UFC 235 Preview and Predictions
The MMA Gods have blessed us with an incredible card for UFC 235 this Saturday, as the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas plays host to one of the deepest cards the UFC has ever put together.
The card has something for all fans of martial arts, from elite striking to impeccable wrestling and grizzled vets to electric prospects and one of the most anticipated promotional debuts in the company’s history.
Here’s a preview of the main card, as well as some must-sees throughout the night.
Cody Garbrandt (-160) vs Pedro Munhoz (+130) – Three Rounds: Bantamweight
The main card kicks off with the return of “No Love” Garbrandt after TJ Dillashaw handed him the only two losses of his professional career, the first of which lost Garbrandt his bantamweight title. Due to injuries, this will only be the third time we’ve seen “No Love” in the Octagon since the beginning of 2017 and he’s been given a challenging opponent to welcome him back to competition.
Pedro Munhoz brings his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt back to Las Vegas and has the opportunity to climb from his ninth position in the bantamweight rankings. A master in close distances, Munhoz will try to take Garbrandt down or force him into grappling situations, situations that will make Garbrandt uncomfortable. With Munhoz, the guillotine submission is always on the table, with seven of his nine professional submission victories coming via the technique. Munhoz will have to be patient if he hopes to be successful in the bout, balancing his desire to bring the game to the fence or ground with staying away from the elite striking Garbrandt possesses.
This bout gives us the opportunity to see how Garbrandt reacts to getting knocked-out in back-to-back bouts. The first Dillashaw defeat could be written off, as Dillashaw was saved by the bell in the first round before recovering for a second-round victory, but Garbrandt was thoroughly outclassed in the second meeting. Garbrandt will need to keep up the intensity and pressure that made him so successful, but can’t afford to open himself up to potential liability in doing so like he did against Dillashaw. He will be helped by the fact that Munhoz is nowhere near the striker that Dillashaw is, but Munhoz is coming off a body-kick knock-out win, so he can be dangerous on the feet. Patience will be a virtue for Garbrandt if he’s to win his first bout since 2016.
As hot as Munhoz has been winning his last six of seven, he hasn’t seen anyone of Garbrandt’s caliber. Garbrandt won’t want to have to use his wrestling which could lead to a slow first round with Garbrandt showing patience and Munhoz not venturing into the danger-zone. Garbrandt will loosen-up in round two and Munhoz will realize he has to take a risk to win the bout on the ground. Munhoz gets clipped late in the second with Cody finishing via ground-and-pound to get back in the win column.
Garbrandt by 2nd Round TKO
Tecia Torres (+125) vs Weili Zhang (-155) – Three Rounds: Women’s Strawweight
As much as I consider myself an MMA fanatic, I’m not going to pretend I know a lot about Weili Zhang. Zhang has two UFC fights to her name, making quick work of well-respected women’s MMA fighter Jessica Aguilar in her last bout. Riding an 18-fight winning streak since her only loss in her professional debut, Zhang has a wide variety of skills with an impressive variety of submissions and knock-outs, including but not limited to head-kicks, elbows, armbars, guillotines and rear-naked chokes. She possesses a signature side-kick that could be one of the most powerful strikes in women’s MMA and acts as a real difference maker in her bouts. While we haven’t seen very much of her in the UFC, she’s incredibly versatile and has an opportunity to rise from her current strawweight ranking of 15th.
Coming off back-to-back unanimous decision losses to Jessica Andrade and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, seventh-ranked Tecia Torres finds herself in a difficult position needing a win. Torres uses effective kicks to maintain distance and will need to keep Zhang away as she doesn’t want to end up on the ground. Torres has strong submission defense, but won’t achieve any success in the bout if she finds herself in a position where she needs to use it.
Torres wins this bout is she can slow it down and follow a “strike-strike-disengage” pattern. Zhang wants to do the complete opposite and will try to put as much pressure on Torres as she can and take away distance. It’s a fascinating matchup between a fighter in Zhang who has three decisions in her 19 fights, versus a fighter in Torres who has lived by the decision, only having one of her 13 professional bouts end inside the distance.
I don’t think this bout ends well for Torres. Torres will be the best opponent Zhang has seen to date, but Torres hasn’t fared very well recently against pressure fighters in Andrade and Jedrzejczyk. I expect Zhang to employ the same tactics and give Torres fits. Torres might be able to achieve success early as Zhang adapts to the higher skill level, but Zhang will adjust and her pressure will lead to a decision victory.
Zhang by Decision
Robbie Lawler (+225) vs Ben Askren (-275) – Three Rounds: Welterweight
The debut has finally arrived.
After the historic trade between the UFC and One Championship that saw Demetrious Johnson and Ben Askren switch promotions, Askren makes his long-awaited debut in the most elite MMA promotion in the world on Saturday night. An undefeated champion in both One Championship and Bellator, Askren will get every opportunity to complete the trifecta of championships. Unlike many promotional newcomers, Askren begins his UFC career well entrenched in the welterweight title picture, as seen by the selection of his first opponent, former welterweight champion and currently sixth-ranked Robbie Lawler.
It feels like “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler is going to be used as the welterweight division’s gatekeeper moving forward. After missing all of 2018 following a torn ACL in a decisive decision loss against Rafael Dos Anjos, it seems Lawler’s return is set up for him to fail, allowing the UFC to benefit from Askren using Lawler’s brand recognition. Since losing his belt in 2016, Lawler’s three fights (Cowboy Cerrone, Dos Anjos and now Askren) have seemingly been set up to try and help his opponents break through the ceiling of the deep welterweight division and emerge as a part of the title picture.
Lawler has the ability to end this fight quickly and violently, with his heavy striking artillery ensuring he’s never out of a bout until the find bell rings, but this matchup is a stylistic nightmare for him. Askren will use his unparalleled wrestling skills throughout the fight and try to drag Lawler around the canvas for the duration of the bout. Ruthless Robbie’s only chance at success is to either sprawl and sell out trying to stop the takedowns at the risk of opening himself up to strikes, or take a risk when Askren shoots for legs and try to end the bout with one strike, opening himself up to the takedown. Both methods involve taking massive risks against a specialist fighter in Askren, but Lawler isn’t going to win this bout by playing it safe. Based on everything we’ve seen from Lawler in the past, I expect him to be aggressive, sprawl when required and try to pressure Askren into attempting a takedown in a bad position. If Lawler can get into a position where Askren consistently has his back against the fence while he’s on his feet, Lawler will be in his comfort zone and could do some damage.
This is by far Askren’s biggest test of his career. He hasn’t seen anyone of Lawler’s caliber before and he’ll need to be careful during his takedown attempts. The nice thing for Askren is he only needs to secure two takedowns to win this bout. Lawler doesn’t have wrestling skills that can match Askren, so if the fight gets to the ground, it isn’t coming back to the feet until the end of the round. While Askren’s chin hasn’t been tested much, I don’t think this is the time it will be. Askren secures three takedowns and ground-and-pounds Lawler in the second half of the third to remain undefeated and immerse himself right into the title picture at 170.
Askren by 3rd Round TKO
Tyron Woodley – Champion (-160) vs Kamaru Usman (+130) – Five Rounds for the Welterweight Championship
On paper, this bout is the most intriguing of the evening, but it has the opportunity to be a snooze-fest based on the masterful skill the two fighters possess. Similar to Woodley’s UFC 209 and UFC 214 title defenses, the bout is likely to be decided by who makes the first mistake. Both have incredible striking abilities that should scare any welterweight on the planet, and both were successful wrestlers in college. This is a bout between two of the most well-rounded UFC fighters on the roster.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t advantages to exploit however. Usman possesses a stronger ground game than Woodley, but the champion will entertain an advantage on the feet.
The most interesting caveat in this fight is how will Woodley react if Usman takes him down. While Woodley possesses strong wrestling skills, he’s looked uncomfortable and out of place throughout his MMA career when he’s had to fight off of his back. While we haven’t seen it for a while, if this is a part of his game he hasn’t cleaned up, Usman has the ability to grind out a decision win and take the belt from the champ. If Woodley has improved this skill and can hold his own if he gets into this position, Usman might not be able to do enough to force the belt to change hands.
One advantage that Woodley possesses is that because this championship fight is five rounds, that’s two more rounds that Usman is going to have to drag him to the canvas and grind out a win. Given how intelligent a fighter he’s become, I struggle to believe that Woodley hasn’t worked to improve his game from his back, so barring getting clipped on the feet, I think Usman’s chance at victory comes on the scorecards. As seen by Woodley’s two bouts against “Wonderboy” Thompson, challengers haven’t been scored very kindly against Woodley, adding another roadblock to Usman’s path to victory.
I’ve seen a lot of Usman by unanimous decision picks and maybe this will come back to bite me, but I think that’s the least likely outcome of this bout. I think we’re going to see Usman’s inexperience shine through against the most well-rounded fighter he’s faced. After matching up against elite strikers in Wonderboy and Till, I don’t see a scenario where Usman gets the better of Woodley on the feet. This is going to force Usman to feel pressured to win the bout entirely on the ground, which allows Woodley to sell out against the takedown attempts. As seen in his bout against Demian Maia, Woodley has exceptional takedown defense when he’s able to sell out against it. With the lack of adversity Usman has faced inside the octagon over his career, I don’t think he’s going to react well to not getting his own, which will lead to him putting himself in some bad situations on the feet trying to set up takedowns that just aren’t there. When it’s clear he won’t win the bout on the cards, Usman takes a risk and gets clipped by the lightning-fast right hand of Woodley for a quick finish.
Woodley by 4th Round KO
Jon Jones – Champion (-900) vs Anthony Smith (+600) – Five Rounds for the Light Heavyweight Championship
It isn’t very often that the biggest favourite on the card finds themselves headlining the event, but this is the situation Jon Jones faces on Saturday night. At -900, Jones is the biggest favourite in his career, breaking the record of his 2012 title defense against Vitor Belfort. Incredibly, Jones hasn’t been an underdog since 2009 when he closed as a +162 against Stephan Bonnar.
As large as the line is, it feels just about right for our main event of the evening.
Anthony Smith’s success after his move to light heavyweight has been a treat to watch. “Lionheart” looks comfortable at his new weight, and his power and striking skills have transferred beautifully. In three bouts, he had three unique finishes against former light heavyweight champions Rashad Evans and Shogun Rua, as well as recent light heavyweight title challenger Volkan Oezdemir. The incredible climb to a title shot has taken a mere nine months since his debut in the division and a victory against arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time would finish the book on the most improbable rise to glory in MMA history.
On Saturday, Jones has an opportunity to grow his legacy and continue bringing back the part of his fanbase that abandoned him when his personal life went to shambles. Incredibly, this will be the first time we’ve seen Jones inside the octagon twice inside of six months since 2013. After the recapture of his stripped title in December versus Alexander Gustafsson, Jones appears to be in a great place personally and athletic. For the first time in a while, Jones seemed focused on cementing his status as the greatest of all time, and seems ecstatic to be preparing to defend his belt as he trains at Jackson Wink.
While a 75% Jones wins this bout more times than not, Jones appears to have learned from his first bout with Gustafsson, when it was rumored his pre-fight training consisted of clubbing and cocaine. “Bones” appears to be locked-in mentality, and has ensured fans that he’s treating Smith with massive respect and will be at his best come fight time. This appears to be the truth as Jones looked incredible physically and mentally on the scale at Friday’s weigh-ins.
I think we’re going to see the best version of Jones in this bout. The short time off between bouts will only benefit him and his confidence will be riding high getting a chance to defend his belt. I don’t see any part of the bout where Smith enjoys any advantages that he can exploit. Smith has benefited from a size advantage over his three light heavyweight opponents, but he’s the smaller man in the octagon on Saturday. Jones has more elite striking and a better ground game and he’ll use his kicks to keep distance and stay out of Smith’s landing zone. Although Smith has a black belt in jiu-jitsu, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones trying to take the fight to the ground. I believe Jones will realize the only chance Smith has to win is clipping him on the feet. If Jones can take Smith down, he alleviates that pressure and given how much success he has from the top position, it’s unlikely than Smith would be able to do anything of risk from the bottom.
As always in MMA, Smith will have a puncher’s chance, but we’ve seen Jones take the best punches from some of the best fighters this sport has ever seen. Realistically, Smith needs to drop to a +800 before I’d consider putting any quid on him. I think Jones is going to take Smith down relatively early and use some of his trademark elbows (hopefully not of the 12-6 variety…) and ground striking to soften Smith up, before the referee mercifully saves Smith from further damage.
Jones by 1st Round TKO
Best of the rest: Jeremy Stephens (+200) vs Zabit Magomedsharipov (-250)
It might seem like a cop-out to pick the undercard headliner, but this is an electric bout, with both men prepared to leave it all in the octagon. The winner will find themselves right in the mix of the featherweight title picture, with a household name on tap next for a number one contender bout. The powerful striking of Stephens meets the incredible ground game of Zabit, but Stephens seems too emotionally invested in this fight based on some pre-fight interviews I’ve listened to. Heading into the octagon feeling emotional about the bout hasn’t worked very well for Stephens in the past, seen most recently by his TKO loss to Jose Aldo last year. I’ve got Zabit by submission to win his 14th in a row.
Fighter to watch: Johnny Walker (-160)
I’ve written about Walker in a previous blog claiming that he could be the light heavyweight division’s next star. This could be his big break facing off against 14th-ranked Misha Cirkunov. Filling in for the injured Ovince Saint Preux, Walker has a chance to earn a significant win in only his third UFC fight and silence any doubters that say he won’t be able to handle a strong ground game. I expect this bout to go longer than the 2:12 his previous two fights combined to last, but I truly do think that Walker is a star. Given he took no damage in his previous bout at the beginning of February, Walker has essentially been in fighting condition for at least two months. I expect Walker to earn a big KO win and truly cement himself in the light heavyweight division.