A string of victories over elite fighters like Beneil Dariush, Gilbert Melendez, Anthony Pettis, Paul Felder and others answered that question for him long ago.
He belongs and he knows it.
But Barboza is in a strange place heading into the Lee fight, the main event of an FS1-televised card. Long one of the UFC’s most exciting fighters, a guy with eight fight night bonuses in 18 UFC bouts, Barboza is coming off a one-sided drubbing at the hands of Khabib Nurmagomedov on Dec. 30 at UFC 219.
It was arguably the most anticipated fight on that card, but Barboza did little. He tried mightily, and he absorbed a great deal of punishment and kept coming, but his offense was nil and Nurmagomedov won in a rout.
Try as he might, Barboza has no explanation for his performance against the man who subsequently went on to win the UFC’s lightweight title.
“It’s hard to say what went wrong, but I am 100 percent the guy who fought that night,” Barboza said. “Sometimes, everything goes right in training camp and then it all goes wrong in the fight. Sometimes, training camp doesn’t go right and everything works in the fight. I don’t know what that is, but that’s fighting.
“I wasn’t there. I don’t know why. I thought I was ready and I believed I was going to win, but I didn’t. But I wasn’t what I wanted to be.”
And that, in part, is why Barboza is so motivated to fight Lee on Saturday. A win over Lee, himself one of the division’s elites, would put Barboza back in the mix for a rematch with Nurmagomedov.
The UFC isn’t crazy about rematches, and particularly when the first match wasn’t competitive or controversial. Barboza, though, wants to prove he’s better than the guy who was drubbed that night by Nurmagomedov.
So he’s motivated to get out there and win in impressive fashion and build the conversation.
So frequently in his career, his fights have stolen the show, and he’s been the topic of conversation around the water cooler on Monday morning. Turning things around and regenerating that kind of buzz among the fan base is his goal in a critical fight with Lee.
“I’ve been fighting the best guys in the world for a long time, and I have proven what I can do,” Barboza said. “[Lee] is another one of the best guys in the world. This is going to be a hard fight, not easy, but it is the kind of fight that I love. I love these long, hard battles and it’s a chance to make a statement.”
The statement Barboza wants to make is a plea not to judge him by his performance against Nurmagomedov, but rather on his career as a whole.
He’s 19-5 overall in MMA, and 13-5 in the UFC. A full third of his UFC bouts – six of 18 – have been named Fight of the Night. He’s also had a Knockout of the Night and a Performance of the Night.
By that standard, he’s one of the handful of can’t-miss fighters in the UFC. And while his work against Nurmagomedov was disappointing, it’s not going to define him.
“You have to understand that when you fight the best guys in the world fight after fight, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” Barboza said. “That’s how it is. You put everything you have into [winning], but it doesn’t always turn out the way you want.
“It’s how sports are, how fighting is. But fortunately, there is another chance against another great fighter and that’s the opportunity I have.”
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