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Hot Tweets: UFC Vegas 35 and Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley

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It’s a big weekend in combat sports. The PFL and Invicta had cards last night (which you can find coverage for here and here), the UFC is on tonight featuring two particularly interesting fights, and tomorrow, arguably the biggest fight of the summer takes place as Jake Paul continues his foray into boxing MMA fighters when he takes on former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. So, let’s talk about some stuff.


Giga Chikadze

The UFC Vegas 35 main event features two of the best strikers in the featherweight division when rising prospect Giga Chikadze faces established veteran Edson Barboza. There will be kicks. So many kicks. But though this fight will undoubtedly be awesome and whoever wins will have a legitimately impressive win streak, neither man is getting a title shot with a win Saturday night. In the MMAFighting Global Rankings, we currently have Barboza ranked 9 with Chikadze at 12. This is a hockey title eliminator: the winner gets a title eliminator fight next, and even that might not be true for Chikadze.

It’s easy to get caught up in hype trains, especially when the fighter himself is charismatic, and the UFC certainly is attempting to push the narrative that Chikadze is the second coming but the reality is, he hasn’t shown us that. Like, at all.

Chikadze has had six fights in the UFC and until his last one, no one much knew or cared about him. His first four wins were decision, and two of them were splits! Before that, he was best known for getting submitted on the Contender Series by a guy who still doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It’s only in the past year that Chikadze turned heads with a pair of Performance of the Night knockouts and one of those came over someone called Jamey Simmons. In truth, Chikadze got to this position with one win, his KO of Cub Swanson who is in his 17th year of professional fighting. That win isn’t nothing, but it’s not as impressive as it’s been made out to be either. If he beats Barboza tonight, it will be by far the biggest win of Chikadze’s career.

And there’s the rub, when the biggest win of your career is over the ninth-ranked guy in the division, you’re not getting a title shot next unless you are set to be an enormous star. Chikadze could turn into a moderately well-liked guy and all but he’s not Conor McGregor, he’s not even Khamzat Chimaev. If Chikadze gets the win tonight, he’s fighting at least once more before getting a title shot, and potentially twice more depending on how the upcoming featherweight title fight goes and how timelines work out. My guess is that, should Chikadze win, he’ll face Zabit Magomedsharipov or Yair Rodriguez next.


Edson Barboza

At this point, I’ll say Jose Aldo has had the more impressive weight drop but the similarities between the two are pretty remarkable. Aldo and Barboza’s first fights in their new weight classes were close bouts where their futures in the division were questionable. Neither man looked stellar with the new weight cut and both ended up losing bogus split decisions. Since then though, both men have looked to really settle into their new homes and they’ve looked like legitimate contenders.

For me, there are two key differences that make me favor Aldo, the weight classes and their time in the game. Going from lightweight down to 145 is actually a drop off in competition and going from 145 to 135 is a jump up. Add in the fact that Aldo is in his 17th year of professional competition and what he’s doing right now is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in MMA. That’s absolutely no knock on Barboza, though. His featherweight run is extremely impressive and the story isn’t finished for either guy. If Barboza keeps winning and claims gold, then the math changes entirely.


Prediction

I already answered this for Giga, so I’ll use this opportunity to give my official prediction for the main event: Edson Barboza is gonna beat the hell out of Giga Chikadze.

I touched on it above but for all the hype Chikadze hasn’t beaten anyone great and moreover, he actually has struggled with a few decidedly not great guys. Conversely, Barboza has fought one of the toughest schedules of any non-champion ever and though he’s lost a fair number of times, he’s also beaten a number of legitimately great fighters. Plus, this is a horrendous style matchup for Chikadze.

As much as Chikadze has tried to make it seem like he’s the world’s greatest kickboxer and Barboza is some schlub, that is far from the truth. There’s a reason Chikadze left Glory and it wasn’t because he was so much better than everyone that he needed a new challenge. Barboza is faster and more powerful than Chikadze and right out of the gate, that’s going to be a problem. Even if Chikadze is technically better than Barboza, he’s not that much better than him that it will make up for the athletic difference between the two. Plus, you know, this isn’t a kickboxing bout. Barboza is a BJJ brown belt and always has the opportunity to take Chikadze down, and if he does so, I don’t think Chikadze has much to offer there.

What it boils down to, for me, is that though many people have beaten Barboza, none of them have done it while fighting the fight Barboza wants: a moderately-paced kickboxing fight at range. Everyone who has beaten Barboza has done so by continually pressuring him and never letting him set his feet, but that’s not Giga’s game at all. Giga also likes a moderately-paced ranged kickboxing session, and in that, he’s definitively outgunned. Just think back to the Anthony Pettis fight, Barboza beat the former champion up, and honestly, there are a lot of similarities between Pettis and Chikadze. That’s how I envision this fight looking and when it’s over, then Barboza can fight Max Holloway for the next title shot.


Kevin Lee

Honestly? Not much. Kevin Lee is one of that rarified class of fighter in this sport (think Kelvin Gastelum or Darren Till) for whom failure is just a springboard into bigger opportunities. The three of them should get together to create the Failing Upwards stable of MMA fighters. Conor McGregor can head them up.

Look, would it be better for Kevin Lee to win tonight? Sure. But even if he loses, he won’t be down for very long. He’ll probably just drop to 155 again, get one win and make people think about all the potential he has and forget that he’s a bit of a head case inside the cage. I mean, we’re talking about a dude who lost to Al Iaquinta TWICE despite having every conceivable advantage. It’s truly mind boggling to think that the infinite talent of Kevin Lee was entirely upended by a modicum of discipline and Ragin’ Al’s jabs. Just imagine what the size and power of Daniel Rodriguez is going to do to him.

I want to be clear here, I love Kevin Lee. He is absolutely fearless and has tremendous style. He’s the JR Smith of MMA and JR Smith is my favorite basketball player ever. He is irrationally confident to a degree that is endearing (and sometimes maddening). What other guy can say with a totally straight face that he’s a top-5 welterweight despite getting his ass handed to him by a puffed up lightweight the last time he moved up? Kevin Lee says absurd things and he believes the hell out of them and I love him for that, but he is going to lose tonight.


Kelvin Gastelum

Oh look, another of the Failing Up All-Stars! Last weekend, Gastelum lost a decision to Jared Cannonier in the main event of UFC Vegas 34 and while there’s no shame in that (though there is shame in him trying to pretend he won a fight he obviously lost), there also comes a time when losing competitively to top-ranked guys shouldn’t keep earning you more chances to lose to top-ranked guys. Gastelum is now 1-5 in his last six and before that all of his wins were over guys who we will charitably describe as “past their primes.” If Gastelum wants to be taken seriously as a contender, the dude needs to win. Fortunately, there’s a clear path to doing just that: get a nutritionist and make the drop to 170 for real.

Though Gastelum missed weight on his first attempt last weekend, the man is far from the biggest middleweight in the world. There are plenty of welterweights who are bigger than he is and frankly, there are some lightweights that give him a run for his money too. Gastelum absolutely could make 170 it would just require wholesale changes to his lifestyle and he doesn’t want to do that. This has been a running theme with Gastelum dating back to his days on The Ultimate Fighter and ultimately, it is his choice. If he’s content with having the career he does, then that’s totally fine. Being one of the 15-20 best fighters in the world is still a hell of an accomplishment. But if he wants to make a real run at a title, then KG needs to commit to cutting down because at this point it’s pretty clear he can’t hack it with the elite at 185 and though welterweight is a more difficult division in general, I think he stands a much better chance there.


MMA Journalism

Answering this one simply because it’s extremely easy: Karim Zidan is the best journalist that touches MMA and it’s not particularly close.

This isn’t a knock on anyone else, most of whom I consider friends, it’s just a statement of fact. While the rest of us break fight news, and do interviews, and cover events, and turn out the occasional piece of brilliant work like this or this or this, Karim produces a remarkable and important story seemingly every month. This month he dove into Australian Neo-Nazis using MMA as a recruiting ground, last month it was a UFC fighter’s ties to a controversial QAnon organization. What Karim does in the MMA space singular and important. He’s given talks at Princeton and his investigative work into Ramzan Kadyrov led to Real Sports doing a segment on the dictator. I love the rest of the MMA media but Karim is doing the kind of work that, were it in a space other than MMA, would earn him a Pulitzer and you can’t say that about anyone else. Simply put, he is the best of us.


The Big One

Let’s wrap things up by talking about the big fight this weekend: Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley, eight rounds of cruiserweight boxing. And to answer your question immediately, no, even if Woodley slabs Paul on Sunday, the brothers Paul aren’t going anywhere.

Here’s the thing about the Paul brothers, nobody is watching them because they can box, because almost none of them care at all about the sport. The vast, vast majority of people tuning in on Sunday just want to see Jake Paul do provocative stuff and in this instance, it just happens to be that he’s boxing. If Paul were playing golf or football or something, the same people would still tune in. They’re there for the spectacle, not the show.

So, if Paul loses this weekend, that’s fine. In fact, it’s expected. Paul isn’t a real fighter and he’s facing a former UFC champion. He should lose and so when he fights again, the same people will tune in because they’re just there for Paul. And therein lies the genius of Jake Paul. He’s expertly crafted a scenario where losing doesn’t matter and winning is enormous. No risk, huge reward. Love him or hate him, you have to respect the hustle.

If you want to be rid of the Paul brothers from combat sports, well, you’re out of luck. They’re going to be around for awhile because it’s lucrative, it has cache, and it’s controllable. The way people fall from stardom in combat sports isn’t by losing to champions and people who should beat them, it’s by losing to people they should crush. Think of it like a stardom distillation: Jake Paul is a star and Woodley is known and so a loss only exchanges a small amount of stardom between the two, with another percentage being loss to the ether, the devil’s cut. But if Paul loses to some dude no one has ever heard of with pink hair, that can bankrupt an entire company.

Fortunately, if you do hate him I think there’s at least a decent chance you get to watch him get knocked out this weekend. I’m far from certain about any outcome for this fight and if anyone is telling you they know for sure what’s going to happen, that person is a liar. But, for Woodley’s many faults and he string of disappointing losses and performances, the man is still a tremendous athlete and a real fighter and he’s only lost to the best fighters in the world. This is a gargantuan step down for him in terms of competition and a monumental leap up for Paul.

Moreover, this will be the first time Paul is fighting someone who can legitimately hurt him. We’ve yet to see Paul even really get hit much less hit by someone who can turn the lights out. That sort of dynamic changes fights substantially and until we see how Paul deals with legitimate offense, I have to favor Woodley. Now, is it possible Woodley just sits there and does nothing the whole fight? Sure. This is a Tyron Woodley fight and that’s always on the table. But if Woodley comes out like he did against Vicente Luque, well, Paul ain’t Luque. It’s why I’m legitimately interested in this bout, and I will for sure be watching come Sunday.


Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things at least tacitly related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.