Sports

Edson Barboza Vs. Dan Hooker or: Speed Vs. Cunning

There are plenty of fights this weekend, and UFC Milwaukee's co-main events are pretty great for a Fight Night card.

by Jack Slack
Dec 14 2018, 3:45pm

Photos by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC via Getty, and Antonio Lacerda/EPA-EFE

While there is plenty of MMA action scheduled over the next few days, the co-main event of the UFC’s card might be the most exciting fight of the weekend. Edson Barboza is a known commodity—he kicks extremely hard and fast, and he can do it over and over until his opponent’s insides are pulp. Dan Hooker, meanwhile, is a bit more of an undercard star, quietly building up a head of steam and a following amongst hardcore fans. For Barboza, this is the first non-wrestler he has met since 2017 and a chance to shine once more. For Hooker it is the most dangerous opponent of his career but the chance to leap from fringe Top 15 fighter straight into the Top Ten talk.

Since going up to lightweight, Hooker has done a wonderful job of deconstructing dangerous strikers. Take, for instance, Hooker’s UFC lightweight debut against Ross Pearson. Pearson is long in the tooth, but still good at what he does: slipping and countering; he has one of the nicest inside slips and counter left hooks to ever grace mixed martial arts. Hooker did everything you want to see a Pearson opponent do. He threw high kicks and front kicks to the face, making Pearson cautious about ducking or slipping. Hooker jabbed Pearson when Pearson stood upright or pursued with his head in place, and feinted whenever Pearson felt like he had a read on Hooker. He scored heavy low kicks when Pearson was out at range. When Pearson finally began to crowd Hooker a little more effectively, and used his head movement to stay inside of Hooker’s tremendous height and reach, Hooker timed a dip and met Pearson with a knee.

Marc Diakese was acrobatic and explosive, a thunderous knockout puncher and a deviously fast kicker, but Hooker bamboozled Diakiese at range. From the get go Diakiese was ready for a fire fight and when Hooker would show him the glimmer of a shoulder feint and Diakiese would leap into a counter kick that came nowhere close.

Hooker slowed the pace down, drew Diakese out with distance and feints, and made him look very average before submitting him in the third round. Most recently Hooker starched the very highly regarded Gilbert Burns in a higher paced affair where he took a few more shots than usual.

This is what makes this Barboza fight so interesting: Hooker likes a lower pace and a longer range, while all of Barboza’s problems in the cage have come against opponents who have crowded and flustered him. Hooker was the one calling for this fight so he must have some ideas, but a measured fight at long range seems like the type of bout that Barboza—with his insanely fast power kicks—can show his best looks in. Either Hooker will have to change his usual game up and get on the front foot, or he will have to beat Barboza at his own game which would certainly be a feat.

The wheel kick is almost synonymous with Barboza now. He sets it up as a counter to the opponent’s forward motion by retreating to draw the opponent on. This makes it more likely that he will have a target than if he went at the opponent trying to spin on the lead. Kevin Lee, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anthony Njokuani, and Terry Etim all walked onto this kick.

The UFC’s show this weekend is headlined by a rematch between Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta. Iaquinta won the first fight back in February 2014. Beef with the UFC kept Iaquinta on the sidelines for almost two years after a questionable split decision victory over Jorge Masvidal in April 2015, but Iaquinta stepped in to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov on short notice at UFC 223 and won tremendous goodwill from the MMA fanbase and media. So much so that with only one victory in the last two years—over the ghost of Diego Sanchez—Iaquinta is inconceivably ranked as the No. 8 lightweight in the world on the UFC’s official rankings. A stark reminder that the UFC rankings are voted for by just 14 men and none of them really know what they’re doing.

Kevin Lee, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength since the first match with Iaquinta. He reeled off four victories, but then suffered a TKO at the hands of Leonardo Santos in December 2015. In recent years Lee has submitted Michael Chiesa and Francisco Trinaldo, technically knocked out Jake Matthews, and bludgeoned Edson Barboza into a mercy stoppage, with a solid performance against Tony Ferguson in an interim title fight in the middle.

Yet with one good right hand, Iaquinta could steal all of Lee’s work and leave him behind. That is Iaquinta’s gift: good wrestling and a monstrous right hand. While Lee is a powerhouse wrestler in his own right, he had a good deal of difficulty getting Iaquinta down on his terms in the first match. Lee’s striking is slowly catching up to the potential of his freakish 80 inch reach, but he is still fairly hittable on occasion. Yet Lee’s kicking game has looked strong of late and Iaquinta really is limited to the right hand for the most part. It is a decent fight for a Fight Night card.

Bellator Hawaii

The rest of the weekend’s action comes from Bellator, who are hosting a pair of cards in Honolulu. Hawaii has always had a strong MMA fanbase and has a great history of significant fights. In Rumble on the Rock, Jake Shields, Anderson Silva, and Yushin Okami fought in a welterweight grand prix, and B.J. Penn took on a young upstart named Takanori Gomi and taught him that he’d have to be more than a blanketing wrestler if he hoped to be the true number one lightweight in the world. In fact, the current UFC featherweight champion, Max Holloway can’t do a single interview without calling for UFC: Hawaii, so Bellator will certainly be banking some goodwill from MMA fans with this move.

On Friday night, the consensus best lightweight outside the UFC, Michael Chandler will meet Brent Primus for a long, long awaited rematch. In June 2017 Primus challenged Chandler for the title, but the champion turned his ankle and found himself on the end of one of the strangest losses in Bellator history. The referee didn’t allow the fight to go on and sort itself out—the standard procedure when a fighter suffers an injury—but instead called a time out and ushered in the doctor to examine the ankle. The doctor called off the fight but calling a time out for anything but a foul is pretty much unheard of in MMA.

Fans would have been skeptical if Primus stepped in and finished Chandler as Chandler was injured, but the referee didn’t even allow that to happen, so Primus has wound up looking like a paper champion. Moreover, Chandler has been staying busy but it has taken 18 months to get Primus back into the cage for the rematch. But Primus is a gigantic lightweight, a good wrestler and a powerful kicker, there’s nothing to say he can’t make it happen again if Chandler can’t put him away.

On Saturday’s card, Hawaii’s own Ilima-Lei Macfarlane defends her flyweight title against Valerie Létourneau. It isn’t a match up that is going to set the internet ablaze but Létourneau is tough and always good for a scrap, and Macfarlane has arm-barred her last three opponents and gone 7-0 since signing with Bellator. Not a bad turnaround for a woman who first found MMA fame after her legendary mismatch against The Soccer Mom. She even won her title via Dead Orchard—an arm bar made famous by Nathan Orchard which is completed by triangling the legs over the opponent’s shoulder rather than by passing the leg over the head.

A UFC legend is set to make his Bellator debut on Saturday’s card as well. Lyoto Machida’s best days are in the rear view mirror but he might still have it in him to beat former Bellator middleweight champion, Rafael Carvalho. Middleweight is Bellator’s weakest division and it is likely that they want to set up a largely unnecessary rematch between champion Gegard Mousasi and the aged Machida.

We have written extensively about Bellator’s welterweight tournament and how it might just be the best thing going on in MMA. Friday’s card finally gets the tournament moving along as Neiman Gracie and Ed Ruth open up the second bracket. Ruth is considered the Daniel Cormier of the tournament: an incredibly accomplished wrestler with dynamite in his fists, but also largely untested in MMA. It would not be at all surprising if Ruth were to run all the way to the finals based on his potential but it would still be a tremendous feat. Neiman Gracie, meanwhile, has quietly picked up the mantle of the Gracie name in MMA and while he isn’t as well known as Kron Gracie he has done good work in Bellator so far.

A solid weekend of fights all around, and if that’s still not enough for you, Invicta and Cage Warriors are both putting on events too. Get back here Monday and we’ll discuss the best bits.