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UFC 232 predictions, preview, and analysis

Drug tests, moving vans, canceled tickets, oh my!

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will limp across the finish line this Saturday night (Dec. 29, 2018) in a brand-new location of The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., after the unbendable, unbreakable Jon Jones was forced out of Las Vegas by way of wonky drug test.

His opponent, Alexander Gustafsson, will join the rest of the UFC 232 pay-per-view (PPV) line up in “The Golden State,” which includes a champion vs. champion “super fight” pitting Cristiane Justino opposite Amanda Nunes, with “Cyborg’s” 145-pound strap on the line.

Before we dive into the five-fight main card, also featuring the return of Carlos Condit and Chad Mendes, among others, take a look at what Patrick Stumberg had to say about the UFC 232 “Prelims” cards — spread across FOX Sports 1 and UFC Fight Pass — by clicking here and here. UFC 232 odds and betting lines can be found here.

Let’s talk about the winners and losers.

205 lbs.: Jon “Bones” Jones (22-1, 1 NC) vs. Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson (18-4)

I still can’t believe it’s been more than five years since these two last went to war in what turned out to be a surprising light heavyweight title fight at UFC 165. Surprising because the towering Swede nearly upset the 205-pound apple cart in a performance that solidified the old combat sports maxim that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

This time, I don’t expect Jones to walk into the Octagon after a weekend of cocaine, which he’s been known to do, while embracing a “skinny-fat” body. Seriously, look at this photo “Bones” took prior to UFC 165 and understand how success can make a person lazy. Jones ultimately learned that in spite of his god-given gifts, he’s still mortal, and “The Mauler” is a dangerous light heavyweight who excels in every area.

What’s unfortunate for Gustafsson is that he didn’t use the last five years to his advantage. Jones went through two lengthy suspensions and had a boatload of personal and professional setbacks, resulting in just four UFC fights during that span. Gustafsson, not subject to any of the same shenanigans, only managed five, a combination of untimely injuries and general disinterest in what the division had to offer.

Jones did not need to get better since he last fought Gustafsson. He just needed to take this fight seriously and train like his career depends on it (it does). But “The Mauler” needed to get better since he last fought Jones, as his best effort was not good enough when the former champion was mailing it in and frankly, most vulnerable. He won’t make that mistake twice and Gustafsson will never have that same opportunity.

That’s why I’m not expecting a repeat performance tomorrow night in Inglewood.

Gustafsson has looked great in his last two fights, outworking Jan Blachowicz with relative ease and putting Glover Teixeira into a state of suspended animation. While that looks great on paper, the Brazilian is no longer ranked in the Top 10 and we can’t overlook “The Mauler’s” losses to Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson. That begs the question ... what is the biggest win of Gustafsson’s career? It’s actually Blachowicz, or maybe Mauricio Rua back in 2012.

That’s telling.

Jones has looked a little rusty in wins over Ovince Saint Preux and Daniel Cormier, but never to the point where anyone expected him to lose. The only fighter who can defeat Jones is the man himself, and if we are looking at “Bones” from that perspective, he’s practically Artem Lobov.

Gustafsson is one of the greats of his era, but he’s not the greatest. That title remains with Jones until proven otherwise. Even if “The Mauler” replicates his performance from UFC 165, it won’t be enough, something we already learned back in late 2013. Look for a patient, measured attack that shows just how formidable Jones can be when he takes this shit seriously.

Prediction: Jones def. Gustafsson by submission

145 lbs.: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (20-1, 1 NC) vs. Amanda “Lioness” Nunes (16-4)

Promotion president, Dana White, has been selling this fight like it’s Anderson Silva vs. Jon Jones back in 2012. It’s not. But the women’s bantamweight division is running on a lean mixture and the women’s featherweight division doesn’t even exist, which is why there is no 145-pound rankings for the ladies. It’s always been a challenge to find opponents willing to fight Justino, evidenced by those catchweight bouts and bantamweight imports.

Nunes was a featherweight herself back in the day, cutting her teeth in the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion back when “Cyborg” was ruling the featherweight roost. She always had talent — and some pretty nasty hands — but consistency was a big factor in keeping Nunes from the upper echelon of the division.

As a bantamweight, “Lioness” has never looked better, smashing and trashing both Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey, two of the best the division had to offer. She was not as dominant against Valentina Shevchenko, but that’s a testament to the skill of “Bullet” — a natural flyweight — more than a knock against the Brazilian. Hard to believe this is the same fighter who got torched by Alexis Davis and dropped a decision to Sarah D’Alelio.

What can we say about Justino? It’s kind of amazing how poorly she was treated by both the promotion and the fans and for what? She failed a drug test back in 2011 and paid for it more than any fighter in history. Where were these headlines for guys like Junior dos Santos or Lyoto Machida, who also tested positive? Undaunted, “Cyborg” has captured 10 straight since that unfortunate incident, nine of them by way of violent knockout. Has she ever been in any kind of trouble? Justino is one of those fighters who is so dominant, the commentators act like she’s losing the fight or looking terrible inside the cage for every second she’s not smashing someone to pieces.

Nunes can hit hard and has the chops to go five rounds. But even with her power, will it be enough to stop Justino? The featherweight champ has some pretty impressive cardio for an athlete with her build, an area that is still a little shaky for Nunes. One of the other things that makes “Cyborg” so frightening is how she can just walk through punches, giving her the ability to control the pace of the fight and put an enormous amount of pressure on her opponents. There is no breathing room, no time to adjust, no flicking of the jab to establish range. The bell rings and Justino walks forward like Jason Voorhees, hacking and slashing until there is nothing left but prone bodies. Considering the size and strength disadvantage, I don't expect this fight to end any differently.

Prediction: Justino def. Nunes by technical knockout

170 lbs.: Michael “Maverick” Chiesa (14-4) vs. Carlos “Natural Born Killer” Condit (30-12)

So Michael Chiesa finally got fed up with cutting weight and decided to move up to 170 pounds, where wrestlers own the top half of the division. Imagine a long, lanky frame like “Maverick’s” against someone like Kamaru Usman? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as the ex-TUF guy needs to prove he belongs against the former interim welterweight champion.

The question heading into this fight is whether or not to blame Chiesa’s recent struggles on his weight cut. His submission loss to Kevin Lee was not as controversial as he wants you to believe and he was beaten fair and square by Anthony Pettis. In fact, all four of his UFC losses have been finishes, three of them by submission, which is a troubling stat heading into a fight against a combatant as crafty as Condit.

Like Chiesa, the “Natural Born Killer” has been struggling to find the win column and can’t seem to keep himself from getting finished. Once the second-best fighter at 170 pounds, Condit has now dropped four straight and looked positively lost against Alex Oliveira. Considering he turns 35 in May, I’m not expecting a dramatic turnaround in tomorrow night’s performance.

Is a shot Condit still good enough to overcome a younger, healthier Chiesa?

I’ll be honest, there isn’t much about “Maverick” that impresses me. I don’t want to call his hands garbage, but to notch 14 wins and not score a single knockout should give you an idea of where his striking is at. In addition, he no longer holds a height and reach advantage in his new home, so that old bag of tricks will be rendered combat ineffective against Condit, who’s finished 28 of his 30 wins. That’s a pretty awesome stat.

Unless Condit has completely shit the bed — and it’s entirely possible — this is his fight to lose. He’s got better hands, more power, solid submission skills, and the kind of big-game experience that Chiesa has yet to accumulate. There is nothing “Natural Born Killer’ will see that he hasn’t already faced (and beaten) inside the cage. Now it’s up to him to turn back the clock and prove he’s still worthy of a spot in the Top 10.

Prediction: Condit def. Chiesa by technical knockout

205 lbs.: Corey “Overtime” Anderson (11-4) vs. Ilir “The Sledgehammer” Latifi (14-5, 1 NC)

Corey Anderson is a Top 10 light heavyweight, while Ilir Latifi is ranked in the Top 5. That feels like a strange thing to type in this day and age, but also keep in mind that Anthony Smith was not even ranked in the Top 15 a year ago and now he’s sitting in the No. 3 spot. This is a crazy sport and a handful of big wins can often mean the difference between obscurity and championship dreams.

Anderson captured the glass trophy in the finale of TUF 19, but the combat sports reality show lost most of its luster more than a decade ago when winning the contract also earned you a title shot. Since that time, “Overtime” — who thankfully changed his nickname of “Beastin’ 25/8” — has compiled a respectable 7-4 record. Yes, he’s the winner of two straight, but consecutive knockout losses to Ovince Saint Preux and Jimi Manuwa in 2017 are still fresh in our collective minds.

Anderson is a two-time collegiate wrestling All-American with pop in his hands, not unlike his UFC 232 opponent. Latifi transitioned to MMA after his stint as a national team wrestler and Nordic champion overseas, though I think we all believed he was nothing more than a warm body when asked to fill in for Alexander Gustafsson back in 2013. The joke’s on us because “The Sledgehammer” has since gone 7-2 with five finishes, including his first-round submission win over the aforementioned Saint Preux back in February of this year.

Latifi is listed on Fight Metric as 5’10” but c’mon...

That’s really his biggest disadvantage in this (or any) fight. Anderson will enjoy several inches in both height and reach, though I think you need to have a working knowledge of the jab and how to use it — a la Mousasi — for Latifi to be in danger. This is going to be a fight that alternates between huge haymakers and sloppy takedown attempts. From what I’ve seen thus far from each competitor, that’s real estate wholly owned by “Lat Dog,” who can out-ugly anyone at 205 pounds, Anderson included.

Prediction: Latifi def. Anderson by technical knockout

145 lbs.: Chad “Money” Mendes (18-4) vs. Alexander “The Great” Volkanovski (18-1)

Chad Mendes lost more than two years of his prime fighting career after failing an out-of-competition drug test back in 2016. Not surprisingly, there were questions as to how much “Money,” now 33, would be worth after that long of a layoff. We also need to keep in mind that Mendes was benched coming off back-to-back knockout losses to Conor McGregor and Frankie Edgar and looked nothing like the power-punching contender who jumped out to a 17-2 start to kickoff his cage fighting career.

I think those questions were answered in his comeback fight at UFC Fight Night 133. That’s where Mendes walloped Myles Jury in the very first round, proving he’s been using his time off to sharpen his skills and keep the engine warm until his suspension expired. Aside from being short AF, Mendes is the complete package, with an ability to win a fight on the feet as well as on the ground. It’s actually pretty remarkable how far his hands have come since his wrestling-only days back in World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC).

His latest assignment comes in the form of Alexander Volkanovski, the Australian sensation riding a 15-fight win streak dating back to early 2013. That includes five straight victories under the UFC banner, though in fairness, his level of competition leaves a lot to be desired. Yusuke Kasuya and Jeremy Kennedy have since been released, Mizuto Hirota is 37 and the loser of three straight, and Shane Young is just 1-1 in his UFC career. I’m not suggesting his body of work doesn’t deserve praise, but we need to maintain some perspective before we start anointing him the next big thing at 145 pounds.

Like Mendes, Volkanovski is a formidable wrestler with power in his hands. Unlike Mendes, Volkanovski has never faced the likes of McGregor, Edgar, or Aldo, three former champions. You can’t discount that kind of experience at this level of the game and everything that Volkanovski has done, Mendes has done as well, against a much higher caliber of competition. It’s almost as if “Money” is fighting a younger version of himself and that means he’ll know what mistakes will be made and how to capitalize on them. With just three rounds to get the job done, I find it very hard to make a compelling case for the upset.

Prediction: Mendes def. Volkanovski by unanimous decision

There you have it.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 232 fight card tomorrow night, starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the pay-per-view (PPV) main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 232: “Jones vs. Gustafsson 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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