UFC 235 Preview
It’s the tale of two UFC Pay-Per-View’s back to back. February’s UFC 234 was paper thin, relying solely on the top two fights – a middleweight championship bout between Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum as well as a star making performance from Israel Adesanya against Anderson Silva. So when Whittaker had to be pulled from the card on the day of the fight for emergency hernia and bowel surgery it suddenly became something else. A $65 PPV headlined by a three round fight between a 43 year old legend who became 1-5-1 in his last seven fights following a loss and an undefeated prospect who didn’t yet have the cache to carry the weight of an entire PPV on his shoulders. Luckily for the UFC the main event turned out to be a ton of fun and for the most part the rest of the fights were entertaining even if they meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. Honestly I was surprised that they didn’t just move the event onto ESPN+ as a show of good faith.
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This weekend’s event in Las Vegas, Nevada is the complete opposite. After canceling UFC 233 and the debacle that was UFC 234, UFC 235 is coming correct. Its a stacked card filled with championship fights, former champions, exciting prospects, and interesting match-ups. It seems to me that the UFC likes to do a big tentpole event every quarter with the exception of the fourth quarter when they tend to do two (November at Madison Square Garden and their end of year show). There’s always the International Fight Week event in July and this year they seem to be aiming for a stadium show in Brazil with a lot of big fights. But I’m surprised just how much they loaded this one up. They lost one fight with a former champion (Holly Holm vs. Aspen Ladd) and three other notable fighters (Ovince St. Preux, Thomas Almeida, and Song Yadong) and it barely made a dent. To me this is a can’t miss event and has an outside chance to be the first Pay-Per-View headlined by Jon Jones to break a million buys. Whether it does or not, its events like this that make me love this sport through thick and thin. Lets dive into the top nine fights that will air on the ESPN and then PPV portion of the card.
Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith
Are we really finally getting an active Jon Jones who is going to fight three times a year and get a chance to cement his legacy as the greatest fighter of all time? Or is this just an illusion, a blip on the radar before he finds himself in trouble once again, whether it be with USADA or the law? As an eternal optimist I’ll choose to believe hes turned a corner despite the fact that he continues to test positive for picograms of PEDs and the fact that he admitted he still loves to party with drugs and alcohol. I wrote about how Jones has yet to sell a million pay-per-views on an event he headlined a few weeks ago but that may change this weekend. Its a stacked card and the drama that he brings with him every time out only seems to capture more attention over time. Anthony Smith isn’t a particularly tough challenger and doesn’t add anything in a PR sense so this will be a great baseline for what Jones provides to the UFC on his own merits. That’s not meant as a slam against Smith, he is an exciting fighter who earned a title shot with a three fight winning streak since moving up to light heavyweight. He is just not on Jon Jones’ level. Not many are. His only chance at winning is a Matt Serra level knockout against a guy who has never been so much as rocked in his career. I think Jones will play with him on the feet in the first round before taking him down and finishing the fight in the second. Even though the result is so forgone its still worth it to buy this PPV to see greatness, not to mention the rest of a great main card. It’ll be interesting to see what’s next for ‘Bones’. The trilogy fight with Daniel Cormier? A trip to heavyweight? Or just the next in line at 205? I hope we get to see all of those options over the next year or two.
Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman
For being one of the deepest, most talented divisions in MMA the top of the welterweight division is a mess. Colby Covington defeated Rafael Dos Anjos last June to win the interim belt despite the champion Woodley saying he would be ready to fight (and in fact he did) a few months later. Then they skipped over Covington last September, giving Darren Till the title shot because Colby needed an extra month or two due to sinus surgery. After Woodley won that fight it seemed obvious that the grudge match with Covington would surely be next but instead we got a pissing match between both of them and Dana White about who would be ready to fight and when. In the meantime Kamaru Usman beat up RDA and stated he would fight anyone on any date so the UFC decided to award him with the title shot. He is certainly deserving but its funny his last two wins are also Covington’s last two wins after he already beat them, Covington had the interim belt – deserved or not, and there is much more of a storyline between Colby and Tyron. That said this is a fascinating match-up between two of the best guys in one of the best divisions. In practice there is a good chance it isn’t a particularly exciting bout as their elite wrestling could cancel each other out leading to a tepid striking affair. If that is the case then give me the guy with the proven one shot knockout power and the in-fight intelligence when it comes to strategy and game planning. Covington by all rights should fight the winner but I’m sure the UFC will find a way to make the simple solution complicated.
Ben Askren vs. Robbie Lawler
The UFC debut of Ben Askren is finally upon us. The long time, undefeated Bellator and ONE FC welterweight finally gets a chance to prove he is one of the best in the world inside of the preeminent organization in MMA. After calling out seemingly every fighter in the top 10 the UFC matched him up against the one guy he didn’t have a bad thing to say about. Lawler has had a rough few years since his war with Carlos Condit, defending his belt in January 2016. He got knocked out by current champion Tyron Woodley, came back to win a razor close decision over Donald Cerrone, and then got destroyed over five rounds to Rafael Dos Anjos. This will be his first fight in about 15 months and its a soft landing spot. Not that I don’t think Askren can beat him because I am picking him to lose a decision here but because ‘Funky’ is a pure wrestler and there isn’t much risk of him getting beat up again here. A few years ago I would’ve certainly picked Lawler to win this fight. He has good takedown defense, heavy hands, and paces himself well. Unfortunately I’m not confident that ‘Ruthless’ is that guy anymore. I’d never question his toughness but I think what made him so exciting over the years has finally caught up with him. He can still be a competitive, fun action fighter but I think the days of real title contention are over and Askren’s have just begun.
Tecia Torres vs. Weili Zhang
The UFC may finally have their first Chinese star on their hands with Weili Zhang. She only has two fights in the UFC but they have been super impressive. A dominant decision over the always tough Danielle Taylor followed by an arm bar over Jessica Aguilar who was once considered the best strawweight in the world. They’re giving her the fast track matching her up with perennial contender Torres. A win here would be a statement and could realistically put her a win or two away from a title shot. Torres is on a two fight losing streak but those were both tough fights against long time strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk and current title challenger Jessica Andrade. They were both decision losses which is especially notable against Andrade who is a powerhouse. Before that she was 6-1 in the UFC with the only loss a unanimous decision to the champion Rose Namajunas, who she also has a win over. As tough as she is and as marketable as she appears, the problem for Torres has always been a lack of finishing instincts. In her 13 fights she only one instance where it didn’t go to decision, her submission win over Juliana Lima in 2017. My prediction is Zhang is able to get the win, maybe a finish, and headlines a card in her native China against a top five opponent next time out.
Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz
Honestly this is the fight that should’ve been made after the first time Garbrandt got knocked out by TJ Dillashaw. Or at least a similar tune up fight. I don’t mean that to disrespect Munhoz. He’s a tough guy that puts on exciting fights with heavy hands and some great submission skills. But his biggest weakness is a great style match-up for the former champion to get his confidence back. That is poor striking defense. Munhoz is a guy who gives up a couple in order to give one of his own. Thats not the gameplan to have against Garbrandt who has serious power due to having some of the quickest hands in the bantamweight division. Now, if Munhoz can hold up to the surefire early punishment he will be taking and survive into the second and/or third round then he has a chance. Not that I expect Cody to be more gassed but he is a guy that we’ve seen get frustrated in the middle of a fight and he could make a costly mistake if he gets too desperate for a finish. That said, we’ve only seen that side of him against his bitter rival in Dillashaw so I think we’ll either see a first round knockout or unanimous decision for the former champ. To get another title shot he’ll need TJ to lose but the UFC loves him so all he needs to do is hang around and keep winning.
Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Jeremy Stephens
We’ve been hearing about how Zabit is the next big thing for a couple years now but he hasn’t had a performance against a top 15 featherweight to prove just how legit he is. That is no fault of his own. He was scheduled to fight fellow exciting prospect Yair Rodriguez at UFC 228 but Rodriguez had to pull out due to injury. He submitted Brandon Davis in his stead but Davis hung tough for a couple rounds. He was unable to finish Kyle Bochniak at UFC 223 but he broke his hand before the fight and still won a clear cut decision. Now is his time to prove he is a future title contender. And if he can get by Jeremy Stephens than that time might be sooner rather than later. Stephens is coming off a loss to a resurgent Jose Aldo but that was a firefight that looked like it could’ve gone either way. He has good takedown defense, a missile for a right hand, and is tough to put away – Aldo body shot notwithstanding. To me this is a coin flip but I’ll be going with the guy who should be able to keep him in his range and has a big advantage if the fight hits the mat and that is Zabit.
Misha Circunov vs. Johnny Walker
Johnny Walker has come out of absolutely nowhere to become one of the best light heavyweight prospects in the promotion. Admittedly it is possibly the most shallow division but anytime you knock out two solid stand up fighters in a little over two minutes combined, and in such violent fashion, its going to pique the fans and Dana White’s interest. And jumping in on late notice to replace an injured Ovince St. Preux to face a top 15 guy is another way to capitalize on opportunities to become a star. Or at least a fan favorite. I’d like to see him defend a takedown before I crown him as the next big thing and there’s a good chance he’ll have to do just that against Circunov. The only reason I’m assuming Johnny Walker will leave his opponent black and blue is because momentum and confidence is a real thing in this sport and he has a ton of both. We’ve seen Circunov get wrecked by Volkan Oezdemir and that is the blueprint I see as most likely to be repeated.
Alejandro Perez vs. Cody Stamann
Two underrated guys near the top 10 in the most underrated division in the UFC. Bantamweight is stacked and is only going to get even better from the looks of it with the UFC shutting down 125 pounds. Perez is 7-1-1 in the UFC and while Stamann will be the toughest guy he has faced to date its not like he was fighting a bunch of scrubs. This was originally supposed to be Perez against a great prospect (and name) in Yadong Song but Yadong had to pull out… Stamann is coming off a loss to Aljamain Sterling in one of the best submissions of 2018 but that is more a testament to how good Sterling is than anything negative about Stamann. Perez is a well rounded fighter and he wins this fight he can stave off Stamann’s wrestling to keep it mostly standing. I tend to think he will be unable to do so as the fight drags on and loses a close decision. I’d like to see Yadong slide back in there to face the winner, whoever it ends up being.
Diego Sanchez vs. Mickey Gall
Sanchez has been washed for almost a decade, he’s 7-9 since earning a lightweight title shot in 2009. But his name still carries a lot of value for the UFC being one of the winners of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. He’s remained competitive enough to stay on the roster and his style of fighting, not caring about getting punched in the face, means it will always be an action fight. Gall has taken a weird path in his UFC career so far. He beat two non-fighters handily to get some attention (Mike Jackson and CM Punk) then ran through Sage Northcutt when he was making more money than 90% of the roster but was super young and hadn’t proven himself at all. He lost to Randy Brown in his first competitive fight but came back to win impressively against George Sullivan. A win over Sanchez doesn’t really tell us anything about where he is at in his progression but it would be a notable name on his resume and boost his UFC record to 5-1. I fully expect that to happen but you can’t look past a guy who never stops moving forward and doesn’t get tired.