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UFC 235 predictions

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones (pictured) defends his title against Anthony Smith in the main event of UFC 235 on Saturday in Las Vegas
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Anthony Smith is going to have to hope that the number 13 is as unlucky as it usually is when he faces Jon Jones on Saturday.

That’s the number of title fights Jones will have on his resume after his UFC 235 main event meeting with Smith. The previous dozen have all gone the way of “Bones,” and few opponents have been able to truly threaten the most dominant light heavyweight champion in company history. Smith, a longtime journeyman who emerged as a darkhorse contender last year, has been saying all of the right things about not being counted out despite his relative anonymity compared to the luminaries that Jones has beaten in the past.

Now he gets the chance to prove that he’s no lame duck challenger, and if he can knock off Jones, it could be the most unfathomable upset that the MMA world has ever seen.

The co-main event looks to be more competitive on paper as Tyron Woodley goes for his fifth consecutive title defense against The Ultimate Fighter 21 winner Kamaru Usman. “The Nigerian Nightmare” has come a long way since his TUF days, winning his first nine UFC fights, a feat matched by only a select few that you may have heard of: Anderson Silva, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Chris Weidman, Junior dos Santos, and Royce Gracie.

But Woodley hasn’t lost a fight in over four years and you can expect him to be highly motivated as he continues his mission to be recognized as the all-time king at 170 pounds.

In other main card action, former Bellator and ONE welterweight champion Ben Askren makes his long-awaited Octagon debut against former UFC champ Robbie Lawler, Tecia Torres looks to snap the 18-fight win streak of Chinese strawweight Weili Zhang, and former bantamweight titleholder Cody Garbrandt returns against one of the best finishers at 135 pounds, Pedro Munhoz.

What: UFC 235

Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, March 2. The three-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight ESPN preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.

Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith

There’s really no convincing argument to make for picking Anthony Smith here, is there?

Not to be flippant, but there’s a reason Jon Jones is being viewed as a massive favorite, and it’s not because Smith is some bum they picked up off the street. “Lionheart” has a ton of experience and toughness, and as cliche as it sounds, his “nothing to lose” attitude is exactly what he needs to bring into the cage to have a chance of pulling off this upset. He finished Volkan Oezdemir — a recent world title challenger — to get here. He’s earned his spot.

The question is what does he have in his arsenal to beat Jones? He’s a proven fight finisher — 29 of his 31 career wins have come inside the distance — and has shown he’s just as comfortable being the aggressor early as he is surviving the worst that his opponent can give him before roaring back. And make no mistake about it, Smith’s best chance is to avoid having this one go to the judges, and his team knows this. They want to put Jones down for the count, not down on the scorecards, and that means we could see Smith take some major risks. Jones will have to be prepared.

Preparation and adaptation are two of Jones’s strengths, which he’s shown time and time again in the most high-pressure situations. Much like the recently retired Georges St-Pierre, Jones is so well-rounded that he regularly matches and even surpasses his foes in their supposed areas of expertise. He out-wrestles wrestlers, out-strikes strikers, and out-grapples grapplers. Every fight, Jones’ in-cage deficiencies become harder to detect.

As encouraging as it is to know that Smith and his team are willing to open the playbook and have Smith throw everything and the kitchen sink at Jones, that simply won’t matter if Jones is on top of his game defensively. After being battered and bloodied in his first fight with Alexander Gustafsson, a close unanimous decision win for Jones, their rematch last December looked more like a mismatch. Jones was hardly touched before submitting Gustafsson in the third.

Beyond the reach advantage he has over Smith, Jones’s instincts are just so sharp and I doubt Smith can execute anything that Jones hasn’t seen before. It might take a round or two to figure Smith out, but Jones should be able to take his time, drop Smith with a flurry or a takedown, and finish with ground-and-pound before the championship frames.

Pick: Jones

Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman

This is a great test for Tyron Woodley, who hasn’t faced a high-level wrestler since becoming UFC champion. The last time he did back in January 2015, he eked out a split decision over Kelvin Gastelum. Kamaru Usman presents a lot of similar problems as Gastelum, so it will be intriguing to see how much better Woodley has become at dealing with that style.

Usman doesn’t have quite have the same quick-strike ability of Gastelum, though opponents have learned to respect his solid right hand — just ask Sergio Moraes, who was the victim of a one-hitter quitter when he faced Usman. What he does have in common with Gastelum is the ability to push the pace for 25 minutes and make things uncomfortable. He can’t let the champion get into a rhythm if he hopes to take control of this bout.

Even then, Woodley is difficult to effectively pressure without putting oneself in danger. If Usman’s right hand is respected, Woodley’s is feared. He throws it with ridiculous speed and accuracy and no matter how durable Usman’s chin is, one good knock is all it will take to end this. Woodley’s expert clinch work will also be a factor here, though Usman could match him in that department leading to the occasional stalemate.

Woodley has shown he can win methodical five-round fights in the past and that experience is going to be invaluable. He’ll go on to take the decision in this one.

Pick: Woodley

Ben Askren vs. Robbie Lawler

Let’s get this out of the way first: Ben Askren would have been a perennial top-10 contender over the last few years if here were on the UFC roster. With that out of the way, Robbie Lawler is a rough debut matchup for him.

Don’t get it twisted, Askren’s elite wrestling will give Lawler plenty of headaches. Lawler has high-level takedown defense, but has been put on his back by the likes of Donald Cerrone and Matt Brown, two fighters who aren’t exactly known for their power doubles. What usually saves Lawler from being smothered is his ability to limit his opponents’ offense on the mat. This was evident in fights against Johny Hendricks and Cerrone, where neither man was able to do much with their takedowns.

Both fighters are coming off of long layoffs, and I think it will take longer for Lawler to find his rhythm on the feet than it will for Askren to locate his grappling game. There are few fighters in the world better than Askren at getting a fight to the mat. He excels at chain wrestling and finding the slightest openings to unbalance and trip his opponents. Regardless of who Lawler has fought before, Askren’s wrestling is on another level and Lawler is going to have to deal with that as soon as the bell rings.

If he can keep his composure as he usually does, it’s going to be harder and harder for Askren to avoid standing with Lawler, and Lawler will obviously have a huge advantage striking. This is a close call that is entirely based on how much faith you have in Lawler’s takedown defense, but I see it holding up long enough for him stay upright and eventually knock out Askren.

Pick: Lawler

Tecia Torres vs. Weili Zhang

Weili Zhang looked like the real deal in her last fight, needing less than a round to finish veteran Jessica Aguilar. This is a huge step up for her, having to figure out the speedy Tecia Torres.

While Zhang can’t match the technical mastery of Torres’s last opponent Joanna Jedrzejczyk, she does have the power that has given Torres problems in the past. More than just a wild puncher, Zhang also has a nasty streak to her and she is constantly searching for opportunities to sneak in short punches and elbows in close. That will serve her well in this fight, as she’ll have to make the most of her chances to do damage when Torres is within range.

Where Torres almost always has an advantage is her ability to move while striking effectively. As her nickname suggests, “The Tiny Tornado” is prepared to use every inch of that Octagon to find openings to score points. She’ll have to be at her sharpest to stay ahead of Zhang, who is constantly moving forward.

I’m not ready to anoint Zhang as a legitimate contender yet and Torres’ return to the American Top Team camp should benefit her enough to help her end the first losing streak of her career, even if this bout seems headed towards a split decision.

Pick: Torres

Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz

If the UFC is trying to help Cody Garbrandt get back on the winning track, they could have given him a much easier fight than Pedro Munhoz. Coming off back-to-back wins, Munhoz is trending in the opposite direction of “No Love” and could accelerate Garbrandt’s slide even more.

Munhoz has fast hands and crisp boxing, so if Garbrandt thinks he can just stand in the pocket and trade with him, it will be at his own risk. He has to avoid the temptation of overextending for a highlight-reel KO as he did in both Dillashaw fights, and be more like the slippery striker he was in the Dominick Cruz fight. Forcing the action will only lead to calamity for Garbrandt, which he can ill afford at this point in his career.

At 27, Garbrandt is in his prime and yet still has a lot of learning to do. If he took the right lessons from his losses to T.J. Dillashaw, it could mean a return to form and the knockout artistry that propelled him up the charts three years ago.

Pick: Garbrandt


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