Fighting as a sport thrives when the questions are plentiful. Divisions without questions are dead in the water. No one knows or cares about who Cris Cyborg fights next, and Daniel Cormier is on a working vacation to heavyweight because there’s nothing going on at 205 pounds. But the lightweight division—the richest and most exciting in mixed martial arts—continues to provide a bottomless buffet of what-ifs and yes-buts. Between Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, and Conor McGregor, fans thought they had the order of things worked out. Then Kevin Lee waltzed into the Octagon on Saturday night and put Edson Barboza through the meat grinder every bit as convincingly as Nurmagomedov had in his most significant victory.
There are a lot of ways to beat Edson Barboza, but most of them hinge around the same problems. Michael Johnson, Tony Ferguson, Beneil Dariush (though he ultimately lost the fight), Khabib Nurmagomedov, and now Kevin Lee all demonstrated the same issue. Barboza hates being kept busy, gets flustered when you stay in his face, and can’t kick nearly as effectively without getting himself in a comfy position and really preparing to do so.
What Kevin Lee did much better than the others was cut the cage down on Barboza. Right from the get go, Lee’s jab was flicking straight through Barboza’s guard and snapping his eye shut. Lee has always had a ludicrous reach for his weight class but only in the Ferguson fight and Saturday night’s showing against Barboza have we really seen him leveraging it against his opponent effectively.
One of the tendencies that Michael Johnson showed in Barboza when they fought was that if he gets hit he will abandon his stance, circle a bit, and then try to re-establish his stance and get ready to kick again. Lee flicked the jab in Barboza’s face, kicked at him when he circled, and within moments had convinced Barboza they were kickboxing—just as Barboza was shooting distance from the fence. Lee shot into the fence, Barboza got stuck against it, and Lee finished his takedown. Barboza did not get another chance to fight on his feet for the rest of the first round.
Tony Ferguson and Nurmagomedov’s use of pressure against Barboza was essentially to run at him over and over again. Michael Johnson did more to cut across the cage, but allowed Barboza to circle out constantly—which did more to tire Barboza out than most of Johnson’s output. From his first shot to his last, Kevin Lee had Barboza in position to hit the fence before he attempted to take him down. His jab, whipping left hook, and cross check (to catch Barboza’s favorite switch kick) all served him well in walking Barboza down.
Once they hit the mat we were treated to a performance which was, on the surface, similar to Nurmagomedov’s. Barboza spent much of the fight trapped along the fence, with one arm out of commission, and getting pounded on. Putting the two fights side by side makes for a fun study of how Nurmagomedov and Lee both go about doing their own thing on the ground. Nurmagomedov tends to use knee cuts and smash passes, Lee meanwhile makes much more use of the double-under pass and drives to half guard. Since Hatsu Hioki left the UFC you don’t really see much under-passing at all. It’s fallen out of vogue in grappling competition too, spare some specialists, but it remains a viable and powerful technique.
Most will have noticed the amount that Lee tripods from within guard. Tony Ferguson did an excellent job of coping with this, keeping feet on Lee’s hips when he was on his knees, constantly working to control distance, and attacking with elbows at all times. Barboza, not nearly as active on his back, found himself getting stacked up, punched, and then having to open his guard—at which point Lee was already passing.
Khabib Nurmagomedov has made a trademark of trapping one of his opponent’s hands once the fight hits the mat, and Lee did the same thing here. Back in the dark days of No Holds Barred competition, Gary Goodridge used to smash people from closed guard after he trapped a hand under their back, and in fact that was how Ryan Schultz handed Chris Horodecki his first loss back in the IFL.
Like anything in MMA, it took a while but now top fighters are turning it into a fine art. You need only watch a BJJ Scout study on Ben Askren’s wrist rides to see that. But where Khabib’s go-to is to catch the opponent’s wrist across their back as they post on their arm and then fold them down on top of it, Lee was catching an old school jiu-jitsu position: the gift wrap. Readers may remember this from when Rickson Gracie fought Masakatsu Funaki and then retired (about two weeks after all the best fighters in the world competed in the PRIDE 2000 Grand Prix). The gift wrap is simply catching your opponent’s near arm at the wrist by reaching behind their head. The value is exactly the same, one arm is taken out of action making it much easier to arc strikes in through the space it would be blocking.
When to Kick and When to Run
For the most part the striking exchanges went the same way. Lee pressured forward, Barboza got set to kick, Lee jabbed Barboza and Barboza started circling again. Barboza was by no means hopeless along the fence, escaping from several of Lee’s clinches and circling out, but the Brazilian’s footwork looked as hapless as ever. Barboza is a man who doesn’t seem to understand economy of motion. Any time he wants to circle he leaves his stance and runs all the way around the cage, before having to set himself up again to strike. Any time he broke away from the fence against Lee, he jogged all the way around the exterior of the cage and wound up exactly where he started.
Other times Edson will try to stay in stance and make no effort at all to break off line. Compare his worst performances with the masterclasses that Joanna Jędrzejczyk shows under pressure. Jędrzejczyk is never far from her stance and the moment that she has stepped off line, she is back in position to strike should the opponent follow her. The great ring generals land their best blows as the opponent follows. Barboza seems to want to be completely safe and sound, miles away from his opponent, before he even considers getting back in position to strike. Against Johnson, Barboza exhausted himself by jogging a full lap of the cage each time he ended up on the losing end of a jabbing exchange.
Another of Barboza’s more notable issues—and something that his corner was encouraging between rounds—is his love of counter kicking. Fighting a man who wants to kickbox or swing in right hands, counter kicking is a great asset. Badr Hari and Donald Cerrone both use a beautiful left kick underneath the opponent’s right arm when they can draw a right straight. With the ribs fully exposed on the liver side, this kick can be a fight changer—and as the kicker’s arms are free to form a long guard or cover up, it isn’t that risky. But Barboza was fighting a man who wasn’t trying to take his head off with long right hands, he was fighting a guy who wanted to put him on the fence. So when Barboza counter kicked he was on one leg, with nothing obstructing Lee from stepping in and pushing him straight onto the fence. The exact same thing happened against Nurmagomedov; the further Barboza fell behind on the scorecards, the more he tried to land his most powerful strikes—his kicks—even though they were getting him pushed to the fence and taken down every time.
Generally against an opponent whose only desire is to push forward and close space, counter knees and elbows are considerably more useful than counter punches and kicks. They are less likely to slide or bounce off the opponent, and they tend to land a good deal harder as the opponent closes range onto them. Using straight knees to intercept also means that the knee acts as a barrier, maintaining a little of the range that might be rapidly closed if the opponent steps inside a round kick. Intercepting with a knee and then dropping the weight and looking to pummel for better position as the opponent recovers from the hit is generally a much better tactic against crowding opponents than round kicking is.
Barboza’s signature counter kick did find the mark at one point and almost save him, just as it almost had against Nurmagomedov. Barboza will backtrack a few steps, wait for his opponent to close that distance, then spin for a wheel kick. Despite being thought of as a kickboxer or a Muay Thai guy because of his wickedly fast round kicks, Barboza’s wheel kick is actually more of a point fighting application. In point fighting competition turning kicks are more commonly used on the counter. The reason is that if you go at the opponent he can move in any direction, if he’s moving to you he’s on a predictable path. Raymond Daniels is one of the finest back kickers/wheel kickers in the world and most of his best kicks come on the counter.
In the third round, Barboza cracked Lee with the wheel kick and sent him into the Zab Judah chicken dance. Lee shot in and Barboza sprawled on a front headlock but was unable to capitalize. Still reeling, Lee pushed Barboza to the fence and threw him down on his hands, moving to the back. It was a stunning kick and a remarkable showing from Lee who has struggled to live down a knockout loss to Leonardo Santos which saw him marked with a "suspect chin" by fight fans.
After losing to Tony Ferguson in an interim title tilt last year, Kevin Lee was thought to have been pushed too hard, too soon. Yet such a dominating victory over the top-five ranked Edson Barboza confirms Lee’s place in the handful of fighters at the top of the lightweight heap. Dustin Poirier’s performance last week probably rounds out the top five at: Nurmagomedov, Ferguson, McGregor, Lee, and Poirier. Where we go from here, however, is the question. Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor is the money fight—it is pretty much assured to eat up most of the year—but Ferguson, Lee, and Poirier in any combination is a must watch fight.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.