Like the other events leading up to UFC 200, UFC 197 has a really solid card to its credit. Taking place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Saturday 23rd April, this time around we’ll see two title fights, one of which features the highly-anticipated return of Jon Jones while the other showcases one of MMA’s brightest lights in Demetrious Johnson.
Oddly enough, the event has been overshadowed by the recent goings on between Conor McGregor and the UFC ahead of UFC 200—so much so that all the talk has been about the Dubliner rather than the former light heavyweight champion Jones. That’s despite the latter’s recent run-in with the law and the injury to Daniel Cormier which had the potential to leave UFC 197’s main event in tatters.
With all of the recent craziness in the MMA world over the last week, you’d be hard pressed to remember what fights are featured at UFC 197 besides the two aforementioned title fights—and few card-fillers come bigger than Anthony “Showtime” Pettis vs. Edson “Junior” Barboza.
This fight could easily be a Fight Night or Fox card headliner with each fighter’s respective styles. But, this contest finds itself performing the role as the supporting act despite having distinct and profound implications for both men.
Former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Pettis (18-4) is riding his first ever losing streak of consecutive fights—the first coming against Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos, who dethroned the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native around this time last year at UFC 185—before his subsequent comeback fight against Eddie Alvarez in a damp squib of a contest. Pettis will be facing another Brazilian in Barboza (16-4) on Saturday night, who himself is coming off a submission loss to the streaking Tony Ferguson.
Both men have had their issues which have prevented them from earning the star their skillset should garner.
Pettis’ issue is that of injuries. A string of instances of injury has left him sidelined for a considerable amount of time. The American has only fought six times since early 2012, while Barboza has appeared in the Octagon on 11 occasions during that timeframe. Pettis earned his lightweight title with an impressive submission win over Benson Henderson in the summer of 2013. But, he only got a chance to successfully defend his belt once—another notable submission victory over the tough Gilbert Melendez—before dropping a lopsided unanimous decision loss to dos Anjos.
Meanwhile, Barboza’s problem has long been his ability to win the fights that truly matter to his rise up in the lightweight division reckoning. The Brazilian is somewhat a flat-track bully. While his last 11 fights are littered with impressive wins over the likes of Evan Dunham, Paul Felder and Bobby Green, they’re punctuated with losses to Ferguson, Donald Cerrone and Michael Johnson. Simply, whenever Barboza’s had that next level up in competition, he has fallen flat on every occasion so far in his UFC career and this is yet another opportunity for Junior to make that step up in opposition.
Pettis is a long-time student of former kickboxing star Duke Roufus and has belonged to that hometown camp since his adolescence. However, Showtime had shown signs ahead of his fight against Alvarez that he was willing to change up his training camp after things had gone stale. He had swapped former Olympic wrestler and training partner Ben Askren for Israel “Izzy” Martinez to help hone Pettis’ wrestling skills—what was ultimately his undoing against the grinding style of Alvarez.
Martinez is a part of the Jackson-Winklejohn camp and Pettis’ faith in his coaching abilities has not waned despite his last fight—so much so that he has trained away from Roufusport for the first time in his professional MMA career for the coaching supplied in New Mexico, Albuquerque. This was all thanks to an unlikely friendship he drummed up with former opponent Donald Cerrone, according to his interview with Fox Sports.
"I went on a USO tour with ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, eight days around the world, so of course we had to talk and he's a cool dude. We put our drama aside, we fought before and he said he was moving to 170 and he offered to do some sparring with me. So I went there to spar with him and work with Israel Martinez initially. I wasn't going to Greg Jackson, I was just going to go to the ranch and spar with ‘Cowboy’. Israel had me go down to Greg Jackson's, I met the coaching staff, I met the team and I just loved it.
"It was an environment I feel I can get better and grow. Milwaukee, I feel I can definitely get better there, but growing mentally and all that, it's a slower process because I know everybody and I've done that gym routine for the last 10 years of my life. Changing it up and doing something new."
We shall have to wait and see if this change of training camp has invigorated the flagging career of Pettis’. However, Showtime has enjoyed the switch-up so much so he now wants to have the New Mexico camp as a full-time fixture in his future fights. Though, he doesn’t know how his long-term mentor will Roufus will take the news.
"I don't know. We haven't had that conversation yet. I didn't really ask permission. Duke's always given me freedom to do what I want to do. He's never been that guy like 'you've got to stay here or you're not on my team'. No, we're family. I told him I needed to clear my head and get some new looks. He didn't agree with it, he's like we're not getting paid to spar, let's not spar all these guys. You're getting paid to fight so let's get ready for your fight.
"I just felt like it was a good decision. I trained for three days and it was the best decision I've made. Taking nothing away from Duke - Duke's an amazing coach and will always be my coach—but having bodies like that and training partners like that and the mindset of Greg Jackson and Israel Martinez and there's four jiu-jitsu coaches, four wrestling coaches, it's just so much information that I can get."
Barboza’s also pretty confident in the training camp surrounding him in the lead up to arguably the biggest fight of his exciting career. Junior has long been a student of UFC veteran and fellow Brazilian Ricardo Almeida and boxing coach Mark Henry, training alongside former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. While it’s a fantastic camp in the Garden State, there’s one sparring partner which fills Barboza with supreme poise—Pettis’ most recent conqueror in Eddie Alvarez. Speaking to the UFC, Barboza said: “Eddie Alvarez is back in our camp and we are so blessed to have him with us. He fought Pettis before and he’s coached me a lot on what to expect. We talk a lot about Pettis and that’s good information that I have to take with me into the ring.”
“I’m excited to fight Anthony Pettis. He’s one of the best fighters in the division and he’s a former champion, and somebody everybody in our camp respects. We are going to put on a great fight, for sure, but it won’t be just a stand-up fight like a lot of people expect. This is an MMA fight and we go there to fight. We go there for war and this will be a big war.”
The mere suggestion from Barboza that the fight won’t necessarily be on the taking place standing should ring alarm bells for Pettis. Though it may be—and likely is—standard fare in pre-fight preamble, Barboza’s teammate Alvarez won his split decision over Pettis with a purely wrestling-based attack, relentlessly grinding his opponent against the cage. Barboza doesn’t have the wrestling pedigree of Philadelphia native Alvarez, but if that’s the camp’s gameplan then it’s definitely something to be wary of.
Barboza’s supreme striking skill is probably only matched by a couple of fellow lightweights—including Pettis. But, Pettis’ Jekyll and Hyde wrestling defence has proved his undoing in the past. He could withstand the grappling pressure of the likes of Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez—who are both great wrestlers in their own right—but Pettis couldn’t withstand the wrestling of Alvarez nor the constant pressure provided by his conqueror as champion in dos Anjos. Hell, even Clay Guida gave him the blanket treatment in Pettis’ UFC debut.
However, it’s unlikely Barboza will go that route as Pettis most likely has more than enough in his locker to stuff the grappling attempts of his Brazilian foe. But, the Muay Thai skills of Barboza are an interesting juxtaposition to the taekwondo stylings of Pettis.
With Pettis and Barboza ranked third and eighth respectively in the UFC lightweight division—coupled with the fact both men lost their last outings in the Octagon—this is truly a must-win fight between two men who know how to put on a show.
Can Pettis put a sudden halt to his first ever losing streak? Can Barboza finally get the big win his impressive striking credentials warrant? Fortunately for us we will get to see for ourselves on Saturday night.
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