UFC 235 has been the most talked about card so far this year. We have the return of Jon ‘Bones’ Jones, who’s looking at his quickest turnaround since 2011, taking on journeyman Anthony ‘Lionheart’ Smith. Tyron ‘The Chosen One’ Woodley will defend his welterweight title against Kamaru ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ Usman after negotiations with interim champ Colby Covington never materialized, and ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler returns to the cage against the newly signed ‘Funky’ Ben Askren. That’s just a few of the fights featured on the main card; I’m taking a look at my fights to look out for and predicting the winners, here we go.
Kicking off the ESPN prelims, Mickey Gall gets his wish and takes on Diego Sanchez. A UFC vet since 2005, Sanchez has settled in at welterweight after bouncing around between lightweight and featherweight. Sanchez is coming off a win against Craig White where he dominated for three rounds and is only 5-7 in his last 12, but every time you think he’s done, he’ll surprise you with an impressive win; he’s looking to do the same against the prospect Gall. Gall is also coming off a win, against George Sullivan in August, bouncing back from his first professional loss. All of Gall’s wins have come by way of rear-naked choke. I spoke with Mickey Gall when I was covering PFL 7, you can check it out below. My pick: Mickey Gall via submission
Later on the prelims is a marquee light heavyweight matchup. Misha Cirkunov, who was once on an 8-fight win streak, is fighting an exciting newcomer to the division in Johnny Walker. Walker asked to step in on short-notice once Ovince Saint-Preux had to bow out due to injury, and got his wish. Walker is on an 8-fight win streak at the moment, scoring a UFC contract on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series Brazil and following that up with wins against Khalil Rountree, Jr. and Justin Ledet. Walker has been quite the personality since joining the promotion, and this one month turnaround is coming off a 15-second knockout win and another performance bonus. Cirkunov was looking to make it nine in a row and put his name in title contention, but Volkan Oezdemir had other plans and finished the Russian in just 28 seconds at UFC Fight Night 109. Cirkunov then suffered another loss to former title challenger Glover Teixeira before getting back in the win column against Patrick Cummins this past October. My pick: Cirkunov wins this fight on the ground and gets the submission
Headlining the ESPN prelims is an exciting featherweight bout between veteran Jeremy Stephens and one of, if not the best prospect in the division, Zabit Magomedsharipov. After riding an impressive 3-fight win streak, Stephens fell to José Aldo this past summer, a loss that stuck with him for while – something he spoke about this week on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show. Zabit came into the UFC on an 8-fight win streak and collected four more wins (three by submission) against Mike Santiago, Sheymon Moraes, a fight of the night with Kyle Bochniak and most recently locking up a rare modified kneebar against Brandon Davis at UFC 228. This will be Zabit’s toughest fight to date, but his awkward fighting style and well-rounded game will be the difference. My pick: Zabit
Kicking off the main card is the return of Cody ‘No Love’ Garbrandt, who is fighting in his first non-title bout since August 2016. Garbrandt will take on Pedro Munhoz, who is 6-1 in his last seven; with that sole loss being a split decision against John Dodson, a fight many thought should have went the other way. Munhoz is coming off a TKO win against Bryan Caraway at the Ultimate Fighter 28 finale in November and looks to continue making his way to the top, which a win against the former champ will do. Garbrandt is coming off his second straight loss to T.J. Dillashaw; in both fights Garbrandt did have his moments, but seemed to rush the fight and fought more with emotion than with his head. After some time off, we’ll see if he’ll be able to put those fights behind him and get back to a title shot. My pick: This could very well be fight of the night, and if that’s the case, I’m going with Cody Garbrandt
‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler will also be making his return to the octagon after injuries have sidelined him since December 2017. In his post-title run, he defeated Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone and then lost to Rafael dos Anjos on that December card. Lawler is tasked with welcoming the funky one, Ben Askren, to the UFC. Askren has been talked about by fans for a while, wondering when he’d make the jump to the big show; unfortunately UFC president Dana White wasn’t a fan and had compared Askren’s fights to ‘taking ambien’. Askren to the UFC looked like it would never happen, until the first trade in MMA history was announced in November, shipping flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson to ONE FC for Askren. Askren will now get to test his undefeated record against the best welterweights in the world. My pick: Askren gets it done in his debut
In the co-main event, Tyron Woodley will defend his welterweight title against Kamaru Usman, not the interim champ Colby Covington. It looks like Covington couldn’t make the March date so the UFC moved on. Now that opportunity comes to Usman, who hasn’t lost since 2013 and is riding a 13-fight win streak that includes victories over former title challenger Demian Maia and former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. Woodley has defended his belt four times (one draw), most recently submitting Darren Till at UFC 228. These two fighters match up pretty similarly, both coming from a wrestling base but the edge in striking and power leaning towards Woodley. My pick: This fight could go all 5 rounds, either way I have Woodley winning a strategic battle and retaining his belt
Jon Jones will make a two month turnaround after coming back and claiming his title at UFC 232 in December. Jones said he wants to fight at least three times this year and is welcome to face anyone who wants to step up. First on that list is Anthony Smith. Smith is a 44-fight veteran of the sport, fighting for promotions like Strikeforce, Bellator, CFFC and RFA before landing back with the UFC in 2016. In his second stint with the promotion, Smith has gone 7-2 with six finishes and is currently riding a 3-fight win streak which includes knockouts over two former champions and most recently a submission win over contender Volkan Oezdemir which earned him his title shot. Smith’s experience is the only advantage he holds over the champion, as this will be the biggest test of his long career. Smith has a puncher’s chance, but there’s a reason Jon Jones is considered the G.O.A.T. in MMA. My pick: Jon Jones via 2nd round submission