Vicious KO of Barboza gives Gaethje another ‘Highlight’ finish

The UFC on ESPN2 card at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia provided fireworks galore, including another thrilling performance from Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje.

The Highlight lived up to his moniker yet again with a one-punch knockout of Edson Barboza in the main event.

The former wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado has the pedigree to go to the ground, but he insists upon phone-booth fighting to the delight of mixed martial arts fans worldwide. Facing one of the best stand-up fighters in the promotion’s history in Barboza, Gaethje came out firing as always.

It was non-stop action from the start, with both fighters exchanging powerful leg kicks. They started throwing hands and Gaethje hurt Barboza with flurry of punches. The Brazilian circled away and regained his faculties. The pair engaged in multiple firefights, catching each other with significant strikes.

Coming off an 87-second finish of James Vick in the opening round, Gaethje closed the show on Barboza with a vicious right hook that caught him perfectly and knocked him out cold with 2:30 remaining in the opening stanza.

Gaethje hooked up his betting supporters as an even-money underdog, while gamblers taking the under (1.5 rounds) cashed a nice +170 ticket. Proposition bets on Gaethje to win in Round 1 paid out at +525 odds ($525 on $100 wagers), while other props for him to win inside the distance (+135) and by KO/TKO (+155) also hit.

What’s next for Gaethje? Great question! The lightweight division’s champ, Khabib Nurmagomedov, is serving out a suspension until July and likely will face the Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway winner (4/13 UFC 236 headliner). The loop’s No. 1 contender, Tony Ferguson, is the logical choice but he’s dealing with a legal issue and (rightfully) feels as if he’s deserving of (only) a title shot.

Conor McGregor ranks second in the 155-pound division. “The Notorious” claimed he was retiring on Twitter last week, only to post a tweet Tuesday night stating, “Surprise, surprise.” Those were the words he used before proclaiming “The King is back” after a majority-decision nod in his rematch with Nate Diaz. Therefore, a Gaethje-McGregor battle seems logical, but McGregor also is dealing with legal issues.

Third-ranked Poirier already beat Gaethje and is poised to face Holloway for the interim strap. Fourth-ranked “Ragin” Al Iaquinta and seventh-ranked Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone will square off this summer. Cerrone and McGregor were in negotiations to fight just a few weeks ago, only for the Dublin product to balk at being placed in a co-main event slot. Cerrone got tired of McGregor’s tactics and asked for another fight.

Kevin Lee, ranked fifth in the 155-pound division, is booked for a welterweight bout and Barboza entered this past weekend ranked sixth. If the UFC can’t get McGregor to share the octagon with Gaethje, then give him the winner of Iaquinta and Cerrone. A third option could be Nate Diaz, who has stepped up his social media activity in recent weeks as if he’s wanting to make his octagon return, but McGregor’s wishes might be to complete his trilogy with Diaz.

Whatever the case, there are great scraps looming in the shark tank that is the promotion’s lightweight division. As for Barboza, he’s mired in a 1-3 slump and needs to take some time off, especially since he’s been so active throughout his career.

In the co-main event, Jack “The Joker” Hermansson earned a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus by submitting David Branch in only 49 seconds. The 30-year-old Swede improved to 5-1 in his past six fights with five finishes. Hermansson has back-to-back guillotine-choke submissions and three knockouts in those last five victories.

Hermansson won as a -125 favorite, hooking up his backers with prop payouts to win in Round 1 (+350), to win by submission (+900 at William Hill) and to win inside the distance (+140). The under (2.5 rounds) was a winner at a -145 price at most books.

In his return to the octagon for the first time since losing to Jeremy Stephens (a brutal knockout that resulted in multiple facial fractures and surgeries), Josh Emmett went to the third round of his featherweight clash against Michael Johnson trailing 2-0 on the scorecards. Just 46 seconds away from defeat, Emmett faked a level change before uncorking a thunderous overhand right that turned out the lights for Johnson.

Emmett, who made only a $45,000 check from his fight with Stephens in February of 2018, then pleaded with Dana White and the UFC to give him his first career fight bonus in his postfight interview with Jon Anik. However, the Team Alpha Male product wasn’t given a bonus despite scoring one of the best KOs of 2019.

Emmett won as a +130 underdog, while gamblers supporting the over (2.5 rounds) cashed a winner at a -160 price. Bettors hit props on Emmett to win inside the distance (+325), by KO/TKO (+575) and to win in Round 3 (+1400).

Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson made her case for a title shot by capturing a unanimous-decision victory over Karolina Kowalkiewicz (30-27 across) as a +130 underdog. Since losing back-to-back bouts to current strawweight champ Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres, Waterson has won three fights in a row.

Paul Craig joined Hermansson in beating out Emmett for the other $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus. Like Emmett, Craig needed a third-round finish to dodge a decision loss and pulled one out in the final minute. Craig submitted Kennedy Nzechukwu by triangle choke with 40 seconds remaining. He beat Magomed Ankalaev in the same fashion last year with merely one tick left in the final stanza. Gaethje and Barboza took home an extra $50,000 when their scrap was awarded Fight of the Night. Gaethje now has six fight-night bonuses during his five-fight tenure with the promotion. Whether he faces McGregor, Iaquinta or Cerrone next, don’t expect “The Highlight’s” streak of garnering extra greenbacks to end anytime soon.

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