You wanted it, you got it.
Since Justin Gaethje first signed on the dotted line to compete in the UFC, it’s like he was destined to someday cross paths with Edson Barboza and that’s exactly what’s going down in the lightweight main event of UFC Philadelphia this Saturday. Both men are known for their insanely violent brawls, killer knockouts, and leg kicks that can shred steel. As far as free fights go, they don’t come much more exciting than this.
Middleweights David Branch and Jack Hermansson may be entering the co-headliner with significantly less hype behind them, but their bout could have contender implications down the road. Branch is a former World Series of Fighting two-division champion with a recent first-round KO of Thiago Santos, who just so happens to be challenging Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title next. Opposite Branch is Hermansson, a former Cage Warriors champion who has won four of his last five and is looking for a signature win to vault him into the top 15.
In other main card action, featherweight Josh Emmett looks to bounce back from a brutal knockout loss when he takes on veteran Michael Johnson, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Michelle Waterson jockey for position in the strawweight contenders’ line, Paul Craig fights for his UFC life against Contender Series signee Kennedy Nzechukwu in a light heavyweight bout, and Sodiq Yusuff faces the toughest test of his young career when he fights Sheymon Moraes at 145 pounds.
What: UFC on ESPN 2
Where: Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia
When: Saturday, March 30. The three-fight ESPN+ early preliminaries begin at 3:30 p.m. ET, followed by a four-fight preliminary card on ESPN at 5 p.m. ET. The six-fight main card will also air on ESPN, beginning at 7 p.m. ET.
Here’s one guarantee: Someone is going to get hurt.
Yes, for those craving an all-out bloodbath, there is reason to be concerned that Justin Gaethje will finally put his wrestling background to good use and ground Edson Barboza, a tactic that has worked for the last two men who beat Barboza, Kevin Lee and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Gaethje’s takedowns probably aren’t on that level, but they may not need to be if all he wants to do is slow Barboza down.
Where’s the fun in that though?
When it comes to Gaethje becoming a more diverse, tactical fighter, you have to take an “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach. For now, assume he is planning to match Barboza skill-for-skill on the feet. One can already picture him waving Barboza on after a spinning heel kick scrapes his jaw.
The pressure that Gaethje brings is nightmarish, so Barboza will have to be at his most agile to avoid being backed up against the fence by “The Highlight”; on the flipside, even Gaethje with his legendary chin should proceed with caution, lest he walk right into a Barboza counter. And Barboza doesn’t counter just to back you off, Barboza counters to take your head off.
I still have faith in Gaethje’s reputation as a damage sponge, so I see him taking punishment early on and eventually wearing Barboza out with his relentless approach before finishing in the third or fourth round.
At 37, this could be a make-or-break fight for David Branch. As well-rounded as he is, he’s always been missing that extra gear to vault himself into becoming a serious UFC contender. He’ll need to find it if he wants to get past Jack Hermansson.
Hermansson’s 5-2 UFC run has been defined by his dogged determination and willingness to take a fight anywhere. Sometimes it pays off, like in his gusty win against Thales Leites and when he gave submission specialist Gerald Meerschaert a taste of his own medicine. Other times, like when he had to stand with Thiago Santos... not so much.
This will be a fight of extremes, with the two measuring each other from long range before working to gain an advantage in the clinch. Branch is a good dirty boxer and Hermansson is also active in-close, so this will be a grueling 15 minutes for both men.
It might not be the statement victory Hermansson is looking for, but he should do enough to eke out a close decision win.
This is a fun matchup between two standup fighters who use a lot of movement to set up their more damaging shots. I’d give Josh Emmett the power advantage and Michael Johnson the advantage in speed and volume. Though Emmett has shown himself to have quick hands as well.
Johnson has a top-shelf jab that will make Emmett have to work past if he wants to get in close where he can start hunting for a place to land his hooks. You can expect Johnson to use punches to score to the head and body, while Emmett attempts to cut off the cage and limit Johnson’s options.
If this goes to a decision, Johnson’s more measured striking could have him ahead on the scorecards, but I think Emmett will be able to register a knockdown or two to sway the judges and get the win.
These two are going to put on a striking clinic on Saturday and picking a winner won’t be easy. Do you lean towards the more dynamic Michelle Waterson or the steady, calculating Muay Thai mastery of Karolina Kowalkiewicz?
One aspect of the fight to keep an eye on will be to see if Waterson uses her underrated ground game to completely take Kowalkiewicz out of her element. That’s easier said than done of course, because outside of being mauled by Claudia Gadelha a couple of years back, Kowalkiewicz has shown stout takedown defense. If Waterson wants to get this one to the mat, it will have to be with a trip or throw from the clinch. To get there, she’ll have to wade through the crisp striking of Kowalkiewicz, which means risking getting sliced up by the Polish standout’s elbows and knees.
At distance, these two are evenly matched, with Waterson always happy to show off her arsenal of kicks and Kowalkiewicz also able to stifle aggressive opponents with kicks to the body and legs. I give Kowalkiewicz the slight edge in a clean, straightforward kickboxing match.
And that’s how I think this match will unfold, so it’s Kowalkiewicz by decision.
All it takes is a glance at Kennedy Nzechukwu to understand why the 26-year-old Nigerian is such an intriguing prospect. Listed at 6-foot-5, Nzechukwu brings an impressive 83-inch reach into the Octagon and that’s going to be a real problem for Paul Craig.
Whether Nzechukwu can effectively use his reach advantage remains to be seen. He was impressive in his second Contender Series appearance, but he was still relying on his physical gifts to get ahead as opposed to making distinct technical improvements. That won’t fly against the battle-tested Craig.
Craig has struggled to assert himself in the UFC, winning just once in his last four appearances for the promotion and that one win came via a miraculous triangle choke with one second remaining in a bout in which he was being thoroughly dominated. His experience will help him here, but will it be enough to overcome his shoddy defensive skills?
He’ll have a hard time getting this one to the ground and as long as Nzechukwu’s takedown defense holds up, he should finish this one standing.
Before the headliners throw down, Sheymon Moraes and Sodiq Yusuff are probably going to put in their own bid for the Fight of the Night award.
Blessed with fast, accurate hands, Moraes is going to test the hard-hitting Yusuff’s technical acumen and make him work to land those bombs that he is so fond of throwing. There’s really not much more to this matchup than that. Moraes has to play the matador to the hard-charging Yusuff and if he isn’t able to stay out of the way, he’s going to get flattened.
Moraes doesn’t just have to win on points here either. He could easily catch an over-eager Yusuff with a straight shot before flurrying for a fight-ending combination. We’ll have to see if Yusuff is more mature than his two-and-a-half years of pro experience would suggest.
Let’s say Moraes by knockout here.
Kevin Holland def. Gerald Meerschaert
Ray Borg def. Casey Kenney