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UFC 235 predictions, preview, and analysis

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I haven’t been excited for an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event in awhile, and of course I mean no disrespect to all the guys and gals who threw hands at UFC Prague, but most fight cards don’t really feel that “big” to me anymore.

UFC 235 is proving to be the exception.

The promotion’s next big pay-per-view (PPV) event will feature a quick turnaround for light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, as he puts his 205-pound strap on the line against top division contender, Anthony Smith. Before they handle their business, welterweight kingpin Tyron Woodley gets back into action against 170-pound wrestling powerhouse, Kamaru Usman.

And let’s not forget Ben Askren’s Octagon debut against ex-champion, Robbie Lawler.

Before we take a closer look at the five-fight main card, check out what Patrick Stumberg had to say about the UFC 235 “Prelims” bouts on ESPN and Fight Pass by clicking here and here. Odds and betting lines for all of tomorrow’s action can be located here.

Let’s get to work.

205 lbs.: Light Heavyweight Champion Jon “Bones” Jones (23-1, 1 NC) vs. Anthony “Lionheart” Smith (31-13)

Any light heavyweight hoping that Jon Jones would be suffering from his extended layoff following his UFC 214 drug-test suspension was undoubtedly crushed to see “Bones” picking up right where he left off at UFC 232. No amount of pre-fight distractions, location changes, or “Mauler” improvements could make a dent in the armor of “Bones.” When you consider what he did to Daniel Cormier prior to his latest mishap, trying to make a case for his deterioration is a fool’s errand. Simply put, Jones is as good — or better — than he’s ever been, and he’s competing in his prime, to boot. You can make the case that Gustafsson laid an egg in their Inglewood do-over, but I doubt it would have mattered. Jones was locked in from the get-go and not the half-baked sloth who tried to mail it in at UFC 165.

That’s bad news for Anthony Smith, a formidable striker who earned his spot by knocking around shopworn ex-champions like Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua. His win over Volkan Oezdemir was perhaps his most impressive, though it comes with an asterisk. What I liked about that performance was his grit and perseverance. “Lionheart” is clearly as strong mentally as he is physically, but let’s be honest, his technique in the “No Time” fight was simply dreadful. Those sorts of technical errors are forgivable when Jones decides to coast to a five-round decision, like he did in cruise control wins over Glover Teixeira and Ovince Saint-Preux, among others. But if the same Jones who destroyed Gustafsson comes out to play tomorrow night in “Sin City,” this is going to be a slaughter.

Smith has 13 professional losses and he’s been finished in 12 of them. That’s an alarming statistic against any fighter, let alone Jones. The counter to that, of course, is that “Lionheart” is currently on a 14-2 run and at age 30, is also performing at his peak and in his athletic prime. His clinch game is not to be taken lightly and some of his work inside the phone booth has been devastating, to say the least. 28 finishes in 31 wins is pretty fucking impressive. That said, can he handle the wrestling of Jones? Cezar Ferreira took Smith to the floor six times. Andrew Sanchez was able to do it four times. That tells me Smith was able to get back to his feet in those fights ... though shucking off “Bones” won't be as easy as muscling through the top game of “Mutante.”

I like Smith’s attitude going into this fight. He isn’t going to be psyched out by the champion and he truly has nothing to lose. Is that enough for the upset? Confidence can’t compensate for a staggering eight-inch reach disadvantage. Will does not repel the teep kick. Determination alone won’t stop the takedown. There is no area of the fight game where Smith is a better fighter and he’s not coming into this fight with Yoel Romero’s knockout power. Where does that leave him? On top of a pile of bodies that were better and more accomplished than him, but ended up in the scrap heap anyway.

Anything less than a violent finish would shock me.

Prediction: Jones def. Smith by submission

170 lbs.: UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron “The Chosen One” Woodley (19-3-1) vs. Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman (14-1)

It’s hard to be critical of Kamaru Usman when he’s done everything right in his UFC career. Originally a warm body for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 21, “The Nigerian Nightmare” went on to capture the glass trophy, then won his next eight fights. Unfortunately for fight fans, seven of them were decisions and let’s be honest, his fighting style — while effective — is boring and difficult to watch. To be fair, Usman’s job isn’t to please us, it’s to win, and he’s done his job admirably. It also helps that Colby Covington is a total putz, paving the way for an early title shot.

There is a sharp contrast between “doing well” and winning a championship title. At the risk of nitpicking, we need to see how well Usman measures up against Tyron Woodley, who’s had a hot-and-lukewarm run as 170-pound kingpin. The challenger captured decision wins over accomplished veterans Demian Maia and Rafael dos Anjos to earn his place. The former turns 42 years old this November and the latter is a natural lightweight. I would have felt more optimistic had he turned away someone like Darren Till, or even Santiago Ponzinibbio.

Regardless, here we are, and all Usman has to beat Woodley with is his wrestling, which is not on the same level of the champion. “The Chosen One” was a Division I All American and Big 12 Champion, whereas Usman was Division II All American and captured a national title. Anyone familiar with collegiate wrestling understands there is a marked difference between divisions, and now is probably a good time to mention that Woodley trains every day with Ben Askren, so there is nothing Usman can bring to the cage on fight night that Woodley hasn’t already prepared for.

That’s really the story of this fight. Woodley is without question the superior striker, both in speed and power, and has faced — and beaten — some legitimate killers at 170 pounds. Usman has a slight height and reach advantage, but not enough to make it a factor. I do believe Usman will have his moments, thanks to his physicality and endless cardio, but much like their collegiate wrestling resumes, this is akin to the captain of the JV squad trying to prove his mettle against a varsity player.

Prediction: Woodley def. Usman by unanimous decision

170 lbs.: “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler (28-12, 1 NC) vs. “Funky” Ben Askren (18-0, 1 NC)

This bout was designed to be a showcase fight for Ben Askren, the former Bellator MMA champion who got the cold shoulder from Dana White and Co. back in 2013 before settling into his transitional home at ONE Championship. That’s where “Funky” padded his resume by recycling Asian cans who were ill-prepared to deal with the kind of wrestling that took Askren to the 2008 Olympics. Now 34 and at the tail end of his prime, UFC fans will finally get to see what all the fuss was about against an ex-champion who is known for putting on electrifying performances.

I called it a showcase fight because Lawler has been taken down 20 times since rejoining the promotion at UFC 157. If Rafael dos Anjos, Donald Cerrone, and Matt Brown can get “Ruthless” to the floor, Askren is going to have a field day. I guess now is a good time to mention that Lawler turns 37 in less than a month and has been in more wars than John Rambo. I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that Lawler is on the downside of his career and outside of the knockout punch — still as potent as ever — there isn’t much here to look forward to.

Askren’s collegiate wrestling accomplishments are so impressive, I would need a separate column to list them all. Lawler is getting taken down because that’s what “Funky” does. He can’t strike and would be a complete fool to spend any real time on the feet. On the bright side, this is only a three-round fight, so we only have to endure 15 minutes of WrestleMania. And for all the boo birds out there, winning ugly is still winning, so if you really want to fuck Askren, root for Tyron Woodley to beat Kamaru Usman to keep Askren from getting a title shot.

Prediction: Askren def. Lawler by unanimous decision

115 lbs.: Tecia “Tiny Tornado” Torres (10-3) vs. Weili “Magnum” Zhang (18-1)

I know all the cool kids can’t stop raving about Weili Zhang, who is hyped as the next big female fighter and one of the more formidable prospects out of Asia, but let’s not toe-tag Tecia Torres just yet. Despite an underwhelming showing as part of TUF 20, Torres went on to prove her mettle with a respectable 6-3 record in the years that followed. Let’s also keep in mind her three UFC losses — all decisions — came to current strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, former 115-pound titleholder Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and two-time title contender Jessica Andrade. Those are the top three fighters in her weight class and she held her own in each contest.

Zhang is clearly the more experienced combatant and a savage finisher, racking up 16 stoppages in 18 wins. That kind of finishing rate is uncommon among female fighters and practically unheard of at strawweight. I’m sure it helped that “Magnum” was kicking cans on the international circuit, torching the likes of the 0-2 Shuxia Wu and the 1-1 Mei Huang. That’s a nice way of pointing out how all that glitters is not gold and Zhang has only faced real competition over the last year. So far, so good, turning away Danielle Taylor at UFC 227 before tapping out Jessica Aguilar in Beijing. “Jag” is 36 and dropped three of her last four, so take that for what it’s worth.

A Taekwondo blackbelt and former amateur kickboxing champion, Torres will always work to keep the fight standing, despite her impressive clinch work and ability to mug-and-slug. Where that factors into Zhang’s offense remains to be seen, as “Magnum” has shown the diversity to fight like a rabid dog, as well as a patient technician. How she adapts to the “Tiny Tornado” and her opponent’s punches in bunches may ultimate tell the tale. Working against Zhang is the fact that we’re dealing with a 15-minute fight, and I believe the busier Torres will stay off the ground and win a close, and perhaps uninspired decision from range.

Prediction: Torres def. Zhang by spilt decision

135 lbs.: Cody “No Love” Garbrandt (11-2) vs. Pedro “The Young Punisher” Munhoz (17-3, 1 NC)

Cody Garbrandt has a formidable skill set inside the cage, but his mental game is equally impressive. Coming off back-to-back knockout losses in championship title fights — to a fighter who is despised on a personal level — would be enough to break most combatants, but “No Love” wisely took some time off to reevaluate his life and career, found the hunger and desire to compete, and came back ready for more. Garbrandt fans are hoping that TJ Dillashaw simply had his number, but I don’t think losing to Pedro Munhoz would mean the ex-champ is on the decline or was overrated at 135 pounds, because the “Young Punisher” is pretty damn talented himself.

If you look at his three losses in UFC, two of them were split decisions to John Dodson and Jimmie Rivera, while the other was a unanimous decision defeat to Raphael Assuncao in early 2014. It’s not like he’s getting starched by a bunch of TUF rejects or coming up lame against Octagon rookies. Munoz is a durable bantamweight with great cardio and has one of the nastiest guillotines in the game, responsible for six of his nine submission finishes. I was particularly impressed with the way he dismantled Bryan Caraway, who despite his reputation as the ex- “Mr. Tate,” is a venerable 135-pounder with underrated grappling.

You never know how a fighter is going to look coming off a knockout loss. I think it’s premature to be pessimistic about Garbrandt’s place among the bantamweight elite. Losing to Dillashaw hasn’t made him less of a wrestler, nor has it taken away the power in his hands. Remember, this is the same fighter who outstruck Dominick Cruz for five rounds back in late 2016. That said, Munhoz presents a threat just about everywhere the fight goes, but more so on the ground, so Garbrandt will likely abandon his wrestling and instead work his hands from a distance. Expect a smart, measured pace that will bring about the win, just without any of the fireworks we’ve become accustomed to.

Prediction: Garbrandt def. Munhoz by unanimous decision

There you have it. will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 235 fight card on fight night (click here), 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 ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.

For much more on this weekend’s UFC 235 PPV extravaganza click here.

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