UFC on ESPN 2 Staff Picks: Predictions for Gaethje vs. Barboza

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2019

UFC on ESPN 2 Staff Picks: Predictions for Gaethje vs. Barboza

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    The UFC hits the City of Brotherly Love and the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday with a main event that is everything a fight fan could want.

    Justin Gaethje and Edson Barboza are two of the most exciting fighters in the UFC, and they are going to take to the center of the Octagon to throw hands. And legs. Gaethje-Barboza is a main event that will put you off the edge of your seat and on to the floor in excitement.

    Who takes that battle?

    What about the co-main event in the middleweight division between David Branch and Jack Hermansson? Or the incredible strawweight contest featuring Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Michelle Waterson?

    The Bleacher Report squad of Scott Harris, Nathan McCarter and Jonathan Snowden is back to lend expert opinions on the six-fight main card. Ready for the predictions?

Sheymon Moraes vs. Sodiq Yusuff

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    Scott Harris

    A close fight to kick off the main card. Sheymon Moraes is a deadly muay thai striker but tends to sit on the counter and doesn't press the action at any time. Sodiq Yusuff has never backed down from a fight but doesn't seem so technically sound. Both these guys look for the home run swing. Here's guessing the more proven guy gets it done.

    Moraes, TKO, Rd. 1.


    Jonathan Snowden

    These guys both sling hands and like to end the fight in the first round. Don't tune in late, as this is one of the few fights on the card almost guaranteed to get the blood pumping.

    Yusuff, knockout, Rd. 1.


    Nathan McCarter

    I'm going to stick to an old MMA rule: never pick someone who doesn't have a Wikipedia page. OK, it's not a great rul,  as Justin Gaethje didn't have one until his final days in World Series of Fighting and is already considered one of the best in the world, but I'll ride with it here.

    Moraes is riding a big win into this fight and will be able to land cleanly. Big strikes, big finish.

    Moraes, TKO, Rd. 1.

Paul Craig vs. Kennedy Nzechukwu

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    I have never heard of Kennedy Nzechukwu. Can that be the sum total of my commentary? I follow the sport pretty closely, so it's weird that there's a guy on this card I've never heard of. But there's no dilution issue with the UFC. None at all. But fine, Paul Craig is a little one-dimensional, so give me Nzechukwu. No offense to anyone, but I'm super looking forward to the next prospect named "Smith."

    Nzechukwu, unanimous decision.



    Nzechukwu is a prospect from Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series, a rangy light heavyweight who slings bombs. Craig is a ground fighter who will be desperately looking to take it to the mat. The fight will be relatively simple—either Craig can get the respite he needs and win on the ground or he's going to get knocked out. UFC, it seems, is hoping it's the latter.

    Nzechukwu, knockout, Rd. 1.



    If I stuck to the Wikipedia Rule for the first fight, then I should stick to it here. Craig is coming off a loss to a budding prospect Jim Crute, but he'll be able to rebound in a gritty fight here. You can't trust too many fighters who come off Dana White's show to perform in a big way.

    Craig, unanimous decision.

Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Michelle Waterson

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    This is my favorite fight on this main card outside the main event. These are two good fighters who could each use a win, especially Kowalkawiecz. Karolina's kickboxing is heavier than it looks, and she can take a shot. Waterson should want to get this to the ground, and she will have an advantage there, but Karolina will tough her way out of it and pick apart Waterson on the feet.

    Kowalkiewicz, unanimous decision.



    This fight is all about controlling terrain inside the Octagon. Karolina is an excellent point fighter who racks up damage inside the clinch with a persistent, non-stop attack. Waterson prefers to conduct the bout at kicking distance, with her fluid karate stance enabling her to control range and her opponent. Whoever can impose her will on the fight and dictate where it goes down will walk away the winner.

    My heart says Waterson. But my mind can't stop seeing Karolina controlling her in the clinch.

    Kowalkiewicz, split decision.



    I often think about how great an atomweight division could have been—and could still be—if Waterson went back to 105. Instead, she moved up to be on the UFC roster and is drastically overpowered by bigger, stronger opponents. That isn't going to change here.

    Kowalkiewicz is well-rounded and the heavier shots will add up. Waterson's best bet is to nab a submission, but Kowalkiewicz is an underrated grappler in her own right. If it hits the mat, she is going to rain down ground-and-pound from the top position. Waterson will be game, but this will be one-sided almost exclusively because she is undersized.

    Kowalkiewicz, unanimous decision.

Josh Emmett vs. Michael Johnson

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    Good lord, do I have to break down Josh Emmett vs. Michael Johnson? Fine. A low-effort match earns a low-effort prediction. Johnson's solid, if not pretty, in any area. Give him the W.

    Johnson, unanimous decision.



    These two will be quite the contrast, both aesthetically and athletically. Once the bell rings, Emmett will likely bounce around quite a bit before finally engaging. Johnson, who likes to wait out his opponents and make them come to him, will bide his time to counter. This is a pick-em fight.

    Emmett, unanimous decision.



    I want to pick Johnson, but I don't trust his body at featherweight. Please stop cutting weight and go back to 155, Michael. With a depleted body, Emmett will be able to outwork him to a decision. If Johnson didn't have to cut all that weight, he wins this easily. Instead, it is an unnecessary loss because of the rigors of an antiquated thought that you need to brutalize your body through dehydration.

    Emmett, unanimous decision.

David Branch vs. Jack Hermansson

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    David Branch has the jiu-jitsu to nab a win, but Jack Hermansson has some brawling. Branch has lost two of three and hasn't converted his two-title World Series of Fighting run into the UFC. He's a good fighter, but is he co-main event good? Probably not, but neither is Hermansson.

    Branch, submission, Rd. 2.



    Branch is a good first-round fighter, backing down his opponent with a jab and looking to counter with a hard right hand when they respond. But as the fight goes on, you can practically see his energy bar waning.

    Whether that's because he's 37 or because he's just wired that way, I can't say. But if Hermansson gets through the first round, this is his fight to win. He's an aggressive, well-rounded fighter with strong kicks and a surprisingly good top game if the bout goes to the mat. This will be the fight that finally puts him on the map.

    Hermansson, knockout, Rd. 3.



    Why is this the co-main event over Kowalkiewicz vs. Waterson? That is a much better fight with much larger implications toward the top of their respective divisions given the current official rankings. Instead, this slog takes up the co-main spot where a more deserving fight could land.

    As for the bout, Branch is a better fighter on talent alone, so I'll take him. The contest takes place against the cage for most of the 15 minutes and puts fans to sleep. I hope no one misses the main event because of this.

    Branch, unanimous decision.

Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje

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    Most people seem to be going with Gaethje here despite his slight underdog status. I'm riding with Barboza. Gaethje doesn't tend to go for many takedowns, but he can get them, and he won't have that escape valve against Barboza and some of the best takedown defense in the UFC. Plus, hey, leg kicks vs. leg kicks? Forget about it.

    Barboza, unanimous decision.



    Barboza! Gaethje! OK, UFC, you have my attention.

    These two are evenly matched and aggressive leg-kickers who almost guarantee a good night for the fans. The difference between them is in the wrestling game. If Gaethje gets in trouble, he can always take Edson down. He will do it enough to steal rounds and the fight.

    Gaethje, unanimous decision.



    Pure, unadulterated violence. If this fight were never-ending breadsticks at Olive Garden, I would be sitting in a booth for the better part of a weekend gorging myself on its goodness.

    Barboza's takedown defense is a little underrated, and it should be good enough to stop some early attempts if Gaethje tries. If Gaethje waits, he won't have the legs to drive through for the takedown. Either way, this fight is taking place on the feet, which means I side with the more tactical fighter in Barboza. After the legs go, Barboza ices Gaethje with a clean hook.

    Barboza, knockout, Rd. 3.


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