Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will look to put the crippled UFC 234 behind it with a pair of title fights this Saturday (March 2, 2019), as Jon Jones and Tyron Woodley defend their belts against Anthony Smith and Kamaru Usman. Earlier in the evening, former Welterweight champion Robbie Lawler welcomes Bellator and ONE FC champion Ben Askren to the Octagon, Tecia Torres attempts to halt the rise of Weili Zhang, and Cody Garbrandt attempts to rebound against the ever-dangerous Pedro Munhoz.
ESPN hosts UFC 235’s latter four “Prelims” undercard bouts (check out the Fight Pass portion here). Let’s see what the “Worldwide Leader” has to offer this weekend ...
145 lbs.: Jeremy Stephens vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov
Jeremy Stephens (28-15) — who’d had just one knockout in his previous nine fights — rediscovered his destructive capabilities with brutal finishes of Doo Ho Choi and Josh Emmett in consecutive FOX main events. This set up a battle with Jose Aldo, who handed “Lil’ Heathen” just the second knockout loss of his career with a vicious body shot.
He has knocked out 19 opponents overall.
An eight-fight win streak brought Zabit Magomedsharipov (16-1) to the Octagon, where he quickly became the “Next Big Thing” with a series of impressive performances. After opening his UFC career with dominant submissions of Mike Santiago and Sheymon Moraes, “Zabeast” put on one of 2018’s best fights against Kyle Bochniak, then caught Brandon Davis in a “Submission of the Year”-worthy Suloev stretch to at UFC 228.
He stands four inches taller than Stevens at 6’1.”
Stephens can win this fight if he fights smart. Magmedsharipov backs straight up when pressured, and Stephens has some hellacious leg kicks with which to tear up the trailing leg. If Stephens can slow down the towering Dagestani, the latter’s willingness to throw down will doom him to eating one of those gigaton punches “Lil’ Heathen” can still deliver.
But, when was the last time Stephens fought smart? The man all but crippled Gilbert Melendez and yet he still sometimes forgets he’s allowed to hit people with something other than wound-up haymakers. His lack of set ups leaves him open to both Magomedsharipov’s long-range kicks and lethal wrestling.
Stephens hasn’t been submitted in a decade despite the efforts of guys like Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, Charles Oliveira and Renato Moicano, so he should have a full 15 minutes to chase the finish. Too bad he’s going to spend most of it on his back, fighting off chokes.
Prediction: Magomedsharipov via unanimous decision
205 lbs.: Misha Cirkunov vs. Johnny Walker
Misha Cirkunov (14-4) entered UFC as one of the Light Heavyweight division’s top prospects, a status he lived up to with four consecutive impressive finishes. Upset losses to Volkan Oezdemir and Glover Teixeira slowed his roll, but he got back on track by stopping Patrick Cummins in under three minutes.
Eight of his 12 stoppage wins have come by submission.
Walker had to go to the judges for the first time, but came out victorious on the Contender Series with a decision over UFC veteran Henrique “Frankenstein.” That may have bred a bit of impatience, as he’s disposed of his two Octagon opponents in a combined 2:12 while earning a pair of “Performance of the Night” bonuses.
He steps in for the injured Ovince Saint Preux on short notice to complete a one-month turnaround.
Cirkunov is an exponentially better grappler than Walker. Save for the Oezdemir debacle, he’s shown a solid chin, weathering everything Ion Cutelaba could dish out for more than two rounds. Conventional thinking suggests that he can exploit Walker’s shaky ground game and possibly even put a dent in that chin he leaves hanging out there.
As we’ve seen, though, conventional thinking doesn’t seem to apply to Walker, who can seemingly uncork fight-ending strikes at a whim. There’s every possibility he drills Cirkunov with some kind of flying nonsense that would give his kickboxing coach an aneurysm. Still, Cirkunov has the tools to beat him and is a mighty dangerous foe to fight with little preparation. I say he chokes the big man out halfway through.
Prediction: Cirkunov via second-round submission
135 lbs.: Alejandro Perez vs. Cody Stamann
Alejandro Perez (21-6-1) suffered a surprise submission loss to Patrick Williams in his sophomore UFC appearance, but has gone unbeaten in seven fights since. His 2018 campaign saw him knockout an exhausted Matthew Lopez in April 2018 and take a narrow decision over Eddie Wineland three months later.
“Diablito” has knocked out nine professional opponents and submitted another five.
Cody Stamann (17-2) took a workman-like decision over Terrion Ware in his Octagon debut, then punched his ticket to contention by upsetting Tom Duquesnoy and winning a grueling battle with Bryan Caraway. He went on to fight Aljamain Sterling in Sept. 2018, and though he started strong, he fell victim to a Suloev stretch in the second round.
“The Spartan” replaces injured prospect Song Yadong on short notice.
Out of curiosity, I decided to check some of Perez’s fights on MMADecisions.com. Just two of 15 pundits scored the Wineland fight for him, three of 15 had him beating Andre Soukhamthath, and 13 of 16 had him losing his draw with Albert Morales. There’s no question that he’s a solid fighter, but he’s benefited from a lot of questionable judging.
Stamann’s the stronger wrestler here and, unlike Lopez, won’t gas himself out after five good minutes. Unless Perez can crack him in the first five minutes, Stamann’s durability and takedown prowess carry him to a grind-heavy unanimous decision.
Prediction: Stamann via unanimous decision
170 lbs.: Diego Sanchez vs. Mickey Gall
Decisions over Jim Miller and Marcin Held breathed a bit of life back into Diego Sanchez’s (28-11) mixed martial arts (MMA) career, but horrific knockout losses to Al Iaquinta and Matt Brown had fans worried for “The Nightmare’s” health. With his back against the wall, he survived a vicious upkick to defeat Craig White by decision in Sept. 2018.
He stands four inches shorter than Gall at 5’10.”
Mickey Gall (5-1) easily tapped Mike Jackson to win the C.M. Punk Sweepstakes, then did the same thing to Punk and Sage Northcutt to establish himself as a legitimate Welterweight. A long stretch of back control wasn’t enough to get him past Randy Brown his next time out, though he tapped George Sullivan in Aug. 2018.
All five of his professional wins have come by rear-naked choke within two rounds.
I look back on the last time I picked Sanchez to win with the same cringing self-loathing as the time I was three years old and told a somewhat hirsute family friend I’d never seen a woman with a moustache before. As one might imagine, the fact that I’m picking him here is not done lightly.
Here’s the thing: Gall is extraordinarily good at the one thing he does, which is scoring takedowns and then moving instantly to the back. Sanchez, however, remains extremely good at not getting submitted. He clearly beat a pair of quality grapplers in Miller and Held. In addition, he may not be able to take a punch anymore, but the man can still grind.
Shopworn as Sanchez is, if there’s any Welterweight on the roster he can still beat, it’s Gall. He rides out three rounds in Gall’s guard to get the win.
Prediction: Sanchez via unanimous decision
UFC 235 is what a pay-per-view (PPV) is supposed to look like. Don’t miss it, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 235 fight card on fight night, starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC 235: “Jones vs. Smith” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.