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The best and worst from UFC on ESPN: Barboza vs. Gaethje

Justin Gaethje picked up a big win in last night's main event
Justin Gaethje picked up a big win in last night's main event

Despite the main card featuring 4 finishes out of 6 fights, UFC on ESPN: Barboza vs. Gaethje was another largely lacklustre card saved by a couple of really hot fights towards the end of the night. Realistically, you can’t complain about the card quality here as most of these fights promised some insane action and well, most of them simply didn’t deliver.

Obviously, it wasn’t all bad for the Philadelphia fans, and it was hardly a surprise to see the fight between Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje deliver the goods. But next weekend is a break in the UFC schedule and after a packed few weeks, it’ll be a welcome break.

Here are the best and worst moments from UFC on ESPN: Barboza vs. Gaethje.

#1 Best: Gaethje lives up to his nickname...again

Gaethje overwhelmed Barboza in the opening round
Gaethje overwhelmed Barboza in the opening round

Over the last few years of watching UFC shows I’ve tended to call Donald Cerrone the most exciting fighter to watch in MMA, but even ‘Cowboy’ has had the odd stinker – remember his 2015 fight with Myles Jury, for instance, or his slower fight last summer with Leon Edwards?

Justin Gaethje, on the other hand, seems completely incapable of putting on anything other than a firefight, and last night was more evidence that he might be more deserving of the title I once put on Cerrone.

Not only did Gaethje score one of the best knockouts of 2019 so far – a vicious right hook that caught opponent Edson Barboza as he was backing out of an exchange, instantly switching his lights off and knocking him unconscious – but for the 2:30 that the fight lasted, it was incredibly exciting, with some wild exchanges of strikes. And of course, it was Gaethje who was always pushing the action, simply willing to walk through fire to win.

Post-fight Gaethje essentially called out any of the fighters above him in the pecking order; that might be tricky for the time being given they’re literally all booked in fights right now outside of Tony Ferguson who won’t be fighting for some time I’d presume, but regardless of that, whoever ‘The Highlight’ is matched with it’ll be worth watching. He’s must-see stuff and the UFC would do well to recognize that and push him as the star that he is.

#1 Worst: Barboza needs time off for his own health

Edson Barboza should step away from the Octagon for a while - for his own health
Edson Barboza should step away from the Octagon for a while - for his own health

Sure, there’s no shame in losing to Justin Gaethje, and realistically there’s no shame in being KO’d by him either – the guy hits like a ton of bricks and arguably has the most power in the whole of the 155lbs division – but last night’s loss was a little more worrying for Edson Barboza in my opinion.

Not only did it mark the Brazilian’s third loss in his last four fights, but it was also yet another fight that saw him absorb terrible punishment.

December 2017 saw him completely beaten down by Khabib Nurmagomedov; it was the kind of beating that could change a career, and when he returned and took a similar beatdown at the hands of Kevin Lee, alarm bells should’ve been ringing.

Barboza did defeat an overmatched Dan Hooker in December 2018, but that win didn’t come without issues and last night Gaethje had him rattled with punches early on and then became the first man to completely knock him out.

Barboza is 33 years old now – belying that ‘Junior’ nickname – and he’s been fighting professionally for a decade. It’s not a stretch to say that he might be coming towards the end of his prime now – if he’s not past it already – but while he could definitely squeeze some more out of his career, he needs to step away for a while to recover in order to do so.

Realistically, he should’ve done that after the Khabib loss, and had he done that he may be more durable than he appears to be now.

MMA is a sport that chews up its athletes before spitting them out, and Barboza looks like he could be the next victim of that. It’s time for him to take some extended leave – for his own good.

#2 Best: Jack Hermansson’s beautiful submission

Jack Hermansson's arm-in guillotine submission of David Branch was beautiful
Jack Hermansson's arm-in guillotine submission of David Branch was beautiful

I’ve often preached that a really slick submission is more impressive than a brutal knockout, even in a visual sense, and for me that was shown last night in Jack Hermansson’s win over David Branch.

Not only was it somewhat of an upset – I picked Branch to win via submission and never expected Hermansson to submit such a high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt – but it should put ‘The Joker’ into title contention at 185lbs, too.

Branch was never really given a chance to get out of first gear. Hermansson clinched with him, hit a beautiful trip takedown, and in the scramble, the Swedish fighter locked up an arm-in guillotine choke with expert precision.

Seconds later, with no possibility of escape, Branch tapped out – handing Hermansson arguably the biggest victory of his career, and making him only the second man to submit the New Yorker after the infamous Rousimar Palhares back in 2011.

The submission win was Hermansson’s third in a row, and his only loss since 2016 was to Thiago Santos – who’s now the top contender at 205lbs.

With clear skills in all areas, a never-say-die attitude and a finisher’s instinct, Hermansson can probably expect another big fight from the UFC next time out. Outside of Justin Gaethje, he was last night’s biggest winner.

#2 Worst: Big finishes couldn’t cover up dull fights

Josh Emmett's knockout of Michael Johnson was great - but the fight was not
Josh Emmett's knockout of Michael Johnson was great - but the fight was not

The finishes to the fights between Paul Craig and Kennedy Nzechukwu and Michael Johnson and Josh Emmett will probably be replayed plenty of times after last night; Craig pulled off another Hail Mary submission late in the third round after losing the first two, while Emmett switched Johnson’s lights off with a perfect right hand after largely being picked apart for almost the entire fight.

Essentially, the endings were the kind of moments that live long in the memory.

Unfortunately, the fights that preceded them weren’t. Craig vs. Nzechukwu just wasn’t a good fight at all; the action was somewhat sloppy, it was filled with fouls from both men, and the final submission seemed to be as much down to Nzechukwu’s inexperience than Craig’s skill.

And Johnson vs. Emmett was basically dull, with Emmett unable to catch Johnson – before that big KO anyway - and Johnson happy to pick him off from the outside with his superior movement, but didn’t really pick up the volume.

Overall neither fight will go down as amongst the worst of 2019 due to their amazing finishes, but they certainly weren’t as good as the clips of those finishes that are currently floating around on social media suggested they were.

MMA is the kind of sport that can see finishes like Emmett’s easily go viral – but for the fans who watched the full show, the whole fight wasn’t all that much fun.

#3 Best: Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series continues to produce talent

Sodiq Yusuff was one of 6 veterans of Dana White's Contender Series to win in Philadelphia
Sodiq Yusuff was one of 6 veterans of Dana White's Contender Series to win in Philadelphia

One common criticism of the UFC’s practices in the past few years has been the way the promotion has unearthed prospects; essentially, the way they once did it, via The Ultimate Fighter reality show, simply doesn’t work anymore – not with Bellator willing to throw money at up-and-comers, as well as the TUF contracts generally paying low wages.

Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, on the other hand, has been working wonders in terms of unearthing prospects, and last night’s show proved that.

7 veterans of the show fought in Philadelphia, and while Kennedy Nzechukwu lost, Sodiq Yusuff, Marina Rodriguez, Kevin Aguilar, Kevin Holland, Casey Kenney and Alex Perez all picked up important wins and all of them looked good in the process, even if Kenney’s win was controversial.

We’ve yet to see the series produce a true title contender – unless you count rising 205lber Johnny Walker – but it’s surely only a matter of time, and the UFC would do well to ditch the tired TUF format for good and look to extend DWTNCS – either by branching it into other regions, or making it a year-round, perhaps bi-monthly deal.

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Edited by Arvind Sriram
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