Time for Barboza, Johnson to Make a Statement

Fightland Blog

By Dan Shapiro

Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC

Buried beneath all the press conferences, the revamped drug-testing chatter, and new fight announcements, under the Ronday Rousey publicity—which is kicking into high gear ahead of UFC 184—is this weekend’s UFN “Bigfoot vs. Mir” event, a card that is being greatly overlooked due to the continued talk about PEDs in MMA.

But just below this Sunday’s headlining bout is an intriguing co-main contest, a fight between two phenomenal athletes: Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson.

In one sense, it’s fair that this matchup of top-15 lightweights has fallen under the radar, as the new drug-testing policy and failures of Anderson Silva, Nick Diaz, Jon Jones, and Hector Lombard may end up be the most important mixed martial arts story of the year. But from another vantage point—a completely athletic point of view—Barboza versus Johnson represents some of the top talent at 155 pounds and a critical fight in the treacherous lightweight waters.

Universally acclaimed as one of the flashiest fighters in the game, Edson Barboza nonchalantly dishes out spinning wheel kicks, eating away at opponents legs with vicious low strikes. Barboza brutalizes his opposition, save Donald Cerrone, who scored a first-round rear-naked choke last April, and Jamie Varner, who strung together a Hail-Mary TKO back in 2012, and has always been on the cusp of greatness. But still, he lacks a signature win.

Sure, Barboza’s picturesque knockout of Terry Etim in 2012 was a thing of beauty, but having only defeated one top-10 opponent during his six-year MMA career (a unanimous decision over the oft-forgotten Bobby Green), Barboza is left wading in the divisional waters, outside the top-5.

For twelfth-ranked Johnson, greener pastures have always seemed attainable and a thing of certainty; however, his career has been marred by inconsistency ever since his stint on The Ultimate Fighter, where he placed second behind yogi Jonathan Brookins.

Johnson’s grinding style is a powerful ode to the heavier weight classes. He physically dominates opponents with his size, strength, and speed, outworking his foes with top control and ground and pound.

Coming off a near-yearlong absence from the Octagon due to injury, Johnson will have to regain all the momentum he built on his current three-fight win streak, during which he has knocked off Joe Lauzon, Gleison Tibau, and Melvin Guillard. And therein lies the problem for Johnson, who saw a similar streak snapped in late 2012, losing to a then-up-and-coming Myles Jury.

Fortunately for Johnson, who has tapped out twice inside the Octagon, Barboza is no submission ace. But Johnson will still have to move forward with caution, and keep his legs away from the punishment of Barboza’s damaging low kicks. Johnson would also be wise to storm out of the gates and capitalize on Barboza’s slow starts.

It is this very strategy that Danny Castillo employed back in 2013, when he nearly earned a first-round stoppage over Barboza on account of takedowns and some brutal ground and pound. Barboza would eventually go on to take the affair by majority decision, but the verdict was not without controversy, as many believed that Castillo did enough damage early on to take the first round 10-8.

Johnson of course knocked Castillo out when they squared off in 2012, but MMA is a sport where fighters evolve at a breakneck pace, and any comparison between Johnson and Barboza three years ago and now are, quite frankly, moot.

So while this exciting matchup between Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson will largely go unnoticed, buried behind the more pressing news of the day—stories about PEDs, drug testing, and the upcoming UFC 184—the contest will excite, and for the winner it will cement their relevance in the division, while the loser will fall down a notch into the murky, deep, and dark waters of the lightweight class.


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