LAS VEGAS — A lot of athletes believe that reaching the UFC is the end of the journey. For Edson Barboza, it was just the beginning.
For all that Barboza has accomplished in more than 12 years as a professional mixed martial arts fighter with 25 UFC bouts to his ledger, Barboza said he feels like a newbie just about every day he heads to the gym.
MMA is about a lifetime of learning, he said, adding new tricks and refining old ones.
“If I didn’t learn every day, I wouldn’t be fighting any more,” said Barboza, who faces Giga Chikadze on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Apex in a sensational featherweight match in the main event of UFC Vegas 35.
Barboza has faced the best of the best in his tenure in the UFC, which included a lengthy stop at lightweight before a drop to featherweight. He’s fought the legendary Khabib Nurmagomedov, as well as the likes of Tony Ferguson, Justin Gaethje, Dan Ige, Dan Hooker, Paul Felder, Beneil Dariush, Donald Cerrone, Gilbert Melendez, Shane Burgos and Anthony Pettis.
He’s had his ups and downs, as anyone would after facing that type of murderers’ row of opponents, but heads into the fight against the 10th-ranked Chikadze on a two-fight winning streak.
He’s 22-9 overall and 16-9 in the UFC. But in those 25 UFC bouts, he’s been in Fight of the Night an astounding eight times, and has had a Performance of the Night win and a Knockout of the Night.
It is evidence of him performing at a high-level, even in fights he’s lost. And that’s due to his initiative to continue to learn.
“What motivates me is getting better every single day,” said Barboza, who said he expects the best version of himself to appear on Saturday when he meets Chikadze in what is one of the best matches between kickers ever in the UFC.
In two of his last three wins, it’s been his hands that have led him to knockout victories. He scored the UFC’s first KO via leg kicks in his UFC debut on Nov. 20, 2010 when he stopped Mike Lullo.
As he’s developed and his kicks have become more and more feared, he’s learned to use his other weapons. He knocked out Hooker with a body shot on Dec. 15, 2018, and then in his last fight, kayoed Burgos with a shot to the head.
The Burgos KO was unique in that he went down with a delayed reaction, crumbling several seconds after he was hit with the punch by Barboza.
“I still don’t understand what happened,” Barboza said. “It was a six-second difference between the time I threw the punch and when he went down. I still don’t understand it well, but it happened and I was happy with it. It was a win in a great fight. Shane’s a tough guy. It was a great fight. Great fight.”
It’s what Barboza has put on for most of his career, though even given that, expectations for the Chikadze fight are enormous. Chikadze, a former kickboxing champion, is coming off a knockout victory over Cub Swanson in May in which he finished him with a kick to the liver.
If Chikadze’s kicks aren’t as feared as Barboza’s, it’s only because he has far fewer UFC fights. Barboza knows what is coming, but doesn’t sound too alarmed.
He has, he said, seen it all before.
“People have been kicking me since I’ve been 8 years old,” he said, laughing.
It’s nothing to laugh at, though, being kicked by either one of these men. It’s almost impossible not to walk with a limp after fighting them.
But because he’s devoted himself to the intricacies and nuances of MMA, Barboza is still getting better, even at 35.
And though he’s never fought for a title despite a decade in the UFC, guys like former middleweight champion and current Hall of Famer Michael Bisping and reigning lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, who both had to wait a long time before getting a title opportunity, inspire him.
“Oh bro, that dream is still alive, yes, of course,” he said. “I’m better than I’ve ever been and that’s why I am working so hard every day.”