The UFC returns to Atlantic City for the first time in almost four years and two lightweight contenders will look to stay in the mix with a big win Saturday. In the main event, Edson Barboza takes on Kevin Lee in a classic striker vs. grappler matchup pitting two fighters against one another who have never suffered consecutive defeats. They’re both looking to bounce back from tough losses and the results should be compelling.
In other main card action, Cub Swanson looks for revenge against Frankie Edgar in the co-main event, former World Series of Fighting two-division champion David Branch takes on knockout artist Thiago Santos, bantamweight submission experts Aljamain Sterling and Brett Johns hit the mats (or will they?), and Jersey boy Jim Miller returns home to face New Zealand’s Dan Hooker.
What: UFC Atlantic City
Where: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.
When: Saturday, April 21. The one-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 7:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight FOX Sports 1 preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the six-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET also on FOX Sports 1.
Kevin Lee missed weight for this bout, making it a 157-pound catchweight affair, but that shouldn’t do much to dull the intrigue surrounding this encounter.
Assuming Lee is mostly recovered by fight night and not hindered by the struggle of his weight cut, he presents an enormous challenge for Barboza. Keep in mind that Lee dominated portions of his match against fellow grappler Tony Ferguson when they fought for an interim title at UFC 216 last October, and, if Lee is to be believed, the lingering effects of a staph infection hindered him as the fight went into the third round where he succumbed to a triangle choke submission.
The game plan for Lee will obviously be to wrestle Barboza down to the mat, where he can control the pace of the fight and prevent the explosive Brazilian striker from deploying his standup arsenal. Barboza has greatly improved his takedown defense since debuting with the promotion back in November 2010 and he’s shown he can stuff opponents with solid wrestling like Gilbert Melendez and Beneil Dariush.
However, it’s going to be hard for Barboza to erase the memory of him being tossed around and held down by Khabib Nurmagomedov, arguably the most dominant wrestler in all of MMA at the moment.
Lee might not be on Nurmagomedov’s level, but with five rounds to work with he should find similar success in the grappling department. He has enough striking to survive (if not win) exchanges with Barboza and should be able to fall back on his elite wrestling to grind out a victory or pull off a late submission after wearing Barboza down.
Second verse, same as the first.
After years of putting on thrilling fights for the UFC, the matchmakers finally rewarded Cub Swanson with one of several rematches that he’d been seeking. Unfortunately for him, it might be the worst one possible outside of another go-around with Jose Aldo.
Frankie Edgar dispatched of Swanson easily in their first meeting at UFC Austin three-and-a-half years ago, dominating “Killer Cub” in all phases of the game before putting him away with a neck crank in the closing seconds of round five. While both men have developed and evolved since then, Edgar’s evasive style, crisp boxing, and strong wrestling background remain the same and all of those skills are guaranteed to give Swanson a headache.
None of this is to say that Swanson doesn’t have a puncher’s chance given his own standup acumen and the durability that keeps him in every fight, and it’s not as difficult to picture him catching Edgar with something after “The Answer” recently suffered his first-ever knockout loss at the hands of Brian Ortega.
But if Edgar is on his game, it’s his fight to lose.
Sherman has a tendency to throw caution to the wind in his fights, which has resulted in him delivering and being on the receiving end of several highlight-reel finishes. That will be in contrast to Willis’s first two UFC conquests: James Mulheron, who allowed Willis to dictate the pace of their fight en route to a unanimous decision loss, and Allen Crowder, who fell to Willis’s power inside of a round. If Sherman slips into that same trap of backing away from the hulking Willis, he’ll be in trouble.
It’s up to Willis to stay patient if Sherman tries to draw him into a slugfest. “Big Pretty” favors precision over volume and it’s possible he gets frustrated if Sherman starts to make their fight ugly. Most likely, his heavy hands and the threat of the takedown will be enough to keep Sherman honest, allowing Willis to get loose and set up a first-round knockout.
This fight could play out like a middleweight preview of Saturday’s main event.
Like his countryman Barboza, Thiago Santos is one of the most feared strikers in the Octagon, capable of embarrassing even the most iron-chinned competitors. He’s won his last four fights by TKO and is tied with Anderson Silva for the most finishes by strikes in UFC history at 185 pounds. The man can do some damage on his feet.
Branch isn’t the wrestler that Lee is, but he’s solid defensively and if he can get the action to the mat, he might even be more dangerous than “The Motown Phenom.” That would be bad news for Santos, who has suffered two of his five career losses via submission.
The other benefit that Branch has is that he’s happy to work from the clinch and drain the gas tank and spirit of his opponents, occasionally to the chagrin of the paying audience. He’ll have to ignore any boo birds in the building and stay on Santos, because prolonged periods of separation will spell doom for him.
While Elias Theodorou was unable to win a methodical war of attrition with Santos, Branch should be able to employ similar tactics (clinching, pressing Santos against the cage, dirty boxing) and eke out a decision victory.
In a battle between two like-minded grapplers, there’s always the chance that rather than a mat classic, we are instead treated to a lukewarm kickboxing contest. That could be what unfolds when Aljamain Sterling goes head-to-head with Brett Johns.
Neither man is shy when it comes to going for takedowns, but they’ll find out early how much energy it will take to successfully execute a shot and then to hold their opponent down. Physically speaking these two are nearly identical, so it’s a stretch to picture either taking command on the canvas just based on natural gifts.
In the striking, Sterling should have the speed advantage and he’s displayed flashes of technical standup, recently outpointing Augusto Mendes and using his strikes to set up takedowns against former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao. Johns is no slouch standing either, so if neither man is able to assert themselves and find dominant positions or submission attempts, look for this one to end in a split decision that’s unlikely to leave either man completely satisfied.
Can Jim Miller finally claim sole possession of the UFC lightweight wins record with victory number 17?
It will be a tall task for the 34-year-old Miller, a native of Sparta County who will have a boisterous New Jersey crowd behind him as he aims to stop a career-worst three-fight skid. He’s giving up four inches in both height and reach to the rangy Dan Hooker.
Miller has always shown a knack for wading through damage, though he’ll have to be careful to avoid Hooker’s kicks and knees. “Hangman” has shown he’s more than comfortable dealing damage in close as well as from distance.
It’s imperative that Miller gets a takedown, and if he can, it will give him the opportunity to show off the Brazilian jiu-jitsu expertise that has kept him in the UFC for nearly a decade. With New Jersey behind him, it will be Miller’s time on fight night.