MMA Review: #639: UFC Fight Night 128

-For a Fight Night show this looked pretty loaded, with a bunch of fights I was heavily interested in and nothing really sticking out like it didn’t belong. Main event between Kevin Lee and Edson Barboza sounded fantastic and with the likes of Thiago Santos, Cub Swanson and Aljamain Sterling on the card I was pretty buzzing.

UFC Fight Night 128

Atlantic City, New Jersey

-Your hosts are Brendan Fitzgerald and Paul Felder, and they remain awesome.

Lightweight Fight: Dan Hooker vs Jim Miller

After beating Ross Pearson and Marc Diakiese in impressive fashion, this was a chance for Hooker to make a real statement, as despite Miller coming towards the end of his career, a win over him would still carry a certain level of clout. Miller – fighting at home for this first time in a while – was coming off three straight losses but all had been by decision and he’d never truly looked out of any of the fights. Despite that I was picking Hooker as he’d impressed me a ton in his last two outings.

Round One begins and Hooker clearly is the bigger man here. He opens up with some early kicks from the outside as they circle around, with Miller missing on a big left hand. Decent combination lands for Hooker but Miller fires back with a knee to the body. Hooker continues to strike from distance as Miller tries to get inside, but the New Jersey fighter comes up short on his punches. Knee lands for Hooker, step-in ala Donald Cerrone. Single leg attempt from Miller but Hooker somehow manages to fend it off. Miller keeps driving though and dumps him onto his back in guard. Hooker reverses to his feet and they end up clinched, and then they separate with Hooker landing some more shots. Hooker keeps pushing forward, and suddenly he catches Miller cleanly with the step-in knee again and KNOCKS HIM SILLY. Crowd go SILENT like we’re in Japan or something, wow.

Brutal knockout right there. Replay shows the knee was perfectly timed as Miller leaned forward and caught him right on the jaw to turn the lights out. Incredibly this was only the second time Miller had ever been knocked out, the first being at the hands of Donald Cerrone in 2014. Dude probably ought to retire now but whether he does is a question mark. Onwards and upwards for Hooker though and he probably needs a ranked opponent next time out – and in a cool moment post-fight he calls out Paul Felder (who’s interviewing him) and that’d work for me, sure.

Bantamweight Fight: Aljamain Sterling vs Brett Johns

This one sounded like a great fight on paper – Johns was unbeaten in his UFC career to this point and had pulled off the best sub of 2017 with that calf slicer on Joe Soto, while Sterling was looking to rebound from that bad knockout at the hands of Marlon Moraes and get back to the form that saw him beat Renan Barao. I was taking Sterling, but it was close to call.

First round begins and they circle with Johns glancing on an early combination. Sterling throws out some kicks and moves around a lot from the outside, but Johns lands with a decent combination. Johns keeps on pushing forward, but it looks like he’s chasing Sterling a bit which is dangerous. Head kick glances for Sterling. Nasty leg kick follows and he goes for a takedown, but Johns reverses and takes the back. Sterling reverses that though and winds up on top in guard where he lands some punches. Looked like Johns made the error of gripping Sterling’s head rather than focus on the hooks. Johns works to his feet, but Sterling keeps him pinned into the fence and works with some knees, and the crowd begin to get restless as the action slows down. Trip attempt from Johns is blocked and they separate. Good body kick lands for Sterling. Another one follows and he dodges Johns’ punches too. Sterling is looking great with all of these kicks. Seconds to go and Johns shoots, but Sterling looks to get a reversal off it and they go into a bit of a scramble as the round ends. 10-9 Sterling as he controlled the majority of the round.

Second round gets underway and Sterling again works kicks to open the stanza. Johns begins to really push forward, but Sterling keeps getting the better of the exchanges. Big knee to the body lands for Johns and he follows with a takedown attempt, but Sterling works to stuff it by getting his back to the cage. Sterling looks for a switch as both men scramble, and they come back to their feet with Johns still looking desperately for a single leg. Good combination breaks for Sterling and suddenly Johns is in trouble! Big flurry lands for Sterling but Johns takes the shots incredibly well and fires right back. Takedown attempt from Sterling now but Johns defends well. Both men continue to fire punches before Sterling dumps him onto the ground with a successful double leg this time, and from there he hammers at the body. Johns pops back to his feet but Sterling keeps him against the cage, until the ref calls a break. Body kick lands for Sterling as Johns tries to push forward, and then the Welshman misses a wheel kick. Round ends on the feet. 10-9 Sterling in a really exciting round.

Third round and Sterling glances with a head kick and then lands a body kick flush as Johns pushes forward. Knee follows for Sterling as he continues to outstrike the Welshman. Couple of nice leg kicks follow. Takedown attempt from Sterling and it looks like Johns is considering a calf slicer attempt before giving up on it to stuff the attempt. Sterling gets him down anyway though and takes the back with one hook. Johns does a good job of shaking that off to get into the clinch, but Sterling remains glued to him and works him over with knees. Crowd are heavily into Aljamain. Takedown leads to Sterling taking the back again, but again the Welshman reverses to his feet. Sterling keeps dragging him around though, totally in control. Action slows down a bit inside the clinch, and from there the ref calls another separation. Johns pushes forward and just about ducks a spinning elbow, and then he swings for the fences only for Sterling to go for a single leg. Johns stuffs it and pushes forward again, but he can’t catch Sterling with the big shot and ends up getting suplexed to the ground. This time Sterling takes the back with both hooks, and lands some nasty shots to the head to end the fight. 10-9 Sterling, 30-27 overall.

All three judges have it 30-27 for Aljamain Sterling. No surprise there as he pretty much beat Johns in all areas, and although the Welshman tried hard he pretty much had no significant offense. Probably the best showing of Sterling’s UFC career in fact as he showed skills in all areas and completely whitewashed his opponent where he got into trouble early on against Renan Barao. Fantastic fight to watch too as both men were super-aggressive even though there were a couple of slow points. Post-fight Sterling calls out Dominick Cruz and fuck it, the UFC should put that fight together as it sounds awesome.

Middleweight Fight: Thiago Santos vs David Branch

This one looked like a fascinating fight, as Branch was still highly ranked due to his WSOF run and subsequent UFC win over Krys Jotko, and to be fair he’d been doing well early on against Luke Rockhold too, while Santos had been on a bit of a tear, destroying four guys in a row in brutal fashion. Despite being a glass cannon I was picking Santos feeling that if Branch was going to trade with him as he’d done with Rockhold, he’d get knocked out.

Round One and both of these guys are killer at mean-mugging. Both men circle and it looks like Branch is the one pushing forward. Inside leg kick lands for Marreta. He follows with a couple more low kicks, but Branch seems okay. Left hook lands for Santos as Branch fires off an overhand right that misses. Another decent leg kick lands for Santos. Body kick glances for him too. Branch keeps on pressing forward though only to take a combo. Santos is picking him apart thus far. Takedown attempt from Branch is stuffed….but somehow he follows it up with a HUGE RIGHT HAND and down goes Santos! Few hammer fists on the ground seal the deal and he’s OUT. Wow.

Well, never expected that finish in like a million years, but such is the life of a glass cannon like Santos in the UFC – he’s got the offensive abilities to take out literally anyone but he’s always open to getting caught (or tapped) himself. Hell of a knockout from Branch and strangely enough it might even be like a career-best win for him despite his gaudy record.

Heavyweight Fight: Justin Willis vs Chase Sherman

This was a bit of a curious choice for a main card slot but then I guess the UFC were looking to push Willis as a possible prospect after his KO win over Allen Crowder in December. This seemed like another tailor-made fight for him as Sherman was coming off a loss and looked like the type of brawler Willis would probably take out pretty easily.

Round One and Willis is in Roy Nelson shape, ha. Sherman circles on the outside but gets tagged by a combination from Willis right away. Willis has quick hands for a big dude. Sherman tries to fire back but you can just tell the guy is very much slower and Willis tags him again. Big counter left lands for Willis in an exchange. Another counter left buckles Sherman’s legs but he manages to stay on his feet and wings a high kick that Willis blocks. Inside leg kick and a big right hand land for Sherman but Willis takes it well. Both men keep on swinging before Willis lands a low blow, forcing Marc Goddard to call time. They restart and Sherman walks into a CRUSHING LEFT HAND and goes down, and it looks like he’s about done as Willis hammers him with a ton of shots on the ground. Probably should’ve been stopped right there actually but Sherman manages to hold on enough to survive, and somehow he gets to his feet. He got rocked bad there. Sherman keeps on swinging but he’s being tagged by Willis’s faster punches over and over. Willis is looking great. Big overhand right lands for Willis. Clinch from Willis leads to a big knee, but Sherman comes back with a body kick. Big uppercut lands for Willis from the clinch but Sherman muscles him into the fence. Round ends inside the clinch. 10-8 round for Willis due to the near finish.

Round Two and again Willis lands heavily on Sherman with a combo as he advances forward. Big head kick is blocked by Willis. Couple of decent shots land for Sherman but Willis absolutely cracks him with a big one-two. Eye poke from Sherman in an exchange leads to another time out and it was clearly accidental as he apologises right away. Fight restarts and another combo lands for Willis. Another one follows but Sherman’s chin holds up. Couple of low leg kicks land for Sherman. Looks like Willis might be slowing down a bit. Another head kick is narrowly blocked by Willis. Another one is caught and Willis puts him down into guard. Smart move as he was looking a bit gassed. Action slows down a lot from there as Willis grinds away from the top with Sherman looking unable to really escape. Couple of decent shots do get through for Willis but the crowd are booing now. Round ends there, 10-9 Willis.

Round Three and they trade punches in the opening seconds with both men landing. Willis now looks to be throwing at the same speed as Sherman which shows how much he’s slowed down from that first round. He’s also backing up a lot more. Kick is caught though and he turns it into a single leg and moves Sherman into the fence. Good elbow lands for Sherman though and it’s enough to make Willis break off. Sherman’s cardio looks far superior but he’s way behind in this fight. Good combo does land for him but he needs more. Clinch from Willis again and they jockey for position, before settling on the fence. Half the round to go and they break off, with Willis landing a counter combo. Another clinch follows and now both men look gassed. Sherman breaks off with an elbow and he walks through a counter left. Body shot lands for Willis but Sherman comes back with a combo. Clinch from Willis and he forces Sherman into the fence, probably looking to stall out the round. Seconds to go and they break, and Sherman gets on the attack but can’t land and they end up clinched to the end. 10-9 Sherman, 29-27 Willis overall for me.

All three judges have it 29-28 for Justin Willis in the end. No surprise there as he clearly took the first two rounds, but he definitely needs to work on his cardio as he looked incredible in the first round and then just totally ran out of steam and was fighting at half-speed from midway through the second round. For me he needs to get into far better shape if he ever wants to be a contender, but the raw tools are definitely there. Sherman did well to hang in there after the near finish in the first but really he didn’t show a lot more than a good chin if we’re honest. Fight was pretty bad after the first round too.

Featherweight Fight: Frankie Edgar vs Cub Swanson

After being violently knocked out by Brian Ortega in March, I didn’t expect to see Edgar again until like October or something, but surprisingly he ended up being booked here – in his home state for the first time since 2007 – against Swanson, who he pretty much comprehensively destroyed in 2014. Despite that result being one-sided – and Swanson coming off his own loss to Ortega – I was actually picking Cub here as the last dude that came back so quickly from a bad loss – Michael Bisping – got tuned up in that fight.

First round begins and the crowd are crazy hot for Edgar. They circle to begin with both men throwing out jabs and Edgar being slightly more active, but neither lands anything significant in the first minute or so. Single leg attempt is stuffed by Swanson but he’s being backed up a little. Nice low kick from Frankie. More of the same follows before Edgar tags Swanson with a couple of good punches and then drops for a takedown. Cub manages to escape, but he takes a clean left hook on the way out. Action continues and Swanson remains pretty passive for some reason. Good counter right hand lands for Edgar. Wheel kick lands for Cub right before the round ends. 10-9 Edgar, bit of a dull round really.

Second round and it’s more of the same to begin, and it looks like it’s Swanson who’s been more affected by his loss to Ortega as he just looks totally passive and gunshy even as Edgar presses forward only landing glancing shots. Nice leg kick from Edgar spins Swanson around. This looks like a light sparring session for Frankie, it’s weird. Takedown attempt is avoided by Swanson who lands a right hand but doesn’t follow it up. Crowd sound angry now as Edgar uncorks on a combo that has Cub backing up more. Another takedown attempt for Edgar fails but he lands a combination as Cub escapes. More work from Frankie before a big leg kick lands for Cub, but again he doesn’t really follow it up. One minute to go and Edgar remains on the offensive. Big combination fires back for Cub as Frankie pushes forward though. Round ends on the feet just after. 10-9 Edgar and Cub desperately needs to change something up.

Third round and Swanson looks to establish his jab early in the round, stuffing a takedown attempt for good measure. He’s still largely backing up, though. Clean left hand lands for Edgar as Cub stuffs another takedown. Couple of good right hooks connect for Cub now and it looks like he might be beginning to take over. Edgar backs him right back up with a right hand though. Big right hook lands for Edgar coming forward. Exchange from close range sees both men land. Low kick from Cub is caught and Frankie drives for the takedown, but he still can’t get Swanson down. They break off and it’s basically more of the same with Swanson just being unable to really hurt Edgar or catch him cleanly. Big trade off follows with seconds to go though and both men land hard shots. Wish they’d done that earlier! Big chant for Frankie as he continues to fire combinations, and the fight ends there. 30-27 Edgar for me.

Judges have it 30-27 all round for Frankie Edgar. No surprise there as it felt like outside of the odd moment or two, Swanson never truly found his rhythm at all for some reason. Don’t know whether he just got psyched out by fighting a guy who already beat him or the Ortega fight affected him badly or what, but if he wants to get back into contention he’s got to look better than this. It was a solid comeback for Edgar though albeit in a bit of a dull fight, and if Holloway gets past Ortega then we could finally get Max vs. Frankie later in the year I guess.

Lightweight Fight: Edson Barboza vs Kevin Lee

This sounded like a pretty great fight, as both men were still firmly in title contention despite losing big fights (to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson so no shame there) in late 2017. As far as a pick, I was siding with Barboza, as nobody outside of Khabib had really muscled him down and on the feet I thought he was far better than Lee.

Round One begins and Barboza opens with a half-blocked body kick. Lee really pushes forward swinging though and backs Barboza up. Takedown attempt from Lee and he dumps the Brazilian to the ground in full guard. Lee is a hell of a wrestler. He stacks Barboza up and looks to pass the guard, moving into side mount and then full mount. Big shots land for Lee but Barboza manages to shrimp back into guard. Lee remains on top though and moves back into half-guard where he continues to land punches. Full guard now for Barboza and he tries to tie Lee up, but again Lee shucks his way free and passes into side mount. Lee’s guard passing is fantastic. Full mount again for Lee and he lands some huge punches from there that have Barboza in serious trouble. He regains half-guard but he’s being owned. Full mount again and HUGE ELBOWS land for Lee. This is worse than the beating Khabib put on Barboza. Ref could maybe stop this and it wouldn’t be wrong. Barboza turns onto his side and continues to take damage, this time with a bunch of nasty hammer fists. Round ends with more punishment for Barboza. Holy shit that was a beatdown. 10-8 Lee.

Round Two and Barboza’s face is a total mess already. Lee comes out swinging and backs him up again, even throwing head kicks, and it’s Barboza who shoots. Lee shrugs him off though and goes for a takedown of his own, tripping Barboza down for a second. The Brazilian pops back up though and separates. Lee keeps on pushing forward and cracks him with a body kick, and it looks like Edson is hurt. He backs right up and Lee shoots on a double leg and hits a BIG SLAM. Barboza looks fucked to me. He gets full guard but he just looks exhausted and Lee stacks him up to look to pass, while landing clubbing punches at the same time. Into full mount again for Lee and he bombs away once more, but Barboza shows toughness by regaining half-guard. Huge elbows bounce the Brazilian’s head off the ground though and Lee moves into mount again. Barboza gives his back this time and again manages half-guard, but he’s being smashed to pieces with elbows at the same time. Big hammer fists also land for Lee. Ref Keith Peterson ought to stop this but somehow he lets it go. Round ends with Lee still on top, still destroying Barboza. 10-8 Lee.

Round Three and Lee opens with a combo and continues to stalk forward. Good body kick and a left to the body land for Barboza but Lee walks right through them and fires off a head kick of his own. Lee looks supremely confident. Takedown attempt follows but this time Barboza shrugs him off. Striking exchange continues and HOLY SHIT Barboza lands a spinning head kick that has Lee doing the FISH DANCE!~! He shoots but Barboza stuffs it and stands, only for Lee to manage to dive on another double leg and this time he forces the Brazilian down, deflating the pro-Barboza crowd. That would’ve been one of the greatest comebacks in MMA history. Instead Lee begins to land heavy blows from the top again, ending up in full guard. Reversal manages to put Barboza on his feet, but Lee looks fully recovered now and he lands with some lead right hands. Big combination from Lee has Barboza wobbled. Flying knee attempt replies for the Brazilian but it misses. Body kick lands for him but Lee keeps on pushing the pace. Couple more body kicks land for Barboza. Lee remains calm though and the round ends with him landing a head kick that has Barboza on the run. 10-9 Lee despite the spinning kick.

Round Four and Barboza comes out firing but Lee presses forward again and walks right through some really vicious shots. Lee’s chin is pretty awesome. Big takedown attempt from Lee leads to a slam, and the crowd don’t like that at all. Full guard this time for Barboza but Lee keeps on working with short, hard shots from the top. Crowd are now chanting for the ref to stand them up, but that’s wishful thinking as Lee continues to pound away. More punches follow and Barboza’s just got no answer for this at this stage. Full mount again for Lee and he hammers away some more. Barboza is tough as hell but he’s got nothing now. Round ends with more abuse. 10-9 Lee and Barboza looks about done.

Round Five (!) and Barboza lands an overhand right to begin, but Lee just keeps on walking forward landing big punches of his own. Good spin kick to the body connects for Barboza but Lee clocks him with a hard left hand. Looks like Barboza is badly cut around his left eye. Both of his eyes are swollen badly in fact. He’s a total mess. He keeps on throwing kicks to try to keep Lee at distance but it isn’t really working. Takedown attempt follows but Barboza manages to sprawl. Lee keeps on driving though, but Barboza stuffs it again. As they separate Keith Peterson calls time as he thinks someone’s lost their mouthpiece, but then he spots Barboza’s swollen eye and calls the doctor in, and that’s that as the quack stops proceedings right away.

Anticlimactic ending but holy shit that was a great performance from Kevin Lee. He just showed zero fear of Barboza’s dangerous striking and walked right through him, got the takedown and smashed him to pieces on the ground even worse than Khabib did. Plus he showed an incredible chin and recovery time based on that one spin kick that Barboza did land in the third round, and his cardio looked on point too as he wasn’t at all tired in the fifth round. Barboza tried his best but he literally had no answer for Lee’s ground game and if I’m his team I’d be telling him to take at least a year off to recover from this.

Post-fight Lee calls out Khabib and I honestly don’t see that coming next for him – I think they’ll try their damndest to do Khabib/Conor and if they can’t do that then the winner of Poirier/Alvarez probably has the next shot…but with one more win Lee would be there for sure. This was a hell of a main event at any rate.

-Show ends with Lee celebrating his victory.

Final Thoughts….

This one started off awesomely with three straight quality fights, but tailed off a lot with the slower Willis/Sherman and Edgar/Swanson fights. Main event was pretty great and allowed the show to end on a high point, but it’s only worth watching if you skip over those two dull fights. Thumbs up just about.

Best Fight: Lee vs. Barboza
Worst Fight: Willis vs. Sherman

Overall Rating: ***1/2

Until next time,

Scott Newman: