MMA Review: #678: UFC on ESPN: Barboza vs. Gaethje

-This one looked slightly low on name value but man did it sound high on action. Barboza vs. Gaethje? Take my money now!

UFC on ESPN: Barboza vs. Gaethje

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

-Your hosts are Jon Anik, Dominick Cruz and Daniel Cormier.

Featherweight Fight: Sodiq Yusuff vs Sheymon Moraes

Both of these Featherweights were coming off super exciting wins – Yusuff with a KO of Suman Mokhtarian and Moraes beating Julio Arce in a true bloodbath – so this sounded pretty great on paper. I was taking Yusuff due to his massive punching power but it was a close call.

Round One and both men stalk forward with really high guards, showing a lot of respect for one another. Big right hand glances for Yusuff. Low kick has Moraes backing up but he still seems pretty chilled. Yusuff is landing some heavy low kicks here though. Moraes fires back with some oblique kicks but they’re not landing with the same power. Hard right hand tags Moraes and forces him to clinch, but Yusuff presses him into the cage instead. Ref calls a clean break from the clinch and Yusuff gets right back to using the low leg kick. Big trade sees Moraes land pretty cleanly, forcing Yusuff to close the distance and shove him into the fence again. Takedown attempt almost works for Moraes but Yusuff remains on his feet. They exchange some knees from there before Yusuff breaks at the end of the round. 10-9 Yusuff.

Round Two and Moraes connects on an early body kick. Combination lands for Yusuff before they clinch and jockey for position before breaking off. Big head kick glances for Moraes. These dudes are swinging now. Another big exchange follows before Moraes clinches, and they break with Moraes glancing on another head kick. Couple of heavy body shots land for the Brazilian and Yusuff might be slowing down a bit. Clinch from Moraes but not a lot happens before they break and Moraes lands a sweeping hook to the body. Big head kick lands for Moraes and he follows with a pair of glancing elbow shots before Yusuff wades into the clinch. Takedown follows for Yusuff but Moraes pops back up and shows some excellent balance to defend. Seconds to go and they break, and the round ends with a brief trade of punches. 10-9 Moraes so it’s all on the third round I’d say.

Round Three and Yusuff comes out swinging, backing Moraes up but the Brazilian is swinging right back. Big left hook lands for Moraes. Right hand answers for Yusuff and he clinches. They break and both men are really swinging although the big shots are largely missing. Nasty body kick lands for Sheymon. Left hand knocks Moraes down for a second but it looked like a slip and he pops back up right away. Yusuff is struggling to find his range now Moraes is defending the low kick more effectively. Beautiful right to the body lands for Moraes. Step-in elbow follows. Yusuff looks to fire back but misses. Left hook glances for him. Combo from Moraes. One minute to go and a BIG RIGHT HAND drops Moraes and he’s in trouble! Yusuff gets to mount and keeps on landing, but somehow Moraes bucks him off and stands. He’s wobbly as fuck though and Yusuff closes him down and lands a couple more big shots. He can’t quite put Moraes away though and they wind up clinched. They break and a brief exchange ends things. I think Yusuff stole the fight with that knockdown.

Judges have it 29-27, 29-28 and 29-28 for Sodiq Yusuff. Super-close fight though and it honestly looked like Moraes was on his way to a win before he got knocked down. Just shows that the huge power of Yusuff is always a massive equaliser for him. This was a tremendous opener and both men fought really well, and hey, it’s also great to see a ton of African talent like Yusuff, Kamaru Usman, Francis Ngannou et al finally breaking through.

Light-Heavyweight Fight: Paul Craig vs Kennedy Nzechukwu

What is it with the UFC matching Craig with literally every explosive newcomer to the 205lbs division? This was basically like the fifth time the UFC had done it, and the Scotsman had seen mixed results, losing to the likes of Khalil Rountree and Jim Crute while somehow beating Magomed Ankalaev. Here he was faced with Nigeria’s Kennedy Nzechukwu, who was unbeaten but clearly dangerous. I actually took Craig due to his sheer toughness but was also expecting a big KO from Nzechukwu.

First round begins and Craig opens with a leg kick. Big head kick glances for Nzechukwu. Knee to the body follows but Craig grabs a leg and looks for the takedown. Big elbows to the head from Nzechukwu to defend and Craig looks stunned for a second but stays with it. He ends up pulling guard and goes for an armbar, and it actually looks tight. Nzechukwu somehow slams his way free despite the arm looking badly extended, but Craig dives for a takedown and pulls guard again. Craig is cut on the left side of his head. Armbar attempt again from the Scotsman but Nzechukwu pulls free and stands. Another attempt at pulling guard fails but Craig literally dives at him for another takedown. This time he gets the Nigerian down despite taking more elbows. They get back up into the clinch before Craig drops for a leglock attempt, but that doesn’t work and they stand. Decent right hand lands for Craig but he gets dropped with a big head kick. Nzechukwu lets him stand rather than follow up, and he looks tired. Round ends on the feet. 10-9 Craig for the armbar attempts I’d say as they were so close.

Second round and holy shit Nzechukwu’s corner sound FURIOUS with him. They exchange some early strikes and Craig connects with a strong right hand. Single leg attempt is blocked by Nzechukwu but he takes some punches as he defends. Nzechukwu needs to get some offense going. Takedown from Craig but Nzechukwu gets a blatant fence grab to defend and drops some hammer fists. Nice work from Craig to drag him down and take the back, but Nzechukwu slips out and gets on top to drop some hammer fists and elbows. Big shots land for Nzechukwu and Craig is in trouble. Nzechukwu surprisingly lets him stand, and he’s wobbly. He doesn’t care though and comes out swinging with big punches, but takes an eye poke and ref Keith Peterson calls time to warn the Nigerian. They restart and Craig lands a low blow, causing time to be called again. Nzechukwu recovers quickly and they restart with him stalking forward, but he’s not landing anything big really. Knee to the body lands for Nzechukwu and the round ends with him defending a takedown. 10-9 Nzechukwu for the better offense in that round.

Third round and Craig comes out swinging, not landing much of note but forcing Nzechukwu back. Nzechukwu stalks forward and lands a heavy knee to the body before avoiding a takedown. Crowd are booing but I have no idea why. Big knockdown from Nzechukwu but it was apparently an eye poke, which stinks. Peterson calls time right away and sure enough it was a really bad poke. Nzechukwu loses a point as the doctors clear Craig to continue, and they restart with Craig coming forward with punches. Left hand connects for Nzechukwu and he avoids a takedown. Another attempt follows but he can’t get Nzechukwu down. He pulls guard instead, but Nzechukwu lands in side mount. Elbows land for him as Craig gets half-guard, and then full guard. More big shots get through for the Nigerian but Craig gets a sweep and then slaps a triangle on. Nzechukwu defends that, but another attempt is locked in TIGHT and Craig flips him over and GETS THE TAP!

Well, that wasn’t quite as much of a Hail Mary finish as his tapout of Ankalaev given the fight was likely heading towards a draw due to the point deduction, but realistically he was taking a bit of a beating at that point so you have to give the guy credit for pulling the rabbit out of the hat again. Craig’s never going to be a title contender but his toughness and ability to do stuff like that means the UFC will likely keep him around for a while yet. Sloppy fight if I’m honest but it was also a ton of fun.

Women’s Strawweight Fight: Michelle Waterson vs Karolina Kowalkiewicz

This was a pretty big fight at Strawweight – albeit some odd matchmaking as Waterson was coming off two wins while Kowalkiewicz hadn’t won since April 2018 – as the winner would likely find themselves at least in title contention in the near future. I felt like Waterson could just about outwork Kowalkiewicz but it’d be a close one to call.

Round One begins and Waterson dances around on the outside as they trade low kicks to begin things. Nice combination lands for Waterson. She looks really aggressive here. Things settle down into a pretty even exchange with both girls glancing on shots, and Waterson’s jab is looking pretty sharp. Big USA chant from the crowd as they continue to trade strikes. Waterson is doing just enough to win this round with her volume and accuracy. Bit of a flurry from Kowalkiewicz backs her up somewhat and she’s definitely pushing the pace now, but she’s struggling to land cleanly. Clinch from Karolina but they break off quickly. Wheel kick misses for Waterson. Big right hand does connect and they exchange some knees to end the round. 10-9 Waterson.

Round Two and they exchange again from the off with Kowalkiewicz landing a couple of sharp punches in the early going. Waterson keeps using the side kick to the knee ala Jon Jones. Nice counter right hand lands for Kowalkiewicz though. Beautifully timed right answers back for Waterson and she follows with some really heavy leg kicks. Kick is caught by Kowalkiewicz and they clinch, but Waterson hits a headlock throw down into side mount. Nice. Couple of strong elbows land for Waterson and she appears to be in firm control here. Kowalkiewicz basically looks stuck. Seconds remaining in the round now and Waterson goes for an armbar and it looks locked up! Kowalkiewicz somehow rolls with it though and in an INSANE ESCAPE she manages to survive! Jesus that was close. 10-9 Waterson.

Round Three and Kowalkiewicz comes out swinging and looks for the clinch, but quickly backs out as Waterson goes for the headlock again. Head kick glances for Waterson. Exchange continues with both women landing decent shots. Clinch from Waterson and she goes for the headlock throw but Kowalkiewicz manages to defend it this time and they break off and continue to exchange. Back to the clinch and Kowalkiewicz forces Waterson into the fence. They trade with knees and then Waterson nails her with a couple of really hard elbows. Break follows and they trade before Waterson hits a nicely timed single leg to guard. Couple of elbows follow before Waterson surprisingly lets her back up. Back to the clinch and it’s Waterson again doing the better work before breaking with an elbow. Spin kick glances for Kowalkiewicz. Round ends with some more exchanges. 10-9 Waterson for a 30-27 to me.

Judges have it 30-27 all round for Michelle Waterson, no surprise there. Pretty fun fight but it wasn’t as close as I was expecting as Waterson edged the first, dominated the second on the ground and then really pulled away in the third round. Best performance of her UFC career? Quite possibly. And it’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk next for her in a HUGE FIGHT and if she wins that then surely it’s title shot time.

Featherweight Fight: Josh Emmett vs Michael Johnson

This was Emmett’s comeback fight following his brutal knockout at the hands of Jeremy Stephens in early 2018, while Johnson had won two in a row, giving us another piece of odd matchmaking. To be fair Emmett was by far the best opponent Johnson had fought at 145lbs, though. I ended up taking Johnson due to his speed but it was another tricky fight to pick. Announcers mention Emmett’s been suffering from VERTIGO which is dodgy as hell.

Fight begins and both men circle around and look somewhat tentative in the early going, coming up way short on their strikes. Takedown attempt is shrugged off by Johnson and Emmett eats a left hand. Right hand counter connects for Johnson but both men are still coming up largely short. Crowd sound a bit frustrated on around 3 minutes gone. Johnson is doing a little more than Emmett but there still isn’t a whole lot of action going on here. Hard body kick connects for Johnson with less than a minute to go. Round ends with left hands landing for both. 10-9 Johnson as he was slightly busier.

Into the 2nd and Emmett glances on a big head kick. Both men miss flurries before we get more circling and feinting. Right hand lands for Emmett but Johnson takes it well and comes back with a combination. This is actually a boring fight, unfortunately. Crowd are pretty furious with all the circling and missing on shots. Johnson is still being the more active fighter but neither is really landing at all. Head kick glances for Emmett. Announcers mention that Emmett’s landed just 10 of 40 strike attempts. Low blow does land for him of course. Ref calls time but Johnson recovers quickly and they restart. More strikes glance for Johnson and he defends a takedown to end the round. 10-9 Johnson.

Third and final round and Emmett comes out swinging….and misses on a haymaker. Crowd are really hating this now but Johnson’s still glancing on shots from the outside while Emmett isn’t, so he’s winning for sure. Big takedown attempt is avoided well by Johnson. Stats show Johnson way ahead in terms of strikes landed. Looks like Emmett is just telegraphing his big punches a bit too much. Big overhand right glances for Emmett finally but Johnson looks fine. Couple more counter combinations land for Johnson. Two minutes to go and Johnson continues to land from the outside while circling out. Glancing shot from Emmett causes Johnson to slip but he’s okay again. Right hand lands cleanly for Johnson too. Lot of feinting now from Emmett and he glances on a right hook. Front kick glances for Johnson. Johnson presses forward but suddenly Emmett lands a HUGE RIGHT HAYMAKER and Johnson goes DOWN AND OUT! Holy shit.

Well, that fight STUNK before the knockout but wow that was a contender for KO of the year. Emmett didn’t even need to follow up as Johnson was out cold before he even hit the deck. Massive kudos to Emmett for pulling that finish off as he was clearly losing prior to that point but evidently you can’t count a guy with that kind of ridiculous power out. Unbelievable stuff.

Middleweight Fight: David Branch vs Jack Hermansson

This was a pretty intriguing fight as despite losing his last outing to Jared Cannonier, Branch was definitely a big step up in competition for Hermansson, who was coming off two impressive wins over Thales Leites and Gerald Meerschaert. Despite wanting Hermansson to win as I felt he was the more exciting guy to watch, I actually figured Branch would take this one as he was the best grappler the Swede had faced in some time, discounting Leites who was miles past his prime.

Round One begins and Hermansson comes out swinging, backing Branch up right away. Body kick lands for Hermansson and Branch looks a bit rattled due to the early pressure. Takedown attempt from Branch is blocked and Hermansson hits a foot sweep and slams him down! Branch looks to escape, but gives up a SLICK head and arm guillotine variant and TAPS OUT THERE!

That was awesome from Jack Hermansson. Biggest win of his career to this point and one of the best guillotines I’ve ever seen in MMA too. Dominick Cruz tries to suggest Branch should’ve stepped over to escape the guillotine but the replay shows it was TIGHT AS FUCK, basically made possible by Hermansson’s freakishly long arms. This was a contender for submission of the year in my eyes.

Lightweight Fight: Edson Barboza vs Justin Gaethje

This sounded like a hell of a fight to main event the show with, two of the most exciting fighters in the world going at it after coming off violent wins over Dan Hooker and James Vick respectively. I was taking Gaethje as I was still worried about Barboza’s lack of durability stemming from his losses to Khabib and Kevin Lee.

Fight gets started and Gaethje opens with a leg kick. Another one follows and then they outright trade off with leg kicks before both men miss some big punches. More heavy leg kicks connect for both and now they’re swinging heavily. Gaethje has Barboza stunned badly and backs him up, but the Brazilian fires back and lands a hard knee as Gaethje moves towards the clinch. Crowd are hugely behind Gaethje. Couple of hard punches from Gaethje break the clinch and he presses forward, walking right through some kicks. Wild exchange sees Barboza land a big left, and then they just BRAWL FREELY with both landing but it’s Barboza who looks more hurt. He backs out but Gaethje continues to stalk forward at him, putting a ton of pressure on. HUGE RIGHT HOOK suddenly lands for Gaethje with Barboza on the retreat and he goes DOWN AND OUT. Man does Gaethje have some serious power.

Brutal finish from Gaethje and you’d have to say that this was the worst loss of Barboza’s career as his other losses had all come by TKO, like an extended beating, but this time he actually got knocked completely stiff. Basically Gaethje just came out with the perfect gameplan, put too much pressure on Barboza for him to handle, and boom. He might be the most powerful puncher out there at 155lbs and I just hope the title picture can speed up as he’d be awesome in a title fight at some point.

-Show ends as Gaethje leaves the Octagon in celebration mode.

Final Thoughts….

Main event and co-main event basically saved this one as it dragged a bit in the middle thanks to the slow Johnson/Emmett fight, but I guess even that had an awesome finish and aside from that one the rest of the card was pretty great. Easy thumbs up for this but I’d recommend watching Johnson/Emmett in fast-forward perhaps.

Best Fight: Yusuff vs. Moraes
Worst Fight: Johnson vs. Emmett

Overall Rating: ***3/4

Until next time,

Scott Newman: