Two title fights and two former champions make the main card at UFC® 235 one to admire.
Jon Jones defends his light heavyweight championship less than three months after regaining it at UFC 232, and Tyron Woodley aims to continue his dominant reign atop the welterweight division.
But in the way of both men stand new contenders who not only offer fresh match ups, but also have legitimate claims to these deserved title shots.
Also, a long-awaited UFC debut takes place that's been almost a decade in the making.
With so much to talk about before UFC 235, let's dive right into our predictions:
Jon Jones (C) vs. Anthony Smith
After over a year away from The Octagon®, Jon Jones reminded fans and pundits alike why his plaque is already being crafted for his eventual enshrinement into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Jones dominated former rival Alexander Gustafsson in a heavily-anticipated rematch at UFC 232, reclaiming his throne atop the light heavyweight division. Jones picked apart Gustafsson from afar, not allowing the Swedish striker to close the gap like he did in the two's first fight at UFC 165. Jones' distance management was the difference, and what was mistaken for inactivity was in reality Jones waiting for the optimal time to strike.
In the third round, Jones finally went for the takedown, and the fight was over from there. He quickly passed Gustafsson's guard and within 30 seconds he was able to take the Swede's back. Jones rained down punches for 15 seconds before the fight was called to a halt.
With the dominant performance against the toughest challenger that Jones has faced in his career, the question remained: who in the light heavyweight division can challenge this champion?
In steps Anthony Smith.
While many believed a third fight with heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier was in the cards, the UFC decided to book Smith, the No.3 light heavyweight contender, as Jones' next challenger.
Smith is currently riding a three-fight winning streak, leaving Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua and Volkan Oezdemir in his warpath en route to a title shot. But the real story about Smith's rise to prominence is his borderline insane activity over the last year and change. The title fight with Jones on March 2 will be Smith's fifth fight in under 13 months — a high level of production for someone who has shown no signs of slowing down.
As for the fight itself, Smith says he will expose Jones' weaknesses and outlast the positives, which amounts to unproven jargon against an opponent who has shown no holes in his game for almost a decade.
When an opponent says they will beat Jones with striking, within the clinch or on the ground — they've all been proven wrong. It's hard to imagine this fight will be any different.
While Smith is a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, he will have trouble closing the gap on Jones and getting him down. His only chance on the ground may actually come if Jones shoots on him and then he can work from his own guard. But even that is a risky proposition with someone like Jones on top.
Expect this fight to stay standing, in similar fashion to the Gustafsson rematch. Jones possesses a 8.5" reach advantage over Smith and will not easily let any of Smith's shots get too close. Jones' distance management was near perfect against Gustaffson, and we won't see a dip in that in less than three months.
He will catch Smith reaching and trying to make something out of nothing early.
OFFICIAL PREDICTION: Jones via TKO
Tyron Woodley (C) vs. Kamaru Usman
It's difficult not to draw parallels between Jones and Tyron Woodley when both men appear on the same card. The two champions have become the golden standard of beating opponents of varying styles.
In his title reign so far, Woodley has successfully defended (one draw, one win) against Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson in a battle of distance and point fighting, survived an onslaught of brazilian jiu jutsi against Demian Maia and obliterated one of the hottest young strikers in the UFC when he silenced Darren Till within a round.
All this is to say, Tyron Woodley is ready for whatever is thrown at him.
But what about an opponent who's biggest strength also happens to be Woodley's as well? Kamaru Usman steps into this bout looking to show off his stellar wrestling game and prove it is best in the division, and better than Woodley's. Both men are former collegiate wrestlers — Woodley a two-time All-American at Missouri and Usman a Division II national champion at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
For Usman to take the title off of Woodley, he'll have to fight aggressively against one of the most dangerous fighters that the welterweight division has ever seen. If Usman opts to go to the ground, he'll be going at it with the best defensive wrestler in the division and will have to make really effective use of his movements to render any damage. If he chooses to stand with Woodley, he will have to pressure the champion while also being wary of the bomb that Woodley possesses in his right hand.
There's not an obvious route to victory for Usman considering that we haven't seen Woodley bested in any aspect of his game since he won the title. In all three phases of the game — striking, wrestling and in the clinch — Woodley feels like the superior fighter. So, Usman may have to get a little reckless, which he has a history of being, in order to pull out a victory.
And when opponents get reckless, Woodley makes quick work of their ill-thought-out plan.
OFFICIAL PREDICTION: Woodley via KO
Robbie Lawler vs. Ben Askren
The Funky Era has officially begun in the UFC.
After being on the promotion's radar for almost a decade, Ben Askren will finally make his UFC debut at UFC 235. The newest signee holds an 18-0 (1 NC) record, but hasn't faced the step up in competition that awaits him in the UFC.
And instead of getting his feet wet with a unranked or lower ranked opponent to start of this new journey, Askren is going right after former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler.
The big storyline going into this fight is not only Askren's debut, but also the war of words that he has raged against several other UFC fighters since being signed. He has gone after a "who's who" of fighters who have tarnished his name for never competing in the UFC, and now is his chance to prove them wrong.
So while Askren could have been given a warm up fight, he's being asked to prove himself, and his words, against one of the best in the division. He's being asked to defeat a former champion in Lawler, who has proven in victories over Johny Hendricks and Matt Lindland that he can neutralize wrestlers.
But Lawler is also stepping into the cage for the first time since December of 2017, and has lost two of his last three fights.
This bout comes down to the narrative that you choose to believe. It's hype versus a known commodity. We know what Lawler can do and who he is at this stage of his career, but we don't know how Askren will fare against the most elite competition in the sport.
This fight is a journey into the unknown, and sometimes the things we don't know are the ones we are willing to take the biggest risk on.
OFFICIAL PREDICTION: Askren via Unanimous Decision
Tecia Torres vs. Weili Zhang
The women's strawweight division will be on display as Tecia Torres looks to stall the momentum of up-and-comer Weili Zhang.
This fight will be a change in pace for Torres, who is coming off back to back losses to Jessica Andrade and Joanna Jedrzejczyk — the No.1 and 2 contenders in the division.
This will be Zhang's third fight in the UFC and a chance for the Chinese star to extend her winning streak to 19. With 16 finishes in her 18 career wins, the unranked Zhang will be looking to stop Torres and earn a spot in the Top 15.
This bout is a huge leap for Zhang, and proof that the UFC is willing to invest time and energy into her success if she pans out. For Torres, it's about reasserting herself at the top of the division and trying to make another charge towards a title shot in two or three fights.
It's the veteran versus the new blood in this women's matchup, and the outcome will have drastic implications for the future of the strawweights.
From what we've seen of Zhang so far, it's hard not to be on the band wagon.
OFFICIAL PREDICTION: Zhang via Unanimous Decision
Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz
At 27 years old, Cody Garbrandt is a former UFC champion, and yet it still feels like this fight has drastic implications on the playout of the rest of his career.
Garbrandt is coming off of consecutive losses by knockout to bantamweight champion and former teammate T.J. Dillashaw and is looking to avoid dropping a third straight fight in a competitive division.
Pedro Munhoz comes into this fight ranked No. 8 in the bantamweight division after knocking out Bryan Caraway at The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale in November. Overall, the 32-year old Munhoz has won six of his last seven, finishing four of the fights by stoppage.
Both fighters are good on their feet, but Garbrandt was considered one of the most feared strikers in the division before the Dillashaw fights. His combination of speed and power has overwhelmed opponents in the past, and it'll be intriguing to see if he can return to the form he had on his rise to the belt.
Munhoz will be looking to trade with Garbrandt, but with the ultimate goal of getting the younger fighter to the ground. The Brazilian possesses an arsenal of submissions and will be at much lower risk against Garbrandt if he can get on top of him or even hold him in guard.
Both men are brutal finishers, and it would be surprising to see this one go all 15 minutes, but we have to give the edge to Garbrandt specifically because we haven't seen him slip up against any opponent except Dillashaw — who may just prove to be his career's kryptonite.
Expect a much more level-headed and strategic Garbrandt then we saw when he faced off against his arch rival.
OFFICIAL PREDICTION: Garbrandt via KO
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