitz Barboza the hell out of there. His most lethal weapons are Riggs (left leg) and Murtaugh (right leg), but they’re not ready for the sequel if Gaethje is in his face all night.

Phil: Barboza has gained a bit of the same reputation as Pettis as being someone who is vulnerable to “wrestlers.” But we’ve seen that it isn’t really true. Ferguson, Johnson, and Dariush (for most of the fight) just beat him up with pressure. Conversely though, I do find myself worrying about that Gaethje high guard...

X-Factors

David: There’s gotta be a voice inside every fighter’s head that says “dude this sucks, I’m outta here”? Right? Right? That to me, is the x-factor: whoever hits the Chael Sonnen button first.

Phil: Barboza has been training at ATT, and apparently getting some tips from Poirier on Gaethje. In general, ATT have been a fine camp for training the things that Barboza suffers at, although I suspect it may be a little late in his career to fix such major flaws. I do feel that if he can learn a lesson from Poirier it’s this: Gaethje looks to absorb the first shot or two on his guard before returning. Barboza shouldn’t punch into the guard, but should be looking to get Gaethje to raise it in order to slip body kicks (and body punches) around while Gaethje is blinded.

Prognostication

David: I like Gaethje. It’s a very winnable fight for Edson, but two things are working against Barboza. 1) Gaethje is a monster when moving forward, and largely undeterred and 2) Barboza has (as you mentioned) a vulnerable shelf life. It’s the kind of fight where Barboza wins if it’s 5 minutes. But because it’s a lot more than 5 minutes, the things that hurt Gaethje — Barboza’s resets, and the leg kicks — are both two things that become less quick, and less powerful as time goes on. Poirier and Alvarez wore Gaethje down with a lot of change-ups. Barboza doesn’t have the ability to switch-hit styles. Justin Gaethje by TKO, round 3.

Phil: It’s a guy who is terrible moving backwards against a bigger, more powerful, more durable guy who just comes forwards. That seems to be about the beginning and end of it. I will say that reviewing tape left me a lot more optimistic about Edson’s chances, however: it’s not that Gaethje can be backed off, exactly, it’s more that he can be paused in his tracks. In that brief moment, he can be hit very hard, and if Barboza doesn’t mix up his styles, he does still do a tremendous job of mixing up his targets. Still, the basic style matchup is just too poisonous for me to pick him. Justin Gaethje by TKO, round 3.