Jon Jones (James Law/Heavy MMA)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 182 Preview and Predictions

When UFC announcer Bruce Buffer is going through the introductions for the UFC 182 main event, he should change his signature pre-fight catchphrase to “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT’S ABOUT DAMN TIIIIIIIIIIIIIME.” Ever since the announcement of what would eventually become Saturday’s headlining fight — a light heavyweight title contest between champion Jon Jones and second-ranked contender Daniel Cormier — fans have been licking their proverbial chops to see it go down. In just a few short days, they’ll get their chance.

UFC 182’s main event is the most highly anticipated fight in at least the last year, and it’s not close. Jones has maintained an iron grip on his belt, successfully defending it seven times since defeating Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the title in March 2011. He’s generally considered to be the best fighter in the world, which is reason enough to tune in. Across the cage from Jones will stand the undefeated Cormier, a man with whom Jones has developed a very public rivalry. Cormier, despite being more than eight years older and five inches shorter than Jones, is viewed by many to be the biggest threat to Jones’s reign in quite some time, and his Olympic-caliber wrestling has garnered him a lot of success in MMA. It’s a showdown for the ages, and it’ll close out the card on Saturday night.

Just before Jones and Cormier throw down, a pair of exciting lightweights will compete for a spot in that division’s crowded title picture in the co-main event of UFC 182. Donald Cerrone has won his last five in a row, finishing four of those fights inside the distance and earning a spot in the lightweight top five. On Saturday, he’ll face a man who has never tasted professional defeat in eighth-ranked Myles Jury. This one should determine the lightweight pecking order behind champion Anthony Pettis and presumptive top contender Rafael dos Anjos, with the victor likely just one more win away from a title shot.


Underneath those two featured fights is a middleweight contest between Brad Tavares and Nate Marquardt, a flyweight clash between Kyoji Horiguchi and Louis Gaudinot and a battle between welterweights Hector Lombard and Josh Burkman. All in all, a nice card to open 2015.

UFC 182 hails from Las Vegas on Jan. 3, 2015, with the first two preliminary fights starting on UFC Fight Pass at 7 p.m. ET. The card then moves to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for the remaining preliminary fights before the main card begins on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Vince Carey and Eric Reinert break down the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

After all the build-up, it’s finally time to see Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier in an actual, sanctioned fight. Is Cormier the toughest test yet for Jones? And does Cormier’s success at heavyweight suggest that he’ll be the man to finally dethrone the young champ?

Carey: If I’m being honest, I almost turned down contributing to this edition of Toe-to-Toe because I’ve gone back and forth over this fight roughly a million times since it was announced.

Jones might be the most naturally gifted fighter we’ve ever seen. On the feet, his 84-inch reach gives him an advantage against literally every single fighter on the UFC roster, and with the addition of an active kicking attack to amplify his range, Jones has become one of the most accurate and elusive fighters on the UFC roster. However, he’s never had a test put in front of him quite like Cormier, and after showing a few holes in his takedown defense against Alexander Gustafsson in late 2013 in a razor-close decision win, the champion seems vulnerable for the first time since his title reign kicked off in 2011.

That’s because Cormier has been utterly destroying every fighter put in his path as he worked his way toward Jones and the 205-pound belt. He’s made it clear that each performance since he’s stepped into the Octagon was meant to put “Bones” on notice. After tossing MMA legend and former Olympian Dan Henderson around like a ragdoll for two and a half rounds last May, Cormier showed the world exactly how dominant he planned to be at light heavyweight and was able to strike a little fear into the hearts of even the most confident Jones supporters. If Jones was taken down multiple times by Gustafsson, who’s had pretty much zero wrestling experience outside of MMA, how in the hell is Jones supposed to shut down an Olympic-caliber grappler for 25 minutes?

It was Gustafsson’s ability to get Jones to the mat that has Cormier supporters feeling like there’s blood in the water right now when it comes to the championship, but I don’t think Cormier has the physical tools to repeat that game plan. While Gustafsson’s 81-inch reach still left him at a disadvantage against Jones, it allowed him to close the distance on the champion much more quickly and effectively than anyone before him. As a result, he was able to grab ahold of Jones and use those tie-ups to get the fight to the floor. Cormier is going to have a much harder time getting inside on the champion with a legitimate 12-inch reach disadvantage, and that may prove to be the major factor in this fight.

I’m taking Jones by unanimous decision in this one, but that pick completely relies on the champion’s ability to keep Cormier at bay for five rounds. I think “Bones” has the skill set to do it, but Cormier is going to be an extremely dangerous opponent. For the first time since Jones won the belt, I feel like there’s a very real possibility that we see a new UFC champion at 205 this weekend.

Reinert: You know what? I’m actually going to go against the grain and say that while Cormier certainly represents a significant threat to Jones’s title, the champion’s ledger has a number of wins over guys considered to be all-time greats. Let’s not forget how he smashed Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to capture the belt and how he choked Lyoto Machida out in his first defense. Rashad Evans had lost just one time (to Machida) before fighting and losing to Jones, and current top middleweight contender Vitor Belfort, who also fell short in his fight with Jones, has only lost to Jones and Anderson Silva since 2006. There’s a reason Jones is considered the best fighter in the world, and it isn’t because he has spent his title reign defending against cans.

While my colleague is correct in pointing out Cormier’s potential success with takedowns, one has to think that Jones has been drilling and drilling and drilling his defense in that area specifically because he knows it’s Cormier’s only hope. Is the 5-foot-11 Cormier really going to try to stand and trade with the 6-foot-4 Jones? Only if he wants to have his face broken by jabs and crosses. Jones knows this and has no doubt trained extensively with Greg Jackson and his other coaches to negate any threat Cormier might present.

The hype surrounding this fight is certainly well deserved. After all, Cormier is an undefeated fighter who has looked extremely impressive in his career thus far attempting to unseat the world’s greatest mixed martial artist, who is probably just now entering his athletic prime. The difference is going to be in their past opposition. While Cormier beat an undersized and overmatched Henderson in his last fight and starched late-replacement Patrick Cummins in his light heavyweight debut, Jones has been almost exclusively fighting the best that the light heavyweight division has to offer. Jones will not likely be intimidated by Cormier, but Cormier has never faced anyone quite like Jones.

Look for a convincing win for Jones to put a rest to the notion that anyone at 205 can challenge his spot at the top.

The co-headliner pairs two lightweights on different paths toward the top. Donald Cerrone is a veteran who has put together an impressive recent run of five straight wins, and Jury is an undefeated prospect who has picked up wins over the likes of Diego Sanchez and Takanori Gomi. Does Jury’s march through the UFC’s lightweight division — six of his 15 wins have come inside the Octagon — continue against someone as seasoned and skilled as Cerrone?

Reinert: Make no bones about it: Jury is a gamer. He’s looked just marvelous in his undefeated six-fight UFC campaign, topping some impressive names in the process. Other than second-ranked Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jury is the hottest up-and-comer in the lightweight division and has absolutely earned his fight against Cerrone on Saturday.

Jury better be prepared, too, because Cerrone appears to be in the prime of his career right now. He’s rattled off those five straight victories, including a spectacular knockout of longtime 155-pound contender Jim Miller, and brought fight fans’ lofty expectations for Eddie Alvarez firmly back to Earth when he bested the former Bellator champion at UFC 178. Cerrone has won a post-fight award in four of those five consecutive victories, and he’ll surely be looking to halt Jury’s considerable momentum.

This is actually sort of a tough one to call. We’ve got two top-10 lightweights with well-rounded skill sets who have thrashed their way through many other talented fighters in their division. With little else to differentiate the fighters, I’ll go with Cerrone due to his lengthier record and tougher career opposition. Cerrone might be five years older than Jury, but he’s definitely not an “old” fighter, and he’s likely seen what Jury has to offer in other fighters throughout his pro career. Jury is ultra-tough, but I expect another technically sound decision victory from Cerrone in Saturday’s co-main event.

Carey: You can’t help but to be impressed by what Jury has done since joining the UFC. From the way he shut down a red hot Michael Johnson to his dominant performances over the aforementioned Sanchez and Gomi, The Ultimate Fighter 13 and 15 veteran has looked extremely good in his six UFC bouts and, as my fellow writer suggested, definitely deserves this shot against Cerrone. Sadly, Jury needs to be careful what he wishes for, as Cerrone is an opponent on a completely different level than anyone Jury has fought in his MMA career.

I don’t doubt Jury’s ability to compete against members of the UFC’s top 10, but Cerrone is going to create all sorts of problems for “Fury.” Jury is at his best when he’s dictating the pace on the feet and deciding from there whether or not he wants to remain upright or take the fight to the mat. “Cowboy” is a notoriously slow starter, but in recent bouts he’s been able to overcome that with strong performances in the later rounds by adjusting to his opponents and mounting his own offense. That’s what Jury is going to have to avoid, but it’s hard keep your head on straight when Cerrone is coming at you at full blast.

Adding to my confidence in “Cowboy” is not the long winning streak, something he’s done multiple times before, but the way he’s consistently battled through adversity in his recent wins. Alvarez didn’t go quietly, but Cerrone was able to get momentum on his side and score a fairly obvious unanimous decision. Edson Barboza and Adriano Martins both started off extremely aggressive and ready to go in their respective bouts against “Cowboy,” but both times Cerrone was able to weather the storm and end the fight within five minutes.

Cerrone has gone on impressive stretches like this in the past, so I’m not quite ready to call him a true title contender yet. But, if he beats Jury impressively, it’ll go a long way toward restoring my confidence in his title hopes. I think Cerrone lands a solid combination inside of the first two rounds, puts Jury away with a submission and makes a solid case toward a No. 1 contender’s fight in the process.

Opening the pay-per-view portion of UFC 182 is a welterweight clash between sixth-ranked Hector Lombard and the returning Josh Burkman, who spent the last five years fighting outside the UFC. Is this a trap fight for Lombard, given Burkman’s success outside the Octagon, or will the Cuban-Australian show fans once more why he’s considered one of the best at 170 pounds?

Carey: I’m not going to pretend like this is anything other than a trap fight for Lombard, but that doesn’t mean I’m picking him to lose here either. Burkman is no joke. He’s been almost surprisingly good since leaving the UFC, picking up the biggest win of his career when he submitted Jon Fitch last year and winning eight of his last 10 fights while he worked to get back into the Octagon. Even though he’s unranked and was seemingly thrown to the wolves in his UFC return, Burkman has left little reason to doubt his talent. He has a legitimate chance at pulling off an upset here against a true contender in Lombard.

The thing is, Lombard knows this is a trap fight and has earned his top-10 spot in the UFC’s welterweight division. At 36 years old, “Lightning’s” time is now if he wants to make some noise and challenge for a UFC belt. Losing to a capable but unheralded fighter like Burkman is a career killer. While his UFC career admittedly got off to a rocky start with two losses in his first three bouts, the former Bellator champion has found a way to right the ship since dropping to welterweight in late 2013. He has won two straight fights since making the drop. His knockout of fellow UFC 182 main-carder Nate Marquardt made a huge statement that Lombard was unwilling to let his UFC career become a disappointment, and his follow-up victory over Jake Shields, who was ranked in the top 10 at the time, was enough to push him into title contention at 170 pounds.

While his uncanny ability to finish every fight has seemingly left him since he entered the Octagon, Lombard will return to form and score a stoppage here. A win over Burkman is going to push Lombard directly into the center of a crowded welterweight title picture. Since I see him scoring a knockout win on Saturday, it’ll be interesting to see how things play out. Though he doesn’t have the resume of a Rory MacDonald or Johny Hendricks, three straight wins at 170 should put “Lightning” right in the thick of things. A No. 1 contender’s fight will likely be on the horizon, and after expressing some disappointment in his draw of opponents heading into UFC 182, Lombard will likely end up getting someone worth his while his next time in the cage.

Reinert: While I certainly recognize Burkman’s accomplishments outside the UFC, none of his defeated opponents could even come close to competing in the UFC’s crowded welterweight top 15. Lombard, meanwhile, has battled his way to a spot just outside the title picture with the likes of Matt Brown, Carlos Condit and Kelvin Gastelum. Do you think Burkman would stand a chance against any of these three 170-pound elites? I don’t.

No disrespect to Burkman, I just think Lombard is firing on all cylinders right now. He’s demonstrated his ability to knock out opponents throughout his career (19 of 34 pro wins by KO/TKO), and his black belts in judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu make submitting him no guarantee. Let’s put it another way: Lombard has fought 40 times and has never been finished, even when fighting guys much larger than Burkman.

Barring a situation where Lombard is simply unable to put together an offensive attack, he should walk away with this one with few problems. Burkman will no doubt want to make a name for himself in his return to the Octagon, but Lombard will put an end to those hopes with a first-round knockout.

Former middleweight contender Nate Marquardt recently made a successful return to the division after undergoing a rough stretch while fighting at 170 pounds. Even though “The Great” is back in the division where he’s had the most success over his career, can he even be considered as a dark-horse contender in the suddenly stacked 185-pound division with a win this weekend over Brad Tavares? Or is this fight a chance for Tavares to prove he’s worthy of his spot in the UFC rankings?

Reinert: Honestly, I don’t think either fighter has a tremendous amount to gain here. A win for Marquardt might put him back in the top 15, but he’d still be a long way from being considered a contender. Marquardt might be able to compete with guys in the lower third of the UFC’s officially published middleweight rankings, but he’d likely be considered a significant underdog against any member of the top 10.

For Tavares, a win likely means little else than continued employment by the UFC. He’s lost his last two straight coming into Saturday’s fight with Marquardt and needs a rebound win to re-establish his place in the middleweight pack. Those two losses came against ranked fighters, so Tavares’s recent struggles are at least somewhat understandable. If he’s unable to get past an unranked veteran like Marquardt, though, he’ll have a long road back to the contender conversation.

While perhaps neither fighter has a ton to gain, each has quite a bit to lose here. A loss for Tavares would be his third straight and would, at best, mean relegation to an event’s preliminary portion for his next fight. Such a result would certainly bounce Tavares from the rankings and could even put an end to a once very promising UFC career. For Marquardt, a loss would be his third in four UFC fights, and while we might still see him once more in the Octagon, his days of being considered anything close to a contender would be over for good.

Both fighters should be properly motivated here, but I like the younger Tavares to come through with a convincing win to remind everyone why he’s ranked in the first place.

Carey: This is one of those fights that means little in terms of the overall title picture, but it will speak volumes about the careers of both men going forward.

Tavares does indeed have a lot more to lose than his spot in the UFC rankings if he drops this fight. Even though Marquardt is a quality name and opponent, three straight losses are a death sentence for almost any fighter on the UFC roster. Furthermore, Tavares doesn’t exactly have the popularity to feel confident that he’ll survive a roster purge if he loses on Saturday. While every fight feels like it’s do-or-die when competing in the UFC, Tavares is going to be feeling that quite literally and will have to come up big against the biggest test of his career in Marquardt.

Still, despite winning his last fight in impressive fashion against James Te Huna, Marquardt can’t feel confident about his chances at getting into the welterweight title mix if he suffers a loss here. While Marquardt has fought tough competition since returning to the UFC, this will be his first real test since moving back up to his natural weight of 185 pounds and Tavares is going to be a unique puzzle to try to figure out.

I’ll agree with my colleague in that I don’t see either of these fighters making a move into the middleweight top 10 anytime soon, but I don’t see Tavares pulling off the win here. The Hawaiian is a really good striker when things get technical on the feet but, while he may have the speed advantage over “The Great,” I’m not sure if he can avoid getting cracked by an equally good striker in Marquardt. Tavares may end up finding his range early and win the exchanges for three rounds, but my gut says that Marquardt finds his chin at some point and scores a knockout finish.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Carey: The bulk of the quality fights on Saturday are set for the main card, but there’s a fun little scrap brewing between Marcus Brimage and Cody Garbrandt that has some serious show-stealing potential.

Garbrandt is an extremely interesting bantamweight prospect despite only competing in a handful of fights. With a 5-0 record and knockout wins in all five bouts, Garbrandt is a scary young fighter making his UFC debut this weekend against a fellow brawler in Brimage. Garbrandt will look to keep his undefeated record intact against the quality UFC veteran.

Brimage is just a fun guy to watch. With fast hands and brutal power in all four limbs, Brimage is looking to become a true knockout artist at his new weight of 135 pounds. After scoring a quick head-kick finish in his bantamweight debut, he appears to be well on his way. Plus, “The Bama Beast” cites Dragon Ball Z and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as the two reasons he decided to become a mixed martial artist, so, yeah, there’s that too.

I’m not quite ready to whip out the checkbook and hand out some bonus checks to these two just yet, but if Garbrandt can shake off the UFC jitters and come out with the same aggressiveness he’s displayed on the regional scene, then it wouldn’t be a surprise if these two took home “Fight of the Night” honors.

Reinert: Now, just because a fight’s on the main card doesn’t mean it can’t be a sleeper. With that stipulation in mind, I’m picking the flyweight contest between Kyoji Horiguchi and Louis Gaudinot.

The 14-1 Horiguchi is currently the 11th-ranked UFC flyweight and enters Saturday’s contest riding an eight-fight winning streak (including victories in both of his UFC flyweight bouts thus far). Given the paucity of flyweight contenders who have not already lost to champion Demetrious Johnson, Horiguchi could find himself in the title picture with just a couple more wins.

For me, this fight is a “sleeper” because, despite being the best Japanese fighter in the UFC, most fans probably haven’t even heard of Horiguchi. Those fans will get an appropriate introduction on Saturday, when Horiguchi shows why he’s so highly regarded in a convincing win over Gaudinot and makes a case for himself to enter the title mix at 125 pounds.

Pair this card with…

Reinert: The hope that 2015’s pay-per-view lineup will be worthy of fans’ money. On several occasions last year, the UFC put forth $55 events that hardly lived up to the pricetag, and the buy rates suffered accordingly. Thus far, the pay-per-view events scheduled for the coming months have marked a massive improvement from the low points that were UFCs 174 and 177, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that those improvements continue.

Carey: Every single friend that you’ve ever nagged about coming to watch a fight card. The way everything just happened to fall into place for this main event, from the press conference shoving match to the ESPN behind-the-scenes conversation moments later, has been ridiculously fortunate. I have my doubts about the UFC throwing together a better rivalry this year. If there’s anything we know about casual fans, it’s that giving them a clear-cut rivalry and forcing them to choose sides is the best way to get people invested in a fight. Jones and Cormier have already delivered in that regard. There hasn’t been a rivalry that’s sparked this much interest since Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen a few years back, and I’d expect it will be about that long before we get another one of this magnitude. With that in mind, grab as many friends as possible and enjoy it while you can.

Fight Picks

Fight Carey’s Pick Reinert’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW Championship: Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier Jones Jones
LW: Donald Cerrone vs. Myles Jury Cerrone Cerrone
MW: Nate Marquardt vs. Brad Tavares Marquardt Tavares
FlyW: Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Louis Gaudinot Horiguchi Horiguchi
WW: Hector Lombard vs. Josh Burkman Lombard Lombard
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Danny Castillo vs. Paul Felder Castillo Castillo
BW: Marcus Brimage vs. Cody Garbrandt Brimage Brimage
HW: Shawn Jordan vs. Jared Cannonier Jordan Jordan
LW: Evan Dunham vs. Rodrigo Damm Dunham Dunham
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
WW: Omari Akhmedov vs. Mats Nilsson Akhmedov Akhmedov
Women’s BW: Alexis Dufresne vs. Marion Reneau Dufresne Dufresne