Contributor: Nolan Howell
After losing his UFC interim Lightweight Championship shot against Tony Ferguson at UFC 216 and failing to make the lightweight limit on the scales for the main event, Kevin Lee needed a little luck in Atlantic City to impress at UFC Fight Night 128 against Edson Barboza. With major lightweight division ramifications on the line, both were looking to cement themselves as the number one contender in a logjam at the top when all was said and done at Boardwalk Hall.
Lee took a leg kick or two from Barboza before getting him against the fence and scoring the double-leg takedown. From there, Lee used frequent position changes on top and powerful ground and pound to welt up the face of Barboza. The elbows seemed to do the most damage for Lee in the first round, but Barboza was able to survive with some active legs from his back to keep Lee from landing too many strikes unanswered. Barboza came out shooting for a takedown in round two and was shoved against the fence, but he survived. Lee landed a body kick that seemed to take whatever wind left out of Barboza and secured another takedown with a slam off the fence. Lee was more patient in the guard, posting up to land right hands and move to half guard and mount soon after. Barboza’s defensive activity kept him alive for the third, where he showed signs of life on the feet and landed a spinning hook kick that had Lee go full video game physics until he got him back to the mat. Barboza was able to kick him away after inactivity in the guard, but Lee had recovered enough to survive the rest of the round standing with jabs that backed Barboza away.
Lee and Barboza came out swinging in round four, with Lee landing hooks, but Barboza finding more power on uppercuts and a head kick. Barboza perhaps won the exchange as Lee went back to the takedown off the fence soon after, much to the chagrin of the Atlantic City crowd. Lee held top position right in front of his coaches against the fence, staying busy between standing up for a few punches and shifting for position. Barboza survived full mount and shrimped back to half guard, but Lee kept control for the rest of the round. Barboza landed an overhand right and another spin kick to the head to open the fifth, but he had been worn out for the better part of two rounds by now and Lee’s jabs had more sting than anything he threw, swelling up both eyes now and cutting along the right eye. After a clinch break, the referee called Barboza to the doctor and the combination of the swelling and the cut by the right eye prompted a doctor’s stoppage.
Lee showed no slowing down coming off the lightweight title fight loss against Tony Ferguson and put in a statement performance, demonstrating excellent gameplanning against Barboza by both using his wrestling skills and sticking to some fundamental striking that can often both Barboza if he doesn’t set his range with leg kicks. Lee said it’s “Khabib time” after the fight and who could deny him at this point?
In the co-main event, Frankie Edgar turned back the clock after a KO loss to Brian Ortega and went back to his famous stick-and-move approach in a rematch with Cub Swanson. Edgar went back to his bread and butter of pressuring with combinations mixed in with level-change takedown attempts. Swanson opened up confidently early on, but got more inactive in the exchanges as the fight went on as Edgar kept working the legs with kicks and throwing in takedowns and exit strikes off those takedowns and exchanges to keep Swanson from getting into rhythm. The leg kicks and exiting punches proved to keep Swanson on his toes enough to ever get anything going of significance, despite finding a home for the right hand at various points in three rounds.
Undercard Superstar scored the fight 30-27 Edgar. The judges scored it 30-27 across the board to give Edgar the unanimous decision. After the fight, Edgar seemed ready for a title shot against the winner of the UFC Featherweight Championship fight between champion Max Holloway and challenger Brian Ortega, who just knocked Edgar out in the first round before this Swanson fight. While that may not be the likely fight for Edgar next, it was reassuring to see him back to form.
Heavyweights Chase Sherman and Justin Willis exchanged on the feet throughout their fight, with Willis proving to be the more effective puncher off the counter, despite Sherman being the more technical of the two standing. Willis took home the victory with a 29-28 sweep on the official judge’s cards, dropping the third round on the Undercard Superstar card.
Two first-round KOs on the main card saw middleweight Dave Branch surprising striker Thiago Santos against the fence with an overhand right and a few hammerfists, while Dan Hooker shoved Jim Miller away and landed a step-up right knee that put Miller out cold in a lightweight contest. Bantamweight Aljamain Sterling also picked up a win on the main card with a 30-27 sweep on all cards over Brett Johns.
On the undercard, Ryan LaFlare swept the cards 30-27 against Alex Garcia at welterweight, while bantamweight Ricky Simon debuted in impressive fashion against Merab Dvalishvili. Simon made a comeback in the third round and held a guillotine choke from mount when the bell sounded. Dvalishvili was kicking his legs while in the choke, but laid still after the horn and Simon was awarded the technical submission victory at the end of the third in something that will surely be reviewed by commissions. Siyar Bahadurzada won in surprising fashion in the second round, landing a front kick to the side of Luan Chagas’s side body that crumpled him to the canvas and finishing the job with a headshot uppercut on the way down to KO him both ways in the welterweight contest. Light heavyweight Corey Anderson picked up a unanimous decision victory over Patrick Cummins, as did welterweight Tony Martin on Keita Nakamura on the UFC Fight Pass prelim.
Ricky Simon vs. Merab Dvalishvili took home fight of the night, while Bahadurzada and Branch got performance bonuses for their knockouts in the official bonuses announced post-event.
-Nolan can be reached at email@example.com or @nolanundercard.