Occasionally in mixed martial arts, there’s a fight in which it truly does not matter what impact it might have on rankings, its division, the immediate future of either fighter involved. None of that matters. It’s just a fight you’ve got to watch. Saturday’s lightweight bout between Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje, which headlines UFC Fight Night in Philadelphia, is one of those fights.
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To be fair, any Gaethje fight probably fits that description, but this one in particular is a prime example.
The UFC’s lightweight title picture is still very unclear — Khabib Nurmagomedov is suspended, Conor McGregor is retired, Tony Ferguson’s future is uncertain and the UFC is about to create an interim championship. That makes it virtually impossible to define what’s really at stake Saturday.
The good news is all of that is secondary to the bout itself. This fight is worth watching for the stylistic matchup alone. It’s possible that no one will have any idea by the end of the night what the outcome means for the division — and equally possible that no one will care.
By the numbers
1: Number of fighters in UFC history with knockouts by head kick, body kick and leg kick. That one fighter is Barboza. He also is the only fighter to finish two UFC bouts with leg kicks. He has ended five UFC fights with kicks or knees, tied for second in promotion history (behind Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone’s seven).
Both Justin Gaethje and Edson Barboza are known for their high-volume offense, but Gaethje’s head-strike accuracy far surpasses that of his UFC Fight Night main event foe.
Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje are arguably the most prolific leg kickers in the sport. Four previous opponents explain to ESPN why that is and how they recovered from the leg pain endured during their fights.
0: Number of Gaethje fights in the UFC that have not ended by KO/TKO. The guy has fought in the UFC four times, earning a postfight bonus each time. (Since the UFC began awarding bonuses in 2006, no fighter has won one for each of his or her first five fights.)
28: KOs by Gaethje (16) and Barboza (12) among their combined 39 career wins. Seven of Barboza’s KOs came in UFC lightweight bouts — tied (with Melvin Guillard) for the most in division history.
125: Leg kicks landed by Gaethje in the UFC — the most by any fighter in their first four UFC fights.
126: Significant strikes landed by Barboza in his most recent fight (TKO over Dan Hooker in December) — a career high.
2011: Last time the UFC was in Philadelphia.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information research
“I don’t care if you’re an educated fan or uneducated, you watch that man fight and you know he’s scary. His kicks, for one thing, are very technical. The man is just good. He’s been around and fought the best. I’m just trying to challenge myself against him.”
–Gaethje, speaking with ESPN about Barboza
“He can finish anybody. If you give Gaethje a chance, he will end the fight. That’s it.”
–Barboza, speaking with ESPN about Gaethje
The leg kicks of Barboza (yikes!):
Edson Barboza puts his kicking prowess on full display with these wins over Rafaello Oliveira and Gilbert Melendez.
The leg kicks of Gaethje (ouch!):
Look at the damage Justin Gaethje inflicted to the front leg of Dustin Poirier during their bout last April.
And the winner is …
Barboza gets off to the fast start, but Gaethje weathers it and his pressure wears on Barboza as the fight unfolds.
Brett Okamoto’s prediction: Gaethje via TKO, third round.
Beyond the main event: What to watch for
Ray Borg (11-3), who takes on Casey Kenney (11-1-1) in a flyweight fight during the early prelims (ESPN+, 3:30 p.m. ET), has been out of the Octagon for a year and a half. In that time, Borg has been through a lot, from a bout-canceling eye injury suffered during last year’s Conor McGregor bus attack in Brooklyn, New York, to the ongoing health issues facing his young son, who has been in and out of surgery during his first year of life. That’s why it was especially heartwarming to see Borg post this on Instagram this week:
Putting the nickname to the test?
Kevin Aguilar is just four months removed from a victory in his UFC debut, which ran his win streak to eight in a row. The 30-year-old Texas featherweight is 16-1 overall, his only loss coming against former UFC tough guy Leonard Garcia. And, oh yes, he’s known as “The Angel of Death.” Let’s see if he lives up to that nickname in his prelim against Enrique Barzola (15-3-1) during the prelims (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET).
Most in need of a win …
Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-3) has been either inside or on the periphery of the ESPN pound-for-pound women’s top 10 for seemingly forever, but her recent results have not borne out that lofty standing. Since 2016, the Polish strawweight has lost three of five fights, with her two victories coming against fighters well outside the rankings. On Saturday’s main card (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), she clashes with Michelle Waterson (16-6), who ranks No. 9 in ESPN’s 115-pound rankings (three spots below Kowalkiewicz). It’s a fork in the road for Kowalkiewicz. Is she headed back toward the top, or is she a dead-end afterthought?