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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 235

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Every week where Jon Jones fights always seems to have some form of unpredictability.

But by Jones standards, the week before his fight on Saturday with Anthony Smith was almost calm. Sure, we had the failed drug tests and pulsing story that’s been in the news since late December. But that’s to be expected at this stage of the game.

Nobody said anything stupid in late trash talk. Smith talked like he could win, but wasn’t particularly convincing, and showed little hope in the fight. Jones was back to being awkwardly charming and friendly, with the narrative back that he was the greatest of all-time and less that he’s a guy who has been given numerous second chances and something always happens. People want to see the happy ending, that he’s grown up, learned and changed, but the pattern always ends with some form of reality slapping you in the face.

His title defense was notable only because, had Smith won, it would have surpassed even the Matt Serra win over Georges St-Pierre as the biggest title fight upset in UFC history.

But from the start of the fight it was evident why the odds were so long. Jones was cruising to victory. Smith couldn’t get any meaningful offense in.

After three similar rounds of Jones dominating, Smith surviving but doing little else, suddenly there was a moment where the title was in jeopardy.

Jones landed a hard and illegal knee to the side of Smith’s head in round four. Smith was clearly rocked. As a clear foul, if Smith couldn’t continue, Jones would have been disqualified and Smith would have been the light heavyweight title. The knee landed with enough force that had he not come back out, while there would have been controversy, suspicion and more, it would not have been a shock. Smith instead came back out.

For the rest of Smith’s career, he’ll be known as the guy who could have won the title from Jones in as fluky a title change as there has ever been in UFC. The win would have brought him significant money as a champion defending his title in a major main event. The decision to fight is likely what he’ll best be remembered for. Instead, he chose to continue the fight and to try and win cleanly, when he seemed to have no answer on how to do that.

UFC 235 was one of the deepest shows in a long time. One of the big themes was answering the questions as to just how real Johnny Walker, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Weili Zhang and Ben Askren would be against very legitimate competition.

The verdict is in. Walker is scary real. Combine that with his charisma and he’s got a shot to become a major star in Brazil, if not the entire world. Magomedsharipov proved to be a title contender. Ditto Zhang. And while everyone knew Askren could wrestle with anyone, he had never had to come back from almost certain defeat, to being very quickly in dominant position before a hotly-debated stoppage.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars from Saturday’s show.

JON JONES - Dana White seemed to make it clear that Jones (24-1) would next defend the title against Thiago Santos (21-6), who defeated Jan Blachowicz last week in Prague, Czech Republic.

White said that if Brock Lesnar returns, he would fight Daniel Cormier. Lesnar, Cormier and Johnny Walker would all be fights that will connect much stronger with fans against Jones than Santos. White seemed to indicate they were not looking at putting Walker in that title picture just yet.

KAMARU USMAN - After one of the most dominant decisions in UFC championship history, Usman (15-1) beat welterweight champion Tyron Woodley (19-4-1) in such a manner that nobody is talking about a rematch.

White pushed the idea of Usman’s first title defense being against Colby Covington (14-1), which is the right fight to make at this time.

BEN ASKREN - Askren moved to 19-0, with one no contest, after escaping from a bad predicament and having opponent Robbie Lawler (28-13, 1 no contest) in a lot of trouble when referee Herb Dean felt Lawler’s hand when limp and stopped things.

Because of the controversial ending, since Lawler never tapped and argued it was a bad stoppage, White talked about running it back soon. Askren could also face another fighter he’s been in social media battles with in Darren Till (17-1-1). Either way, in short order, Askren has shot himself high on the list of the fighters who are best at promoting their fights.

WEILI ZHANG - The strawweight from China earned her 19th win in a row after losing in her first pro fight, in beating Tecia Torres (10-4) in a competitive fight. The win established that Zhang can hang with the top contenders, but didn’t look so impressive that she came across as a future champion.

Zhang should next face either Claudia Gadelha (16-4) or the winner of the March 30 fight between Michelle Waterson (16-6) and Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-3).

JOHNNY WALKER - Walker (17-3) is on one of the most amazing tears in the sport. Walker is 3-0 in UFC, with all three wins coming by stoppage in a combined time of 2:48. He’s won nine in a row, with seven of those wins being via first round stoppage.

What we know is that he’s explosive and that he can beat top competition the same way he’s beaten everyone else since Misha Cirkunov is no joke. Walker would draw more than anyone in the division right now when matched with Jones, given that he’s been a human highlight video both during his brief matches, as well as in his winning celebrations.

Walker’s next fight should be against either Jim Crute (10-0) or Jimi Manuwa (17-5). The real question in promoting him is that it is early for him to face Jones, but the longer he doesn’t face Jones, the higher the risk that somebody knocks him off before he gets there.

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