The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to Philadelphia this weekend for the first time since 2011, when Tito Ortiz fought Rashad Evans at UFC 133 at the Wells Fargo Center.
This time around it’s a “Fight Night,” event, live at The Center on ESPN and unfortunately sandwiched into a window that will overlap with a Phillies home game and a Sixers road game.
“But that’s okay!” as Joe Cordell once said. There are some interesting fights on different portions of the card, so even if you only catch a fight here or there, you’re bound to see something intriguing.
Main Event: Edson Barboza (#6) vs. Justin Gaethje (#8) – lightweight
Should be a total war between two guys who recently ended losing streaks with solid wins.
Gaethje is 19-2 and coming off an August victory over James Vick. That was a bounce back for him after a couple of outrageous battles against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. Barboza recently took out Dan Hooker with body shots after a couple of lopsided losses against Kevin Lee and Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Barboza and Gaethje are both stand-up fighters with violent tendencies, guys who throw crazy shots and hit pretty damn hard.
Edson is three years older (33) with six more fights under his belt. He has one of the promotion’s most dangerous kicking games, if not the best, and is the only UFC fighter with multiple leg kick finishes. He does have a couple of submission wins, but he’s typically going to remain on his feet and hit you with this kind of stuff:
Gaethje is a straight-up brawler and another guy who wants to fight on the feet. 15 of his last 16 fights have ended in finishes, so he’s not a guy who’s going to go five rounds and try to out-point you. There’s no way this fight lasts longer than three rounds and I’d be stunned if it even goes past the second.
Gaethje will try to close the distance on you and start firing off bombs. He isn’t super interested in defending himself, and in most of his fights he’ll just sort of try to outslug his opponents. That was apparent in the Vick fight, when he steadily walked him down before landing an overhand right and ending the fight right there.
He also has a similarly nasty kicking game, maybe the 1b if Barboza is UFC’s 1a. Typically, he’ll throw leg kicks to start, make opponents forget about their head and body, and then start coming in high as he closes the gap. He did a good job of limiting damage and finishing the Vick fight early, but when the Poirier and Alvarez fights went into the third and fourth round, he got tired, took too much damage, and both fighters just started throwing desperate haymakers:
Barboza’s recent losses both came to guys who were successfully able to close the distance, negate the leg kicks, and wrestle him to the ground. That was interesting to me, since Edson does have pretty good takedown defense, but Lee and Khabib are both high-level mat guys, so they made it look incredibly easy. The consensus seems to be that Barboza will benefit from working at range while Gaethje will try narrowing the gap. Gaethje’s MMA career has been focused on striking, but he does have a wrestling background and can lean on that to tie down Barboza and steal a round or two.
It’s honestly a pretty evenly matched fight. Both guys will come out swinging. It might be a short bout, but it’ll be fun.
Prediction: Barboza 2nd round TKO
Co-main: David Branch (#11) vs. Jack Hermansson – middleweight
Branch is similar to Gaethje in that his recent MMA success hasn’t really translated to the bigger promotion like some thought it would. He’s 2-2 since returning to the UFC from the World Series of Fighting, where he went 10-0 from 2012 to 2016. He’s a good starter but I feel like he runs out of steam a bit, which is to be expected since he’s 37 years old. He’s the more experienced fighter and probably the better grappler.
Hermansson is a solid enough fighter, a pressure and volume type of guy who does a lot of damage when he can secure top position. He’s younger and is 4-1 in his last four fights with three TKOs and a submission.
I honestly don’t know why this is the co-main, but whatever.
Prediction: Hermansson via unanimous decision
Josh Emmett (#10) vs. Michael Johnson – featherweight
A featherweight bout between a couple of veterans.
Johnson fought most of his career at lightweight, though he missed weight in his most recent fight, a win against Artem Lobov. He hit 146 on the scales today, so he’s good.
Emmett began his career 11-0 and is now 13-2. He’ll hang back a bit and try to feel out Johnson, but he’s more of a volume guy and I think he moves better than Johnson does. I think he’s also a little faster.
Johnson does have good hands, however, and has fought a much tougher resume over the years (Gaethje, Barboza, Khabib, Poirier, Nate Diaz, Tony Ferguson). Emmett is coming off a loss to Jeremy Stephens that resulted in surgery for a broken orbital, broken cheek and broken nose. I’m not sure where he’s at physically or mentally going into this one, and it’s been more than a year since he’s fought.
Prediction: Johnson via UD
Michelle Waterson (#9) vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz (#6) – strawweight
This should be the co-main, a matchup between top-ten strawweights. Karolina fought for the title not long ago and Waterson is the former Invicta Atomweight champion (105 pounds) .
Kowalkiewicz is a bit bigger and stronger than Waterson at 115 pounds. She’s a good clinch fighter and will pile up points on her feet. Her last seven wins have been unanimous decisions and she only has one sub and one TKO victory in 15 career fights. She has a muay thai and kickboxing background.
Waterson has a karate background and pretty strong ground game. She has multiple rear naked choke and armbar submissions in her 22-fight career. She’s smaller and quicker, so she can keep distance via leg kicks or get in closer with takedown attempts. She doesn’t want to get caught in the middle, where Kowalkiewicz can lock her up and start throwing elbows and knees.
This is a classic matchup of octagon control and forcing the opponent to play your game. I just think Karolina’s size advantage and pedigree as a former UFC title challenger gives her the advantage here.
Prediction: Kowalkiewicz via UD
Paul Craig vs. Kennedy Nzechukwu – light heavyweight
Nzechukwu comes from Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. This will be his UFC debut, so he’s a green type of guy but really has the raw profile to be a great fighter.
He’s fighting a dude in Paul Craig who has lost 3 of 4 since coming to the promotion back in 2017. Craig is smaller, older, and gives up a ton of reach to Nzechukwu, so he’ll likely try to get this one to the mat to spoil the newcomer’s first Fight Night performance.
Prediction: no clue
Sheymon Moraes vs. Sodiq Yusuff – featherweight
Moraes has a muay thai and kickboxing background and will play a smart game here. He’s got finishing power but is smart enough to play his game and out-point a less-experienced fighter.
Yusuf also comes from the Contender series and won his first fight back in December with a 1st round stoppage.
If Yusuff wants to hand Moraes his third loss, he should look to use his self-proclaimed “blacksplosiveness” very well on the counter, which is when Yusuff can be dangerous and attack in spurts. Sodiq Yusuff appears to be an MMA version of a basketball “streak shooter.” He waits for open opportunities to present themselves, and when he they do, he scores shots in flurries: a streak fighter, if you will.
Moraes has won of 4 of 5 and is the more well-rounded guy. His only losses have come to the excellent Marlon Moraes and one of my favorite dudes in the entire promotion, Zabit Magomedsharipov.
Prediction: Moraes via TKO
- Jessica Aguilar vs. Marina Rodriguez (strawweight)
- Ross Pearson vs. Desmond Green (lightweight)
- Enrique Barzola vs. Kevin Aguilar (featherweight)
- Kevin Holland vs. Gerald Meerschaert (middleweight)
- Ray Borg vs. Casey Kenney (catchweight – Borg missed weight)
- Sabina Mazo vs. Maryna Moroz (flyweight)
- Alex Perez vs. Mark De La Rosa (bantamweight)