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UFC 197 predictions

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The return of the arguable top pound-for-pound fighter alive takes place Saturday as Jon Jones returns to the Octagon after nearly a year and a half off. He'll contend for the light heavyweight title while the flyweight champ also puts his title up for grabs.

What: UFC 197: Jones vs. St. Preux

Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada

When: Saturday, the three-fight Fight Pass preliminary card starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight Fox Sports 1 preliminary card starts at 8 p.m. and the five-fight pay-per-view card kicks off at 10 p.m. ET.

Jon Jones vs. Ovince Saint Preux

Will the time off hurt or help Jon Jones? I'd argue the latter. There's no substitute for regular competition, but Jones had a chance to work on his craft for 18 months while letting injuries heal. That's very rare in mixed martial arts. He might be rusty at first and OSP is super dangerous with explosive strikes, but if Jones times his entries into tie-ups correctly and works from the outside as methodically as he can, this is his fight to lose.

Pick: Jones

Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo

If Cejudo is to win, he has to show us something he hasn't yet. He clearly has the ability to win a round or perhaps a number of rounds, but so does DJ. This fight could be close and perhaps even back and forth in terms of who wins rounds, but from the tape we've seen to date, Johnson has more ways to win. He's better at managing distance, scoring in all phases of the fight and has much more MMA competitive experience. Cejudo should never be counted out, but he'll have to rise to the occasion in a way he never has before in his fighting career to make this work.

Pick: Johnson

Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza

What a tough fight to call. Barboza has only sharpened and streamlined his game while Pettis has been on a losing streak. That said, Pettis has switched things up in preparation and done so in a way that seems to have given up on covering for his weaknesses to make sure his offense is as good as possible. He'll need that against a bruising striker like Barboza. Pettis will also need to move continuously without absorbing too much lower-body damage. The truth is Barboza can easily win this fight and just might, but is susceptible to offense as much as he can fire it off. If Pettis can hurt or perhaps just connect with Barboza, he can make this work. With his back against the wall, he'll need to to stay relevant in the division.

Pick: Pettis

Robert Whittaker vs. Rafael Natal

Natal is sneaky because his offense on the feet is sporadic and haphazard. On the ground, however, he's quick and lethal. Whittaker should be able to avoid most if not all of it with proper distancing and takedown defense when he needs it, but he also needs to be careful. Natal can lull opposition into a false sense of security with his predictable stand-up, but once the fight changes phases, so does he.

Pick: Whittaker

Yair Rodríguez vs. Andre Fili

This is a great fight to kick off the main card, but one that likely favors the Mexican. Fili is underrated with sneaky submissions and a nice wide variety in his striking arsenal, but Rodriguez is a different animal. His ability to score with offense from virtually every circumstance makes him as wild as it does dangerous. His ability to scramble and cover up, however, should keep him safe enough with his risk taking against Fili, a fighter who has ability, but perhaps not the sort to make Rodriguez pay for his offensive recklessness.

Pick: Rodriguez

From the preliminary card:

Sergio Pettis def. Chris Kelades
Danny Roberts def. Dominique Steele
Carla Esparza def. Juliana Lima
James Vick def. Glaico Franca
Cody East def. Walt Harris
Clint Hester def. Marcos Rogerio de Lima
Kevin Lee def. Efrain Escudero

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