We’re already at the main event of week one of the 2023 PFL Challenger Series as BJJ phenom and world champion Lucas “Hulk” Barbosa (2-1) takes on undefeated Georgian Itso Babulaidze. Babulaidze shocked the world in his PFL debut, stopping Olympic wrestler Mahmoud Sebie in the opening round at Madison Square Garden to earn a chance on the Challenger Series this year. Barbosa, a 5x BJJ world champion was originally slated to fight on the same card but was forced to pull out after his opponent was not cleared to fight. These 2 exciting prospects meet tonight with a PFL contract on the line.
The main event is underway and Barbosa wastes no time getting in close, initiating the clinch and driving Itso back into the SmartCage. Itso does a fantastic job digging for underhooks and creating space, getting back to the center and resetting.
Itso lands a nice one-two that Barbosa answers with a heavy knee up the middle. Itso lands that same one-two and Barbosa shakes it off, usually an indicator something got through.
Barbosa is able to drive on a single leg and get Itso to the mat where the 5x BJJ champ begins working to improve position and to set up submissions. Itso is staying busy off his back with punches from his closed guard. Barbosa is landing some big ground and pound from the top as the round winds down.
Barbosa is landing more and bigger ground and pound as we hit one minute remaining in the round. He postures up and Itso takes advantage, pushing off Barbosa’s hips with his feet but Barbosa closes the distance and dives back into top half guard, content to end the round in a dominant position.
Itso will need to ensure he doesn’t wind up on his back this round as we begin the second frame. Barbosa once again looks to get the fight to the mat early and again Itso is able to fight off the first attempt before landing some big shots on the feet! A few of those definitely got through and it seems Barbosa is slowing down now.
Two minutes into the round and Itso seems to be taking control of this fight. Barbosa doesn’t seem to be able to strike with him but he’ll have to stay on his feet. In an incredible grappling exchange, Barbosa shoots and Itso sprawls before Barbosa ducks under and takes the back, but only briefly as Itso quickly reverses and gets back to his feet and fights off another takedown and starts striking again.
Barbosa is breathing HEAVY at this point and Itso is having a lot of success on the feet, but he’ll need a finish to really punctuate his case for a PFL contract. Barbosa lands a rushing left hook and changes levels behind it, getting in deep on a single leg. Itso sprawls perfectly and once again he fights off the Hulk’s takedown attempts and lands that one-two.
We head to the corners and it’s likely one round apiece with the underdog picking up steam!
We begin a pivotal third round and Itso is landing some heavy punches. Itso seems to know he needs to shine in this round in order to secure a contract. Barbosa again rushes in behind a hook but can’t land it and Itso is able to quickly break the clinch.
The one-two has been finding a home for Itso all night as Barbosa has really slowed at this point. Confoundingly, Itso decides to take Barbosa to the mat and easily lands the takedown! A bold choice against a BJJ specialist like Barbosa.
Barbosa takes advantage! He attacks a heel hook and with two minutes to go in the round the fighters are in a classic 50/50 position and Itso may very well be regretting this choice right now. Barbosa looks for a toe hold before adjusting and eventually sweeping to top position with a minute remaining! Barbosa is looking for an arm triangle now as he looks to pass to mount and off to the other side with 20 seconds remaining!
Itso cannot believe this as Barbosa gets the mount and postures up, raining down punches as the 10 second clapper hits. This fight can go either way and if the judges score it for Barbosa, one wonders how Itso will feel about his decision to shoot for a takedown in the third.
Itso Babulaidze once again stuns the world and upsets a world class grappler in the SmartCage!
Itso Babulaidze def. Lucas Barbosa Jr. via UD (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)