Gather ‘round fight fans..it appears that the MMA gods are blessing us with one hell of a PPV tonight.
We've got Weili Zhang and Zabit Magomedsharipov looking to take that step from great to elite as they face Tecia Torres and Jeremy Stephens, respectively. We also will see former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler roll out a violent welcome wagon to UFC newcomer Ben Askren who will be making his promotional debut, after years of dominance outside of the UFC.
It's only right that a card with such a stacked undercard is topped off by two major headlining fights. First, the co-main event will pit defending welterweight champion Tyron Woodley against the surging Kamaru Usman. If that’s not enticing enough, the main event boasts the defending light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones taking on Anthony “Lionheart” Smith who will be looking to pull off an all-time great upset. So let's jump into it and see what these two headlining title fights will have in store for us.
In an age where there are no guaranteed contenders and title shots are seemingly picked at random, you have to appreciate the fact that Jon Jones doesn't dodge challengers and will always fight the next man up. Anthony Smith will be stepping up to the plate—and like all before him—he'll be looking to do the impossible. Just a few years ago, Anthony Smith was midtier middleweight who put together a three-fight winning streak before being stopped by the ungodly violent Thiago Santos. After that, Smith moved up to light heavyweight and he quickly shot up to the top of the division after starching UFC legends Rashad Evans and Maurico “Shogun” Rua. In his last outing, Smith faced one of his toughest tests in former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir. In his fight with Oezdemir, Smith showcased his signature grit and ability to not only withstand but eventually overcome the storm as he made Volkan submit in the third round.
There's nothing about Smith's style that's flashy or jumps off of the screen. Smith is one of those guys who's decent at everything and not exceptional in any category, possibly aside from his toughness. He's a straight to the point, confident, gritty, and hard nosed fighter with power that can give anybody problems if he connects. The one thing he has going for him is that he's willing to throw a variety of strikes—be it a punch, a lunging elbow, or a head kick to get the job done. He has a decent set of tools in his striking arsenal and he'll need every last one of them to succeed tonight. With that being said, I'm honestly not sure what Smith's path to victory is in this match. There's nothing Smith can do that Jones can't do better and more effectively. Aside from an all out blitz, divine intervention, or a flash knockout...I'm not sure of any successful game plan that Smith can come up with for him to pull off this historic upset. But if this sport has taught me anything, it's that anybody can get knocked out and be left staring at the ceiling while wondering where things went wrong on any given night. Maybe Smith's grit and toughness will keep him alive long enough to figure Jones out. Or maybe Smith and his coaches have a master game plan to dethrone the long reigning king. And if that's the case, we would be witness the most monumental upset this sport has ever seen. As for Jones, he just needs to keep doing what he's always done.
The last time we saw Jon Jones was two months ago and in that bout he made Alexander Gustaffson look extremely mediocre and pedestrian. The distance between Jones and the rest of the division seems infinite. He's fought a who's who of the division during his reign and no matter the style his opponent brings, he always finds a way to get his hand raised. There's literally nothing Smith can throw at Jones that he hasn't already seen before. Regardless of what you feel about him personally, when he's in the cage Jones is arguably the greatest fighter that has ever competed in this sport. With his improved footwork added to his already great defense, his ability to strike at range, and his overall creativity, it makes sense that Jones is a near 10-1 favorite in this match up. According to Jones, Smith has his “undivided, full attention,” which shows that Jones is mentally unshaken and not taking his challenger lightly. We all love a Cinderella story, but don't be surprised Jones ends this fight quickly and smashes the glass slipper or if it turns into a drawn out lopsided paddling from the champion.
Prediction: I want to believe in the Cinderella story, but Jones is a dream crusher and I have no reason to believe this will go any different. Jones Via TKO in round 2.
Within the last two years, there's been a small surge of fresh new faces in the welterweight division. Among those to stand out and distance themselves from that pack is Kamaru Usman. I believe Usman matches up pretty well to Tyron Woodley in comparison to Woodley's last few opponents. Usman is a powerful wrestler who can simply overwhelm and control opponents with his grappling. That style should prove difficult to pull off against Woodley who boasts a 94% takedown rate. Usman's power also has to be respected in regards to his striking. Sergio Moraes found out the hard way that if Usman explodes and lands flush, you could end up face planting and the curtains will be closed before you know it. But Woodley isn't an easy man to put away, and he's the absolute worst person to attempt a careless rush in blitz at because of his explosiveness and ability to cover distance. If Usman is to win, I don't think he should hunt for a knockout; Usman's best chance at victory is to simply outwork Woodley. Usman will have to pick his shots well, keep a consistent output, and use his grappling good enough to win clinch and position battles in order to have a shot at walking away with the title. If he employs that gameplan to victory, he’ll probably get booed (and it might not look exciting ) but getting booed with a gold strap around your waist should still feel pretty damn good.
The most impressive thing about Woodley's title reign is his ability to neutralize every opponent he faces, given that his skill set lends itself to be useful against a variety of styles. Wrestlers and Jiu Jitsu practitioners don't even come close to getting past his take down defense. Strikers risk getting decapitated from Woodley's legitimate one punch knockout power, leaving them tentative and playing the outside. He doesn't receive the accolades that some of his contemporary champions get, but Woodley comes into every fight extremely well prepared. Usman has never faced someone with the power or complete skill set of Woodley. It'll be interesting to see how Usman responds if Woodley can rock him early and Usman finds himself having to rally from behind. I like Woodley's chances in this match up due to his overall experience and abilities but this won't be a cakewalk. With as much fire power these two have, I wouldn't be surprised if most of this fight ends up being a bit of a staring contest until somebody finally explodes and leaves a lifeless body in the wake of the aftermath. Either way, I think we're going to be in for a pretty intriguing matchup and I'm looking forward to see how this all plays out.
Prediction: This is honestly a tough one to call. Their styles could possibly cancel each other out. In that event, I'll have to go with Woodley. I trust his experience and fight IQ to get him past Usman and find a way to win. Woodley via unanimous decision.
There are so many fights on this card worth highlighting, but for the sake of time I can't cover them all. What I can say is that from the first prelim up until the main card, this an event well worth the price of admission. From dominant champions to highly touted prospects, this card has something for everybody. So sit down, open up thy wallet, and watch the violence unfold.
Fights to look out for: Tecia Torres vs. Weili Zhang, Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz, Jeremy Stephens vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov, Johnny Walker vs. Misha Cirkunov
Main Card: 10:00 PM on PPV
Preliminary Card: 8:00 PM on ESPN
Early Prelims: 6:15 PM on UFC Fight Pass
Michael "CerealSensei" Williams is the host of the Dojo Talk Podcast. He is an avid fight fan, author, hip hop enthusiast, and part-time gamer. You can find him roaming the Twitter streets at @CerealSensei and you can listen to the Dojo Talk Podcast on Soundcloud.