UFC 235: Jones vs. Smith Preview

A preview of Saturday’s UFC 235 card, set to take place in Las Vegas.

Updated: Feb. 28, 2019 • 8:20 PM ET

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Jon Jones is trying to prove his past problems are behind him.

One of the best UFC cards of the year will take place this Saturday in Las Vegas at the T-Mobile Arena. UFC 235 is fully loaded with two title fights, former champions and the long-awaited UFC debut of a popular fighter.

Saturday’s main event will be for the light heavyweight title, as Jon Jones will defend his belt against No. 3 Anthony Smith. Jones became champion with an emphatic, third-round TKO victory over Alexander Gustafson at UFC 232 in December. It was a triumphant return for Jones after being sidelined by a 15-month suspension and three months of community service for testing positive for the banned substance Turinabol, which was later deemed to be tainted.

Jones has had his fair share of trouble outside of the Octagon, but it appears he’s putting his transgressions behind him, for now. More importantly, he’s champion once again and will defend the belt for the first time this Saturday since winning it back.

Jones has one loss in his career by disqualification to Matt Hamill back in 2009; other than that, he has been unbeatable. He’s in the discussion for greatest fighter of all time, and with every fight moving forward, he seems to be starting a new chapter in his career.

During his first run as champion, the 31-year-old Jones defended the belt eight times, seemingly creating a new gameplan with each fight. After going the distance in his first fight with Gustafsson in 2013, many people believed a second fight might produce a different result; but Jones made adjustments and completely dominated Gustafsson in the second fight.

Jones has victories over some of the top light heavyweights fight fans have ever seen, including Gustafsson (twice), Daniel Cormier, Glover Teixeira, Ovince Saint Preux, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Quinton Jackson, Mauricio Rua, Ryan Bader and Brandon Vera. He’s a huge betting favorite over Smith, but his coaches insist that they’re not talking the challenger lightly.

“For me, the dangerous thing about Anthony Smith is that has nothing to lose, so he can really open up and risk stuff,” Jones trainer Greg Jackson said this week via The MMA Hour. “And remember that I have seen some serious upsets.

“One of the very first times I started working with Georges St-Pierre, I worked with him a little bit but his head coach at the time, Victor, let me be in the corner when Matt Serra knocked him out, and that was not supposed to happen at all. Right? Matt Serra was on the reality show…and it was one of the best Cinderella stories I’ve ever seen.

“I’ve been there when the person that was supposed to dominate gets beaten. And that to me is the biggest deal, is that that fearlessness, that kind of danger he presents there. I actually trained Anthony Smith. I know he’s a great fighter. I know he’s very capable. So, he’s a sleeper guy. We have to take very seriously and if we don’t, we can get in big trouble really quickly. So keeping that in mind, that’s the biggest challenge for this fight is that he has nothing to lose.”

Smith (31-13) fought four times in 2018 and went 3-1, defeating two former champions, Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua, by first-round knockout and submitting a former title challenger, Volkan Oezdemir, in the process. His last loss was at middleweight to Thiago Santos, but he has clearly found new life at light heavyweight. Smith is 7-2 in the UFC, and although it seems like he has come out of nowhere to earn a title shot, the 30-year-old has had a long and tough career.

The Nebraska native made his professional debut in 2008 and has been one of the busiest fighters in MMA, fighting six times that year to begin his career. He then fought four times in 2009, six times in 2010, six times in 2011 and four times in 2016 before the four fights in 2018 that led him to Saturday’s title shot. He has key victories over Oezdemir, Rua, Evans and Hector Lombard.

As for beating Jones, Smith believes there’s a formula to win.

“I’ve been doubted my entire career,” Smith said at a recent UFC 235 press conference. “I’m a small-town kid from Nebraska. I’m not supposed to be here anyways.

“What we do is we strip the name and the face away from the person, and we just attack the problems. We know what’s in front of us. We know what Jon brings to the table. There’s plenty of footage out there.”

Jones has displayed few, if any, weaknesses in the Octagon. If Smith can find them, he would arguably be the first fighter to do so.


Co-main event

In Saturday’s co-main event, Tyron Woodley will defend his welterweight title against No. 2 Kamaru Usman. Woodley is coming off a second-round submission victory over Darren Till at UFC 228 in September, the 36-year-old’s third straight title defense since winning the belt at UFC 201 in 2016.

Woodley’s first defense ended with a controversial draw against Stephen Thompson at UFC 205, but the champion proved in that fight, and in his last fight, that he’s the hardest-hitting welterweight in the world. He has notable victories over Thompson, Till, Demian Maia, Robbie Lawler, Kelvin Gastelum, Dong Hyun Kim, Carlos Condit, Josh Koscheck and Jay Hieron. Woodley’s two losses in the UFC came by decision, but since he has become a champion, the Missouri native has shown that he’s a master at putting a gameplan together.

Woodley feels his past fights have prepared him for the showdown with Usman.

“He says a lot of stuff and sometimes when people talk too much, they’re trying to reassure themselves,” Woodley said at a media scrum on Monday. “You haven’t heard me talk about Usman. I just wanted Usman to tell me how he’s going to beat me, because as I laid out before, Dong Hyun Kim is a judo master that can also strike.

“You look at guys like [Stephen] Thompson. Thompson was knocking out…Robert Whittaker fell victim to him, a lot of guys did. And [Usman] doesn’t bring that specialty in any category. Yes, he was a Division II NCAA champ. I’m not taking that away from him, but please do not act like that is Division I NCAA champ. It’s a different concept, it’s a different mentality and it’s a different thing.

“So when I’ve competed against guys like [Josh] Koscheck, who’s a two-time NCAA Division I champion that scored zero takedowns, that had better striking, I just wanted him to really tell me how he was going to win the fight.”

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Usman is 9-0 in the UFC and coming off the biggest win of his career, a unanimous decision victory over Rafael Dos Anjos in November. The 31-year-old is no stranger to going the distance in the Octagon, and he’s ready to challenge the champion.

“Tyron knows,” Usman said via MMAjunkie. “He’s been paying attention to me for a long time, because he knew that I was going to be that guy that he was going to have to defend against. He knew that I was going to be the toughest guy that he would have to face. He and I both know that. I’m expecting a war. That’s the most I can say about it.”

The Nigerian fighter also has key victories over Demian Maia, Sergio Moraes, Emil Meek and Leon Edwards. He’s 14-1 overall and hasn’t lost since 2013. Woodley’s power has been too much to handle for anyone that has tried to take his belt, but Usman believes he’s being overlooked after his back-and-forth banter with the champ at a recent pre-fight press conference.

“It kind of reiterated some things to me,” Usman recently said on an episode of “Anatomy of a Fighter”. “Like, I don’t know. I hope he’s just out there playing, just for the media, for the camera, to where he’s acting like he’s not taking this as serious as I’m taking it, because I’m not coming to play. I’m not coming for that. So all that is done.”

Also on the main card

Saturday’s card will also feature a welterweight fight between former champion Robbie Lawler and UFC newcomer Ben Askren.

Since losing the belt to Woodley by knockout in 2016, Lawler has only fought twice, going 1-1 with a unanimous decision win over Donald Cerrone and a unanimous decision loss to Dos Anjos. The 36-year-old won the belt by split-decision over Johny Hendricks in 2014 and defended it in two of the greatest fights in UFC history against Rory MacDonald and Carlos Condit.

The No. 6 ranked Lawler turned pro in 2001 and aside from victories over MacDonald (twice), Hendricks, Cerrone and Condit, he has victories over some of the top names in the sport, including Josh Koscheck, Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown. Many questions have been asked about Lawler’s ability to endure punishment anymore after his back-and-forth title fights with MacDonald and Condit. He’ll be given a new task on Saturday in Askren, who’s considered one of the best grapplers in MMA history.

Askren will make his UFC debut after winning welterweight titles in Bellator and ONE championship. He’ll enter the fight with Lawler unbeaten at 18-0-1, having last fought in November 2017. The 34-year-old is a former Olympic wrestler, having placed sixth at the 2008 games in Beijing and winning gold at the 2009 World Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The question will finally be answered about how one of the best grapplers in MMA, who hasn’t fought in the UFC, will do against top competition in the promotion. Askren angled for fights via his unique social media presence and trash talk against some of the other top names in the division, but he has been matched up with a fighter that doesn’t talk trash, at all.

For those expecting Askren to stand and bang with Lawler like MacDonald did, it’s unlikely. Askren’s superior wrestling is how he has achieved his unbeaten record and popularity across MMA.

Lawler has competed well against other fighters with great grappling skills, but not against anyone with Askren’s ability. Askren has competed well against great strikers in the past, but not against a former champion with superior striking such as Lawler’s.

This makes for an intriguing matchup. Will Askren live up to the hype, or will he be Lawler’s next victim?

A strawweight fight between No. 7 Tecia Torres and Weili Zhang will also be on the main card.

Torres will ride two straight losses into the fight, both of which came last year against Jessica Andrade and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She’s 3-2 in her last five fights and needs a win to stay in the top 10 of the rankings.

Zhang is 18-1 and 2-0 in the UFC. She defeated Jessica Aguilar by submission in November and Danielle Taylor by unanimous decision in her debut in August. A win over Torres would be the biggest of her career and likely send her into the top 15.

A bantamweight bout between former champion Cody Garbrandt and No. 8 Pedro Munhoz will round out the main card.

The No. 2 ranked Garbrandt is riding two straight losses, both coming by knockout to TJ Dillashaw, the first of which cost him the title. The 27-year-old needs a big win to get back in the title picture, but as long as Dillashaw is champion, a third matchup between the two is unlikely.

Conversely, Munhoz will ride two straight victories into the fight, a unanimous decision win over Brett Johns in August and a TKO win over Bryan Caraway in November. He has won six of his last seven fights, and while he’s older (32 years old) and has been a professional for longer, a win over Garbrandt would be the biggest of his career.


ESPN Prelims

Featherweight bout - No. 6 Jeremy Stephens vs. No. 13 Zabit Magomedsharipov

Light heavyweight bout - Misha Cirkunov vs. Johnny Walker

Bantamweight bout - Cody Stamann vs. Alejandro Pérez

Welterweight - Diego Sanchez vs. Mickey Gall


UFC Fight Pass Early Prelims

Middleweight bout - Edmen Shahbazyan  vs. Charles Byrd

Women's bantamweight bout - Gina Mazany vs. Macy Chiasson

Women's strawweight bout - Polyana Viana vs. Hannah Cifers