Edson Barboza has often been considered one of the top lightweights in the world and a dynamic and diverse striker who is capable of beating anyone on any given night. Unlike the majority of MMA fans, analysts and pundits, I never bought into that. My impression of Barboza was decidedly much more grounded in the realities of his style, approach, athleticism and character, all of which were once again highlighted in his second loss to a top-ranked fighter in a number of months. At UFC Fight Night 128, Barboza was outhustled, bullied, beaten up and ultimately stopped by lightweight wunderkind Kevin Lee. Today, let’s take a fair, but realistic look at Barboza’s skills, record and fighting style.
Barboza hasn’t really beaten an elite fighter through the majority of his career. He has defeated good and very good fighters — and a lot of them — but really holds no definitive wins over guys who are considered the gold standard. His victories under the UFC banner came against Mike Lullo, Anthony Njokuani, Ross Pearson, Terry Etim, Lucas Martins, Rafaello Oliveira, Danny Castillo, Evan Dunham, Bobby Green, Paul Felder, Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez and Beneil Dariush. Only two of these names — Melendez and Pettis — jump out as elite. However, when Barboza beat them, neither was considered elite. Both Melendez and Pettis were in the midst of losing streaks when they met the Brazilian.
The only time elite names appear on Barboza’s resume is when they are followed by a check mark in the loss column. The 32-year-old has been soundly beaten by Jamie Varner, Donald Cerrone, Michael Johnson, Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov and now Lee. He is a warrior who will fight anyone, anytime. He can beat the majority of them, but he loses every time he has to face the best his division has to offer.
Barboza is often considered one of the best strikers in MMA. However, this is simply not true. . Much like UFC middleweight Luke Rockhold, Barboza is an athletic, dynamic and creative kicker who leans heavily on the fear of these techniques and physical gifts to provide him the space and pace at which he likes to work. When an opponent has pressed him, Barboza has not been able to stand his ground and counter or exit out on angles to out-position opponents and counter, nor has he been able to circle off or away from the fence to land his strikes.
One of the basic tenets of striking is footwork and the ability to move in and out on angles, as well as being able to circle and pivot. Barboza can’t do that when anyone puts the slightest hint of pressure on him. Instead, he exits the pocket on straight lines, absorbing punishment in the process. Meanwhile, he is unable to fire as dynamically or effectively due to being on his heels and purely on the defensive.
Barboza’s hands, while powerful, aren’t particularly diverse. This is in large part due to his lack of comfort in the pocket, as well as his inconsistent footwork and inability to roll with, parry or block shots. The Brazilian is unable to put punches together, sit down on his punches or keep from telegraphing his intentions, which essentially makes them a non-factor in any fight where he isn’t given respect based on his athleticism, power and creativity.
In the grappling department, the Armory product hasn’t shown an ability to be offensive off his back or to counter from the position. Oftentimes when taken down, Barboza ends up absorbing frightful beatings because he has no ability to create scrambles, threaten with submissions or sweep and reverse opponents on the ground. This leaves his opponents free to tee off on him, because the Brazilian can’t finish them even if they are off balance or overcommitted. The worst-case scenario for his opponent in this situation is that Barboza gets away and looks to reset on the feet. If this happens, it just gives the opponent another opportunity to take him down again.
Furthermore, Barboza’s inability to threaten from his back allows opposing fighters to rest. The lightweight fighter isn’t great at creating scrambles or hunting for submissions, so guys can just settle in to recover if and when they get dinged on the feet or slowly broken down over the fight’s time limit. It’s a huge advantage for an opponent when they know there is a whole range where they won’t be threatened or even be forced to work.
Barboza’s wrestling isn’t top shelf. This is partly because of his skills in that area, but also partly because of his lack of consistent and diverse offense and his lack of defensive footwork. His grappling is even less of an obstacle for an opponent to overcome than the wrestling, meaning there are two realms of MMA where Barboza is purely defensive.
The one realm where the 32-year-old is skillful isn’t one where he sets a pace that would force guys to work. Barboza’s success on the feet is highly dependent on his fluidity, explosiveness, power, quickness and mobility. When faced with lesser talents, Barboza can rely on his athleticism to dictate the pace and place of fights. Especially when mixed with his overall toughness, this allows Barboza to stay in fights even as he is on the receiving end of horrendous beatings. It provides him with multiple opportunities to explode with potentially fight-ending offense, as he attempted to do against Ferguson, Nurmagomedov, Lee and, in one successful instance, Dariush.
Most elite guys have elite physical tools. Once Barboza’s edge narrows, his ability to get off effectively and efficiently lessens greatly. This exposes the limitations in his defensive striking and wrestling. Without a solid set of tools to provide a buffer, limit or neutralize an opponent’s offense, volume and pressure, the same toughness that allows Barboza the spots to score when being outworked also leads to extended beatings which historically ruin athleticism, damage fighter mentality and destroy the body’s ability to recover.
Barboza has, more times than not, absorbed huge beatings when facing elite opposition. He is too tough to be quickly finished, but he also has the dynamic offense to turn any fight at any time. His corner and referees often allow him to endure damage that alters the nature of the fight and the trajectory of his career. Barboza is talented. He is a warrior. He’s a competitor. All of these things have been proven time and time again. What hasn’t been established is that he is a legitimate tier-one fighter.