UFC 235: Analysis and Predictions

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Jon Jones (Champion) (23-1) (-900) vs Anthony Smith (#3 Ranked) (31-13) (+600)

Light Heavyweight Championship

Jon Jones return to the Octagon after only a few months to defend his belt against fast tracked contender Anthony Smith.  This fight has quite a few interesting stories going into it which will make things more compelling.  It’s good this fight has a strong narrative, because the fight itself will likely be one-sided.

Anthony Smith earned this title shot after a compelling 2018 campaign that saw him earn wins over Volkan Oezdemir, Shogun Rua, and Rashad Evans.  I use the word ‘compelling’ because I don’t want to confuse these with wins over elite competition.  Unfortunately, the light heavyweight division is incredibly shallow, and wins over ranked fighters not named Jones, Cormier, and Gustafsson just aren’t as impactful.  Oezdemir was ranked #2 at the time Anthony Smith defeated him, but this was an Oezdemir that was returning after receiving a clinic in MMA grappling from then champion Daniel Cormier.  This led to the famous Cormier quote of, “There are levels to this”, and indeed this is an accurate reflection on how wide the chasm is between the top 3 light heavyweights in the division, and everyone else. 

I know MMA math is incredibly problematic, but just consider this for a moment:  Anthony Smith just barely defeated Oezdemir.  It was a fight that left him so exhausted he had to have help getting out of the ring after the win.  Oezdemir was TKOed in 1 round by Daniel Cormier.  Daniel Cormier was KOed in 2 rounds by Jon Jones.  While MMA math isn’t predictive, I think it’s fair to state that this is a massive jump in competition for Anthony Smith.

This said, I also think it’s important to give Anthony Smith his due.  Smith was considering retirement earlier last year when he was coming off a loss to Thiago Santos as a UFC middleweight.  He has looked much better as a 205 lb. fighter, and there is definitely something of a Cinderella story which has formed around his rise through the light heavyweight rankings.  A win over Jon Jones would cap off an unbelievable narrative for Smith and catapult him into superstardom.

For Jones’s part, this fight is really the only one that makes sense in an extremely shallow light heavyweight division.  It’s strange to think that it only takes two fights after being gone for over a year to clear out a division, but unfortunately, that’s just the state of things.  Jones looked phenomenal in his December blowout of Gustafsson.  He is the best pound for pound fighter active today.  The only question in my mind for Jon Jones is, where does he go after this fight?  He could realistically take another year off and give other prospects a chance to develop.

All of this being said, there is every reason to believe Jon Jones will win this fight relatively easily.  He has KOed better strikers than Smith on the feet, and has prevented better wrestlers from getting him to the ground.  The only X factor in this fight is Smith’s size.  Jones struggled in his first fight with Gustafsson and much of that is because he wasn’t accustomed to fighting strikers who could fight at his range.  Anthony Smith doesn’t have the same reach as Jones, but he certainly has range.  He will need to use this to work his way inside and turn this into a close quarters slug fest to have a chance.  While Jones has shown strong clinch work and dirty boxing in the past, this has mostly come against smaller fighters, and I believe this is an area where Smith could capitalize.

It’s going to be extremely difficult though for Smith to execute this game plan, and I think Jon Jones is eager to put on another strong performance.  He’s going to keep Smith at bay with jabs, oblique kicks, and inside leg shots.  Smith, like so many other fighters, will eat shots on the outside for several rounds before slowing down enough that Jones can start landing with power.  The finish will come somewhere in the 3rd round.

Jones by 3rd Round TKO

 

Tyron Woodley (Champion) (19-3) (-185) vs Kamaru Usman (#2 Ranked) (14-1) (+160)

Welterweight Championship

Tyron Woodley returns to the ring after a short 5 months off to fight #2 ranked challenger Kamaru Usman.  Usman has been phenomenal during his UFC tenure, but this fight still came as a surprise for many who follow the sport.  #1 Ranked notable heel Colby Covington has been extremely vocal in his desire to have this fight, but somewhere he upset the matchmakers at Zuffa, and instead Usman is granted the title shot.

For a long time, Tyron Woodley was a fighter who drew the ire of fans and the UFC brass.  He was involved in several insomnia curing affairs, twice with Stephen Thompson, and once with Damien Maia.  His seeming willingness to scrape by on points in title defenses left him with few fans and very little contract bargaining power with the UFC.  That all seems to have turned around last September when he stunned everyone with a first round destruction of Darren Till.  He now has an opportunity to continue building momentum with a worthy challenger in Usman.

Kamaru Usman has been an absolute monster since joining the UFC.  His last loss was almost 6 years ago in only the second fight of his career.  Critics will accuse him of being a boring fighter, 7 of his 9 UFC wins have come via decision, but it’s important to keep in mind how quickly has been put up against much more experienced competition.  Even when you’re a young prodigy, if you go up against someone with far more experience, you’re sometimes going to look very pedestrian.  Usman comes from a wrestling base, but like many wrestlers, has fallen in love with the striking game and tends to only use his wrestling defensively.

I think it’s pretty well understood that this fight will stay on the feet; that tends to be the outcome when two wrestlers fight.  The striking advantage I’d probably have to give to Woodley simply due to the striking competition he has faced off against, and how he has performed.  That said, it’s really remarkable how much Usman has made in his striking game and I think he’s certainly capable of landing on Woodley.  Really, I think Usman’s best bet here would be integrate takedown attempts with his striking to keep Woodley from finding a rhythm.  It’s tough to say whether or not that will happen though.

I’m worried this will turn into another boring Tyron Woodley fight.  Usman isn’t going to rush in on him after watching what happened to Darren Till.  I think he will be content to feel the fight out for a long time, hoping to pick and choose his openings.  Unfortunately for him, I don’t think they’re going to materialize and I believe we’re headed for a slow plodding decision

 Woodley by Unanimous Decision

  

Robbie Lawler (#6 Ranked) (28-12) (-275) vs Ben Askren (Unranked) (18-0) (+235)

Welterweight

For longtime fans of the sport, the welterweight matchup between Robbie Lawler and Ben Askren is truly a delight.  Most of us, myself included, never thought we’d see the day that Ben Askren would be fighting in the Octagon, and yet here we are.  Depending on what happens in contract negotiations with Colby Covington, the winner of this fight could well by the next title challenger at 170.

Robbie Lawler is a longtime veteran of the UFC who had a late career resurgence, capture the welterweight title and defending it several times before finally succumbing to current champion Tyron Woodley.  He’s a tremendously talented and well-rounded fighter who prefers to stand and brawl with his opponents.  At this stage, Robbie’s biggest weakness is Father Time.  At 36 years of age, and with 40 professional fights, one must presume that Lawler is going to start slowing down more with each fight.  It’s going to be interesting to see just how much that shows in this fight.

Similarly, Ben Askren is also a fighter in the latter half of his career.  At 34 he’s definitely in the second half of his career, however it should be noted that he doesn’t have the same mileage on him as many other fighters in their mid-30s.  Askren has kept a relatively light schedule for a dominant fighter, and he has avoided taking major punishment throughout his career.  An elite wrestler, Askren tends to fight a pure grappling game, which frequently means he gets out of fights with little to no damage.

Askren has fought the majority of his career in the OneFC promotion.  He has been absolutely dominant throughout his career, compiling a flawless 18-0 record.  While impressive, one certainly has to question the strength of Askren’s competition.  The UFC is the premier promotion in the sport, and Askren simply hasn’t faced as high a level of competition.  The hardcore MMA crowd has debated for years how Askren would perform in the UFC, and now we’re going to find out.

It’s clear to just about everyone what the game plans are going to be for both fighters.  Askren is going to try and get the fight to the ground, and Robbie will try to keep it standing.  Askren is certainly an elite grappler, but can he be as good as a fighter like Khabib Nurmagomedov who can impose his will even when the competition knows exactly what he’s going to do? 

Unfortunately for Askren, I think this is going to be a rough start to his UFC career.  He has never faced a fighter on the level of Robbie Lawler.  Robbie is going to come into this fight well trained and ready to defend a constant onslaught of takedown attempts.  He’s going to make Askren pay after each attempt with hard elbows on the break.  Askren will wear down quickly from this as things move into the second round and will eventually tap out from strikes after being dropped.

 Lawler by 2nd Round TKO

 

Cody Garbrandt (#1 Ranked) (11-2) (-175) vs Pedro Munhoz (#8 Ranked) (17-3) (+155)

Bantamweight

Former champion Cody Garbrandt tries to get back on the winning track against veteran Pedro Munoz in a bantamweight matchup.  Garbrandt is coming off consecutive losses to TJ Dillashaw and is in bad need of a win to straighten the ship. 

Garbrandt is without question one of the best in the 135 lbs. division.  During his dominating victory of Dominick Cruz to claim the belt he showed an impressive level of speed and elusiveness, often times leaving the former champion swinging at air.  However, in his two fights with TJ Dillashaw he appeared to let emotions get the better of him.  In both fights he came in ultra-aggressive, swinging for the fences, and often times repeatedly opening himself him to the same counter attacks.  He Dillashaw fights went very poorly for him, but I don’t think too much should be taken away from him because of that.  He’s still an extremely dangerous fighter.

For his part, Pedro Munoz is a longtime veteran of the UFC, claiming a 7-3-1 record in the promotion.  135 is a relatively deep division, and the fact that he has put together such a record shows you just how talented he is.  His only losses have come against top fighters in the division: Dodson, Rivera, and Assucanao.  Like many Brazilian fighters, he’s an extremely talented jiu-jitsu artist, who has successfully supplemented his ground game with striking.  His striking has been more on point in recent fights, scoring a TKO win over Brian Caraway in November.

 I’m really happy to see the UFC matchmakers put together a fight like this.  Garbrandt needs a step down in competition to build some confidence back up.  Munhoz has earned a shot at higher level fighters.  The opportunity is a win / win for everyone. 

I think this is going to be a close fight.  Munhoz has really impressed me with his improvements year of year as a fighter, and two of his losses in the UFC have come by extremely close split decisions.  If he can snatch a few takedowns, I think this becomes a very interesting fight.  That said, in a straight pick’em I’d have to go with Garbrandt.  I’m expecting his striking will look extremely sharp, much like his old form, and I think he’s going to gradually pick apart Munhoz on the feet.

 Garbrandt by 2nd Round TKO 

  

Jeremy Stephens (#6 Ranked) (28-15) (+170) vs Zabit Magomedsharipov (#14 Ranked) (16-1) (-215)

Featherweight

If you haven’t seen Zabit Magomedsharipov fight before, get ready for a treat.  The Dagestani teammate of Khabib Nurmagomedov has been absolutely sensational through 4 fights in the UFC.  A fight with Jeremy Stephens is a big step up in competition for Zabit, so this should make for an extremely entertaining fight. 

At 27 years of age and with only 1 professional loss, Zabit seems to get better every fight.  During his 4 fights in the UFC he has received two performance of the night bonuses, and one fight of the night bonus.  His win over Brandon Davis in September through a modified knee bar would have been a first for the UFC, had it not happened an hour earlier in the night.  Zabit is a fast accurate striker, with a good chin, and surprisingly strong ground game to round him out. 

Jeremy Stephens is one of the long-time staples of the UFC featherweight division.  Amazingly, this will be his 29th fight in the promotion.  His first fight in the promotion came at UFC 71 in May of 2007.  You know someone has had a long and colorful career when they’ve fought in promotions with names like: Downtown Destruction, Battle at the Barn, and Jungle Madness.  All of this is even more crazy when you consider that Jeremy Stephens is only 32. 

Stephens may be a known quantity at this stage, but he’s still a formidable opponent.  This is a major step up in competition for Zabit and this is going to be an intriguing matchup.  Zabit is going to have to be perfect with his use of speed and length to win this fight standing.  In the past he’s been able to bully lower level fighters using pure skill, but that’s just not going to happen against Stephens.  I doubt you will see any grappling in this fight.

I think Zabit’s hype has to be put on hold after this fight.  Stephens is a more talented striker than any he has faced in the past, and I believe he’s going to be surprised by Stephens head movement and ability to get inside.  This is a going to be a grueling fight with both fighters landing big, but I believe ultimately Stephens does enough to win on points.

Stephens by Unanimous Decision

Fight PreviewsJustin Wingard