It may not be the fight we were hoping for, but it’s the fight we’ll get.
After over a year on the sidelines, the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, Jon Jones, is making his return this weekend. In a perfect world, Jones would be walking into the Octagon on Saturday to go toe-to-toe with his archrival, Daniel Cormier, and look to reclaim the belt that was ripped away from him last summer. Instead, the injury epidemic that’s become the most predictable part of MMA the past few years reared its ugly head for the umpteenth time and forced Jones’ successor to the throne out of action.
Now, Jones will be fighting for an interim belt against late replacement Ovince Saint Preux. While the title fight itself has lost its luster, anticipation at seeing the former champ back in action is still as high as ever.
Jones, arguably the best fighter on the planet, competing would usually be reason enough to watch a fight card, but UFC 197 adds Demetrious Johnson, who will defend his flyweight strap against Henry Cejudo in the co-main event. So, fans are getting the first and second ranked guys on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list on the same card. Those two fights, along with a potential lightweight barnburner between Anthony Pettis and Edson Barboza, have kept this card intriguing despite the loss of Cormier.
UFC 197 kicks off on April 23 at 6:30 p.m. ET with a trio of bouts on UFC Fight Pass before heading over to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for an additional four prelims. From there, the card moves over to pay-per-view for a five-fight lineup that includes both title fights. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Vince Carey preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Now that Daniel Cormier is out of the UFC 197 main event, Jon Jones, in his return, is set to meet Ovince Saint Preux for the interim belt. It would be hard to find someone who would pick OSP to win this fight, of course, but are his odds of victory better than the odds of Jones maintaining a title run without another visit to the slammer?
Huntemann: Oh, what a question. I see what you did there, Combat Press editors. Well played. You’re right, it would be hard to find someone who would pick OSP to defeat Jones on short notice. Of course, this is MMA. Anything can happen. It is fair to wonder if Jones’ forced sabbatical from the Octagon to address his many personal and legal issues could result in him coming back a little rusty and not mentally prepared, especially since he is no longer facing his biggest rival in the champion, Cormier.
However, by all accounts, Jones seems to be a truly changed man and truly rededicated to re-establishing himself as the best fighter in the world, and perhaps of all-time. This excellent profile of Jones in Rolling Stone appears to confirm those beliefs. I think Jones makes it look relatively easy against OSP.
Look, I don’t blame OSP for stepping up on short notice to fight one of the best of all-time. It’s a guaranteed huge payday for him, and he does own some impressive victories over guys like Patrick Cummins and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. However, Jones is an entirely different level for OSP.
But to answer the question that was posed, yes, Jones will stay out of trouble, regain his title and return to his perch as the greatest fighter in the history of MMA. Once he finishes with OSP, I expect Jones to absolutely dominate Cormier in their rematch, much like he did during their first meeting last year. You maybe could have given one round to Cormier in that fight. Otherwise, Cormier was thoroughly outclassed and Jones left no doubt as to who was the best in the world, at least until he failed his post-fight drug test and crashed his car.
Jones had his own “scared straight” experience with his legal troubles. His recent run-in with a local police officer in Albuquerque, N.M., was the last straw. We’ll see the best Jones we’ve ever seen at UFC 197, and also whenever Jones and Cormier finally meet for the second time. I do not expect Jones to become MMA’s version of Johnny Manziel.
Carey: Man, you guys really aren’t pulling any punches today. I’m in agreement with my colleague here. Jones has learned his lesson, and I’m looking forward to seeing what a truly dedicated and mentally focused “Bones” looks like in the cage.
It’s easy to look at Jones’ history and doubt his ability to keep his life together considering the countless mistakes he’s made over the years, but 2015 will end up being the year where we saw the former champion truly hit rock bottom and start to turn things around. Between the hit-and-run accident, his positive test for cocaine and having his belt taken away, if last year wasn’t a wake-up call for Jones, then it’s hard to see what it would take to get him on track. Besides the bizarre incident where he was pulled over recently, Jones’ recent actions seem to suggest he’s gotten things figured out. Unless he does something to make us doubt that, it’s not fair to assume otherwise.
To answer the question, I’d take OSP to win this fight before I’d predict Jones screwing up badly enough to lose his belt again. That being said, I’m also putting the odds of either of those things happening at about zero. I know Jones hasn’t fought in over a year and this has been a particularly tough camp with the drag-racing incident and a late-notice opponent change, but I don’t care. Jones was the best fighter in the world when his head was far from in the right place and he should be a scary individual now that he’s getting on track. I’m taking “Bones” by early stoppage.
The main event isn’t the only fight featuring a troubled fighter. While co-headliner and flyweight title challenger Henry Cejudo might stay on the right side of the law, he can’t seem to stay on the right side of the scales at weigh-ins. However, after a one-fight stint at bantamweight, Cejudo did hit his mark for three consecutive flyweight fights. Has Cejudo earned back our trust as a fighter who can be counted on to make weight? And if he does hit the mark for his flyweight championship bid against Demetrious Johnson, will he be the man to pry the title out of Johnson’s hands?
Carey: You know, as sketchy as Cejudo has been on the scale over the course of his young career, I really don’t feel too concerned about the former Olympian making weight this weekend. Yes, Cejudo’s had a lot of trouble on the scale earlier in his career and had the weight-cutting mishap that forced his first UFC bout to take place at 135 pounds. However, since then he’s been able to hit his mark and has even weighed in at the championship weight of 125 pounds in two of those bouts. It seems that fighting at the highest level has motivated Cejudo to take a few more precautions when it comes to his weight cut. Due to Cejudo’s lifelong wrestling background, I feel pretty confident in guessing he’ll be on top of it heading into the biggest fight of his career.
In all honesty, even though he’s struggled with them in the past, the weight cut should end up being the least bit of Cejudo’s troubles this weekend. After all, he’s fighting the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC rankings and arguably the most dominant fighter we’ve had in MMA for a long time. Since Johnson won the flyweight belt, no one has really been able to touch him. He’s had a competitive bout or two, but while even the most dominant of champions like Anderson Silva and Jon Jones were pushed to the brink of defeat during their respective reigns, Johnson has more or less been in control of every bout since he won the flyweight strap in 2012. It will take a huge performance to beat “Mighty Mouse,” and I’m not sure if Cejudo is the guy to pull it off.
Johnson has such incredible speed and footwork that it’s become extremely difficult to win a round against the guy, let alone the three rounds a challenger would need in order to win a decision and take home the belt. Johnson is hard to hit, but it might be even harder to take him to the floor, which is what Cejudo is going to need to do to win this bout. Since Johnson won the strap, only Ali Bagautinov has been able to outpace “Mighty Mouse” in terms of takedowns, and that came while Bagautinov was getting peppered by shots on the feet for the majority of the bout. Cejudo is at least, on paper, a better wrestler than Bagautinov, so he may be able to score a takedown a little more often than most have against Johnson. However, Johnson’s ability to scramble out of tough spots on the mat will make him hard to hold down.
Cejudo is either going to have to finish “Mighty Mouse,” which is unlikely since he hasn’t finished a single opponent with a winning record, or he’s going to have to try to outwrestle Johnson and take a decision. I don’t see either happening. The champ wins this one.
Huntemann: I’m willing to cut Cejudo some slack on his previous missteps with making weight. Yes, fighters should always make weight and it does reek of unprofessionalism when they don’t. But guess what? Sometimes fighters just don’t make weight. Often times, I’m not so willing to rake them over the coals for it. As a regular joe who struggles with losing weight at times, I can even sympathize on some levels.
As far as the second part of the question goes, Cejudo stands no chance against “Mighty Mouse.” But that isn’t an indictment of Cejudo or his skills. He’s a former Olympian and one of the best young fighters out there. But, simply put, Johnson is the daddy of the UFC’s flyweight division. He is the best of the best, and absolutely no one in that division even comes close to him. Not Cejudo, not Jussier “Formiga” da Silva, not Joseph Benavidez, not anyone. It’s a shame that Johnson continues to receive little respect from casual MMA fans, as he is on par with Jon Jones among the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world. Unfortunately, a bias among casual fight fans continues to permeate against smaller fighters.
When Johnson defeats Cejudo at UFC 197, he will have cleaned out the flyweight division. It is my hope he will reconsider moving back up to the bantamweight division, where there would be a ready-made “dream rematch” waiting between Johnson and bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
I saw those two fight each other live in 2011, when Johnson fought at bantamweight prior to the creation of the UFC’s flyweight division. Johnson kept up with Cruz in the striking department, but Cruz’s superior footwork and ground game were the difference. I’ve read that Johnson doesn’t have much interest in returning to bantamweight, which would be a shame. Besides Cruz, I’d love to see “Mighty Mouse” match up against guys like T.J. Dillashaw, Aljamain Sterling and Thomas Almeida.
After dropping his title to Rafael dos Anjos last August and then subsequently losing a decision to Eddie Alvarez earlier this year, Anthony Pettis has gone from the best in the division to being in serious danger of being knocked out of the 155-pound title picture all together. Can “Showtime” return to form this weekend and give us a vintage Pettis performance? Or is Edson Barboza finally ready to play the spoiler and defeat a top-tier lightweight?
Huntemann: I really see this as a fight between two guys heading in opposite directions. Barboza is definitely a fighter on the rise. Though he was submitted in his last fight against Tony Ferguson, there’s no real shame in that. Ferguson is on the short list of contenders for the lightweight title. Prior to that loss, Barboza notched victories over fighters like Paul Felder, Evan Dunham, Danny Castillo and Ross Pearson. And who can forget Barboza’s highlight-reel knockout of Terry Etim in 2012? That’s still replayed to this day.
Conversely, Pettis is in danger of having his best days be behind him. Even if he’s been training with guys like Donald Cerrone for this fight, it seems Pettis really struggles against fighters who want to close the distance, grind him out and make the fight dirty and nasty. That was clearly the case when Pettis lost his title to dos Anjos last year. The Brazilian put on a ground clinic against Pettis, never giving an inch and making Pettis look lost once he was unable to execute his usual high-flying offense.
Pettis’s weakness with tougher fights was also evident against Alvarez. A tough, scrappy fighter who doesn’t give an inch, Alvarez forced Pettis to fight his style — down and dirty. Pettis thrives when he can execute strikes from seemingly nowhere and catch his opponent off-guard.
While Barboza isn’t exactly known as a ground-and-pound, grind-it-out fighter, he can also match Pettis strike for strike. That may be where Pettis has his best chance to win and re-establish himself as a contender at lightweight. However, I don’t like what I’ve seen from Pettis in his last few fights, whereas I have very much liked what I’ve seen from Barboza. This is Barboza’s time to take the next step into title contention.
Carey: This is indeed a huge fight for Pettis. The former champ really has looked like he’s been heading in the wrong direction for about a year now, and he needs to get back on track in a big way against Barboza if he wants to remain relevant in the lightweight title scene. The good news is that Barboza, unlike dos Anjos and Alvarez, is a striker first. Even though there’s a chance Barboza might try to take “Showtime” to the floor, Pettis’s wrestling should hold up better against Barboza than it did against the high-level grapplers he’s fought recently.
It almost feels like this is the sort of gimme fight the UFC would set up to allow Pettis to rebound, but that may not be the case because of how average Pettis has looked recently. It’s one of the more crucial fights of his career thus far and a loss would do a ton of damage. Barboza is one of the best stylistic match-ups for “Showtime” in the top 10, but the Brazilian has also looked like an improved fighter, despite his 1-2 record in 2015. Barboza has the striking skills to hang with just about anyone, and he’s one of the few fighters capable of taking it to Pettis at his own game.
I’m tempted to side with my colleague and take Barboza, but I can’t help but remember how dominant and explosive Pettis can be when he gets to fight on his feet. Both of these men are extremely technical when they want to be and rank amongst the most explosive fighters on the UFC roster, but Pettis might be a bit faster and has fought such high-caliber competition that Barboza does feel like a bit of a step down. “Showtime” will come in hungry and get the win.
Former women’s strawweight champion Carla Esparza makes her return in a preliminary fight against Juliana Lima. This is Esparza’s first fight since losing the title to current champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk last year and then undergoing shoulder surgery. Since her last fight in the Octagon, the division has raced by Esparza. Jędrzejczyk has dominated everyone the UFC has put in front of her and new contenders like Claudia Gadelha and Rose Namajunas have emerged. Does an Esparza win over Lima put the “Cookie Monster” at the front of the line, or does she need to do more to receive a rematch for the title?
Carey: Esparza’s currently sitting in the No. 2 spot in the UFC rankings behind only the champion and Gadelha, so she’s obviously going to be in the position to try to regain gold shortly if she can get this win over Lima. “Cookie Monster’s” run through The Ultimate Fighter house to win the title in the first place proved how dominant she can be in the strawweight division, and her quality wins over top contenders during that time is more than enough to keep her in the title picture for the foreseeable future.
That being said, it’s going to take another win or two before Esparza actually has a chance to get back into a title fight. Namajunas just scored a huge win this past weekend over Tecia Torres and seemed to firmly position herself as the next woman in line after Jędrzejczyk and Gadelha scrap this summer. Even though Esparza owns a victory over Namajunas, there’s no denying she’s the less popular fighter in this case and the UFC is more than likely going to pass over “Cookie Monster” in favor of Namajunas when the time comes.
The current state of the 115-pound division makes it hard to believe Esparza shouldn’t need more than a win or two to get back into the mix, but she was badly defeated in her title bout last year and it makes sense to make sure she wins at least twice before competing for gold again. I’m picking her to defeat Lima this weekend. If she fulfills that prediction, then I’d expect a No. 1 contender’s bout on the horizon for “Cookie Monster” before the year is up.
Huntemann: I actually just finished watching Namajunas defeat Torres. While I personally scored the fight for Torres, it was a very close contest that could have gone either way. Regardless, Namajunas looked very impressive against Torres, a dangerous striker who defeated Namajunas earlier in their careers.
Right now, Namajunas is the No. 1 contender for the strawweight title. What if Esparza absolutely demolishes Lima during the UFC 197 prelims and wins by knockout or submission? Well, then an argument can be made that she and Namajunas should face off again for a title shot. I’m sure Namajunas would be eager to avenge her loss to Esparza from The Ultimate Fighter.
However, if Esparza just decisions Lima, then the UFC should stick with the hot hand and give Namajunas the next title shot. It’s not fair for Esparza to have to wait for a rematch for the belt, but, hey, life’s not fair — and particularly not in MMA. Namajunas has been on a tear in her last three fights and is starting to live up to the sky-high expectations that were placed on her when she first stepped into the professional cage in Invicta FC and then on TUF.
Namajunas is her own worst critic. She almost quit entirely before her fight against Torres over the weekend. But her performances against Angela Hill, Paige VanZant and Torres really make it clear that Namajunas is — and should be — next in line to face the strawweight champion, whether it’s Jędrzejczyk or Gadelha.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Huntemann: Don’t sleep (see what I did there?) on the fight that opens the pay-per-view portion of UFC 197: Yair Rodriguez vs. Andre Fili. The young Rodriguez is coming off an impressive victory over Daniel Hooker last year and is a tall, rangy fighter for a featherweight, much like Fili. Both guys are 5-foot-11. Fili is also a savvy veteran of 18 professional fights, with five of those in the UFC, all while still checking in at the tender age of 25. Fili is also coming off a first-round knockout victory in his last fight. This will be a good test for Rodriguez to see if he belongs in the top 15 of one of the UFC’s deepest divisions.
Carey: I don’t usually consider main-card fights to be sleeper bouts, but since we’ve made it this far without mentioning Robert Whittaker and Rafael Natal, I guess it qualifies. If I’m being honest, this fight is mainly intriguing due to Whittaker, who has looked awesome since moving up to 185 pounds three fights ago. Whittaker’s knockout victories of solid opponents Clint Hester and Brad Tavares were enough to turn some heads, but the Aussie earned a spot in the top 10, plus some decent hype, when he beat Uriah Hall in November. Natal may not be a big name, but he’s a tough fighter who loves to grind it out. Just as Fili is a great test for Rodriguez, so too is Natal a great test for Whittaker.
Pair this card with…
Carey: Some food, some drinks and a day full of sports on the couch. Between the NBA and NHL playoffs, the NFL draft starting to wind down and the MLB season just getting started, you have plenty of excuses to stay at home and just chill out before the fights on Saturday. Sit back, relax and get ready for an awesome night of fights.
Huntemann: I like the way you think, my man. Too many people think that once football games end (though when you think about it, the NFL never really goes away throughout the year), the sports landscape is barren until the fall months roll around again. But you have baseball. You have the basketball playoffs. You have the hockey playoffs. What more do you greedy people need? My point is, even with the late substitution of OSP against Jones, UFC 197 is still a solid card, if not a spectacular one. Fans get to watch Jones start his redemption tour. They also get to see the most unheralded dominant champion, Johnson, put on what I’m sure will be another masterful performance. Grab a six-pack of your favorite beer (or soda, for you teetotalers out there), put your feet up, relax and enjoy.
|Fight||Huntemann’s Pick||Carey’s Pick|
|Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)|
|LHW Interim Championship: Jon Jones vs. Ovince Saint Preux||Jones||Jones|
|FlyW Championship: Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo||Johnson||Johnson|
|LW: Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza||Barboza||Pettis|
|MW: Robert Whittaker vs. Rafael Natal||Whittaker||Whittaker|
|FW: Yair Rodriguez vs. Andre Fili||Fili||Rodriguez|
|Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)|
|FlyW: Sergio Pettis vs. Chris Kelades||Pettis||Pettis|
|WW: Danny Roberts vs. Dominique Steele||Roberts||Roberts|
|Women’s StrawW: Carla Esparza vs. Juliana Lima||Esparza||Esparza|
|LW: James Vick vs. Glaico França||Vick||Vick|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)|
|HW: Cody East vs. Walt Harris||Harris||East|
|LHW: Clint Hester vs. Marcos Rogério de Lima||Hester||Hester|
|LW: Efrain Escudero vs. Kevin Lee||Lee||Lee|