PHILADELPHIA — Justin Gaethje needed one brutal blow to show why he’s called "The Highlight" and stamp himself a championship contender.
Gaethje knocked out Edson Barboza in one of the more electric first-round finishes in recent UFC history to win a pivotal lightweight bout on Saturday night. Gaethje (20-2) was the crowd favourite and had 10,000 fans going wild from the moment he his entrance music hit the Wells Fargo Center. He turned into the biggest Broad Street Bully of the season and had the crowd chanting "Gaethje! Gaethje!" throughout the 155-pound main event bout.
Well, for as long as it lasted.
"You will regret not seeing me fight live," Gaethje said. "I’m sorry it was so short ."
Gaethje and Barboza exchanged a flurry of blows that brought some life to a listless crowd and had them on their feet. Gaethje ended the brawl when he connected on a stiff right that floored Barboza and was worth the price of admission. Gaethje rushed Barboza but was quickly waved off by the referee and declared the winner. He performed a backflip off the top of the octagon and then draped himself in the American flag and sat on the top of the opposite side of the cage.
Barboza (20-7) pandered to the crowd by walking out to the Rocky theme "Gonna Fly Now" and still had them booing Philly sports’ unofficial anthem.
Gaethje won for the second straight time and said he was ready to fight lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
"I want to be the world champion," he said. "I want to fight Khabib. I think I’m one of the biggest threats to his title."
Gaethje added to his reputation as one of UFC’s most exciting fighters after making quick work of Barboza.
"That was well done all the way through. Congratulations Justin ," former UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor tweeted.
This marked the third time UFC held an event in Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center. UFC ran most of its East Coast shows in New Jersey until an MMA ban was lifted in New York in 2016. The promotion now holds its biggest cards at Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center. Philadelphia hadn’t been the site of a card since UFC 133 in August 2011, and the promotion’s only other show was UFC 101 in August 2009 .
Michelle Waterson defeated Karolina Kowalkeiwicz by unanimous decision in a 115-pound fight on the ESPN card.
Waterson had the Philly crowd on her side from the moment she walked to the octagon and delivered a punishing performance in each round. She locked Kowalkeiwicz in an armbar toward the end of the second round that had the crowd going wild and frothing for a potential tapout. The 33-year-old Waterson scored another takedown in the third and connected on a stiff elbow to Kowalkeiwicz’s head with 45 seconds left to seal the decisive 30-27 victory.
"I was really looking to take her down, but she was a lot better than I anticipated," Waterson said. "She’s ranked top-six in the world for a reason. As the fight went on, I think she was getting frustrated because every time she was coming in, I was catching her."
Waterson’s young daughter climbed inside the cage to celebrate with mom and the crowd ate it up. Waterson calls herself "The Karate Hottie" and there’s no doubt she’s on fire right now. She reeled off her third straight win to put her back in the thick of the championship hunt.
Kowalkeiwicz had called Waterson her idol and knew she’d have to dig deep to bury her personal feelings to score the win of her career. But the upbeat Waterson, who is one of the more likable fighters in UFC, took another step toward becoming a mother and an MMA champ .
"I don’t know who I want next, but someone in the top five," she said. "I want someone that’s going to get me closer to the gold."
The card was loaded with fighters who all made the tourist stop at the Rocky Balboa statue at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They posted videos on social media of their arms raised in triumph like Rocky or running the steps like Philly’s favourite fictional fighter. A die-hard fan of the inspirational saga, Barboza was struck by emotion in his trip and texted photos to his father in Brazil.
Paul Craig, who defeated Kennedy Nzechukwu via third-round submission on the second fight of the main card, got some laughs when he did his best Rocky impression : "Yo, Adrian, we did it baby!"
UFC 101 in 2009 packed 17,500 fans into the arena for a $3.55 million gate, but interest and ticket sales lagged 10 years later in large part because of a lacklustre card. Philly fans about booed Josh Emmett and Michael Johnson out of the arena in a fight where action stalled until Emmett’s dramatic KO for the win and it was clear the hardest hit of the day in the sports complex came instead from Phillies slugger Bryce Harper’s 465-foot home run. UFC drew 11,123 fans for a $1.1 million gate on Saturday night.