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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first quarter of 2019 has been a pleasant surprise. Typically, there is a hangover effect from the promotion ending the previous year with a major card, leaving a dearth of stars and interesting fights available once the calendar flips. However, thanks to the start of the ESPN deal, the UFC has actually seemed to care about its product. The organization’s latest campaign has started with a bang, with UFC 235 as the centerpiece. It features two title fights and a ridiculous amount of depth, and for argument’s sake, perhaps we can ignore the rest of March.
Let us get to the preview for UFC 235 “Jones vs. Smith,” set for Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
UFC Light Heavyweight ChampionshipJon Jones (23-1) vs. Anthony Smith (31-13)
ODDS: Jones (-800), Smith (+550)
Jones is fighting, and for once -- and this is tempting fate -- that is all there is to say. There is no blood feud with Daniel Cormier, no “dick pills,” no hit-and-run incident, no drug test failure and no last-minute relocating of the event, just possibly the greatest fighter of all-time getting a chance to do what he does best. In a way, that is anticlimactic, since inside the cage Jones has been so dominant that his fights have lacked drama. Vitor Belfort put him in a deep armbar and Alexander Gustafsson’s reach gave him some issues, but otherwise, Jones’ inside-outside striking game, strong grappling, high-level durability and excellent fight IQ have made for an unbeatable combination. As a result, all the suspense has been left for whether or not Jones will be able to make his way to the cage; and it appears that the UFC has successfully rigged the game so that his availability will not be in doubt. After Jones’ last failed drug test, he basically received an exemption, thanks to an unproven theory that traces of steroids from previous failed tests are still pulsing through his body, that took his drug issues off the table for the time being.
Jones’ last bout was a redemption of his poorest performance, as he handily won a rematch with Gustafsson and showed that he could evolve and adapt from the first fight in a way the Swede had not. At the same time, it did appear to show that Jones is in the next phase of his career. He has long since evolved from being a purely dynamic athlete to a process-driven fighter, but this was the first fight in which Jones’ fight intelligence seemed to carry the day more than his physical gifts. Even if Jones is nearing the end of his overall peak, there has to be someone to take advantage of that slight decline. Therein lies the rub. Looking around at the light heavyweight division, there is little but fading veterans and fighters who have become contenders solely by being less shopworn. Of that bunch, Smith is the first to take his shot at an all-time great.
Being in this spot completes an astounding ascent for Smith, whose first UFC tenure was one of the more forgettable runs in recent memory. The UFC took on Smith’s contract after it absorbed Strikeforce, and he was tapped by Antonio Braga Neto on the streaming prelims of a UFC on Fuel TV card before being cut. From there, he returned to his regional roots and eventually racked up enough wins to make a UFC return, but he did not look much improved. Yes, he had dangerous power and impressive range -- particularly at middleweight -- but his complete lack of defense and tendency to implode under pressure seemingly gave him a clear ceiling. At some point, Smith overcame his mental issues, or at least learned to weaponize his insecurity, and adopted a similar plan to fighters like Derrick Lewis, staying patient, relying on his toughness and waiting for his opponent to make a mistake or simply get exhausted, allowing him to take over the fight and score a finish. It led to a surprisingly solid middleweight run, but after a loss to Thiago Santos to kick off 2018, Smith was one of a few men to realize that his game would play much better in a thinner, more flawed light heavyweight division. Indeed, after two quick wins over faded legends Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua, a contender was born. Smith followed up with yet another comeback win, this time against Volkan Oezdemir, giving rise to an unlikely title challenger.
The obvious parallel here is the main event from UFC 230, which saw a dominant champion in Cormier take on an unlikely challenger in Derrick Lewis, particularly since Smith’s game plan of trying to outlast his opponent and create dynamic moments makes him quite similar to Lewis. That wound up being a one-sided win for Cormier, but at least Lewis’ large size and power made for a sense of danger heading into that fight. No such dynamic exists here. Smith’s best chance is probably to just blitz Jones out of the gate and hope for the best, since his usual patient approach seems like a death sentence. Smith is not typically a one-shot kill artist; plus, Jones is ridiculously durable and also does not get tired. If Smith just hangs back and waits for an opportunity, Jones is more than capable of picking him apart, particularly thanks to Smith’s porous defense and the fact that Jones is going to have a reach advantage that his counterpart probably is not used to navigating. Add in Jones’ wrestling and the fact that Smith’s takedown defense has remained questionable even during his successful times, and every single phase of this fight points to the champion in a significant way. Smith is a nice story, deserves this fight and is probably underrated, but unless the upset of all upsets happens, he is outclassed here. The pick is Jones via second-round stoppage.
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