The UFC is finally back in my hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – for the first time since 2011. A marquee lightweight bout between heavy leg strikers Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje headlines the card and we also have the debut of former LFA women’s flyweight champion Sabina Mazo. I’m taking a look at my favorite matchups going into this weekend, as these will be the first fights I’ll be seeing live since January of 2016.
Kicking off the early prelims, Sabina ‘The Colombian Queen’ Mazo is set to make her debut against Maryna Moroz. This fight was announced in January, you can check out my analysis here. My pick: Moroz’s ground game could spell trouble for Mazo, but ultimately I think Mazo is victorious in her octagon debut
Ray Borg was set to make his return this weekend against Kyler Phillips, but as of yesterday Phillips is out and newly crowned LFA double champ and DWTNCS vet Casey Kenney steps in. LFA flyweight champion Casey Kenney, who captured that title in November, just added the bantamweight title to his mantle this past weekend – now he’s headed to the UFC. Kenney beat Brandon Royval at LFA 53 to claim the flyweight strap then knocked out Vincent Cachero in the first round this past weekend to become the bantamweight champ. Kenney went 1-1 on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, the only loss on his 11-1 record and is now looking to stick around with the top promotion. Borg hasn’t fought since his 2017 title loss to then-champion Demetrious Johnson. Injuries and complications with his newborn son has kept him away from the sport, but now Borg is ready to make some waves as he moves to the bantamweight division. My pick: Kenney takes it on short notice after his successful move up to bantamweight, the time off will hurt Borg
One of the top fights on the preliminary card is between the streaking Enrique Barzola and former LFA featherweight champion Kevin ‘Angel Of Death’ Aguilar. Barzola has been on a 4-fight win streak since late 2016, picking up victories over Chris Avila, Gabriel Benítez, Matt Bessette and most recently Brandon Davis at UFC Fight Night 129 last May. Barzola will be tasked with stopping the 8-fight win streak of Aguilar. Kevin Aguilar has been with LFA since 2013, going 8-1 during that stretch and claiming the featherweight title before being featured on DWTNCS. Aguilar didn’t get a contract that night but did get the call for the Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale where he beat out Rick Glenn in a three round war. Aguilar hasn’t quite found that stride that made him a name in LFA, but I think a knockout victory here will gain him some attention. My pick: Aguilar by TKO
On to the main card, where top strawweight contenders Karolina Kowalkiewicz and ‘The Karate Hottie’ Michelle Waterson will face off. Kowalkiewicz came into the UFC on a 7-fight win streak and picked up three wins before getting a shot at the title. Since her loss to then-champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Kowalkiewicz has gone 2-2, her most recent fight a brutal knockout loss to the next strawweight challenger, Jéssica Andrade. Waterson was a hot prospect coming into the UFC, going 2-2 before putting together a couple of wins against Cortney Casey and most recently Felice Herrig. A win here for Waterson could mean a title shot, while Kowalkiewicz is looking to get back in the win column. My pick: This is a tough fight to call, but I’m going with Kowalkiewicz via unanimous decision
The last time Josh Emmett fought was at UFC on FOX 28 over a year ago, a controversial loss to Jeremy Stephens where it looked like Stephens landed a knee to a downed opponent; nonetheless, it was the first knockout loss for Emmett. Prior to that, Emmett was 13-1, holding wins over Jon Tuck, Scott Holtzman and former title challenger Ricardo Lamas – his only loss being a split decision to Desmond Green. Emmett is ready to prove himself again after having ‘one of the worst years’ of his life in 2018. Standing in his way is Michael ‘The Menace’ Johnson; Johnson is on a 2-fight win streak after beating Artem Lobov at UFC Fight Night 138. Johnson’s career has been streaky, he went 8-4 from 2010 to 2015 and holds wins over Tony Ferguson and Edson Barboza in that span; but then went 1-5 after that before putting together that small win streak – his lone win over Dustin Poirier. Johnson has fought the who’s who in the featherweight division, and this matchup has FOTN written all over it. My pick: Emmett gets back on track, but this could go either way
The co-main event is a middleweight matchup between David Branch and Jack Hermansson. David Branch is 2-2 in his return to the UFC after winning 10 straight including both the middleweight and light heavyweight championships in the WSOF. Branch took out Krzysztof Jotko and current LHW title challenger Thiago Santos while his most recent fight was a TKO loss to Jared Cannonier. Jack Hermansson is riding his second win streak with the UFC after going 3-2 to start off with the promotion. Hermansson finished Thales Leites and Gerald Meerschaert and is looking to keep that momentum going as he tries to crack into the top 15. This is another fight that could go either way, Branch’s inconsistency is a concern as Hermansson has looked near-flawless in his wins. My pick: David Branch
The main event Saturday night is a gift to MMA fight fans. Edson Barboza is one of the most dynamic strikers in the UFC and that includes having the hardest leg kicks in the sport (just ask Mike Lullo and Rafaello Oliveira). Barboza has only had one small losing streak: a two-fight stretch from December 2017 to April 2018; he has fought the best in the division, including wins over Paul Felder, Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez and most recently taking out the streaking Dan Hooker at UFC on FOX 31 – a fight that was one for the books. Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje is an enigma, he is a NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from his fights. Gaethje went 17-0 with 14 KO’s while competing for the WSOF, capturing the lightweight title and defending it five times before signing with the UFC. In his first fight, he put on a classic FOTN against Michael Johnson and finished him in the second round. Since then he is 1-2, suffering his first loss to Eddie Alvarez and then Dustin Poirier before picking up a win against James Vick in August. Between the two, Barboza and Gaethje have 13 fight night bonuses and have both ended fights via leg kicks. Gaethje’s brawler style is a lot of fun to watch, and Barboza is no stranger to battles, but as the less dynamic striker it might be wise for Gaethje to finally use his wrestling this time. I don’t see that happening. My pick: Barboza wins the battle of the leg kicks