Once upon a time, there was a UFC light heavyweight champion named Jon Jones. He ruled over the division until, one day, he made some very poor choices. Next thing he knew, he was making a mad dash up a hill with wads of cash in hand as he attempted to run away from his mistakes.
They may not admit it, but former Jones rivals Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson have to enjoy this story a little, even if only in the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds. After all, the former champ’s mistakes led to his removal from the throne and opened up the door for a Cormier title reign and a Gustafsson challenge against what might just turn out to be a more manageable opponent.
In the main event of UFC 192, the Swede, who nearly edged Jones on the scorecards, gets his second opportunity at UFC gold when he faces Cormier, who defeated the surging Anthony “Rumble” Johnson to claim the crown.
The title tilt tops a surprisingly stacked card that features a number of past champions, title challengers and perennial contenders. Former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks is set for a showdown with rising contender Tyron Woodley in the co-headliner. Former light heavyweight kingpin Rashad Evans returns after a two-year absence to fight overlooked contender Ryan Bader in another featured main-card bout. Hard-hitting heavyweight Shawn Jordan fights Ruslan Magomedov, and women’s bantamweight contenders Jessica Eye and Julianna Pena round out the pay-per-view lineup.
The prelims feature former flyweight title challenger Joseph Benavidez and women’s strawweight standout Rose Namajunas.
The 13-fight card takes place at the Toyota Center in Houston. The preliminary card begins on UFC Fight Pass at 7 p.m. ET and moves to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET. Then it’s off to pay-per-view for the main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Zach Aittama and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Former champion Jon Jones blocked the path for any other light heavyweight seeking UFC gold. Once Jones was out of the way, Daniel Cormier was able to claim the belt. Now, he meets another fighter who was on the losing end of a fight with Jones. That man, Alexander Gustafsson, came extremely close to beating Jones. Which of these former Jones opponents will prove to be the next-best light heavyweight? Furthermore, will they be fighting Jones next or a different challenger?
Aittama: With the absence of Jones from the UFC’s light heavyweight division, Cormier has emerged as the man at 205 pounds. With championship belt in hand, Cormier brings superior athleticism and a unique personality that appeals to fighters and fans alike. The Louisiana native finally reached the ultimate goal he had set for himself when he debuted in MMA in 2009. The elusive UFC title win came after Cormier’s first and only career defeat, a devastating five-round decision loss at the hands of the former champion Jones. Cormier weathered the early storm from Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and took the fight over in the second round, dominating the explosive striker on the mat and eventually wrapping up the rear-naked choke submission victory to win the title he had been seeking for years.
Since entering the sport in 2009, Cormier ran through his heavyweight competition with superior wrestling and ever-improving striking. Wins over Jeff Monson, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Josh Barnett on the way to the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix crown put Cormier’s talents on display before he would ever enter the UFC. When the Strikeforce roster was absorbed into the UFC in 2013, one man was standing in the way of Cormier’s dream to be a champion — his training partner and friend Cain Velasquez. Cormier started his UFC career at heavyweight, defeating former UFC champion Frank Mir and the big right hand of Roy Nelson, both by unanimous decision. Cormier dropped to light heavyweight in February 2014. He was scheduled to face Rashad Evans at UFC 170, but Patrick Cummins, an old training partner at the Olympic Training Center, would instead be his opponent. Cormier ran through Cummins in just 79 seconds. A dominant win and submission of Dan Henderson at UFC 173 led to the title shot against Jones.
Gustafsson arrived in the UFC as a relatively unknown commodity. A long and lean striker with good power and a knack for submission victories, Gustafsson earned victories over Matt Hamill, Thiago Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua on his way to a title shot against Jones at UFC 165. The championship fight went back and forth for the first three rounds before Jones started to land the heavier blows and take over in the fourth and fifth. In what is a much-debated decision in one of the UFC’s best championship fights off all time, Jones was once again successful in defending his title. The Swedish star returned at UFC Fight Night 37 in March 2014 to dismantle striker Jimi Manuwa in just under seven minutes, putting the Englishman down and out with strikes in the second round. Gustafsson was scheduled to meet Jones at UFC 178 before he was forced to pull out of the championship rematch due to a knee injury. Gustafsson returned to action in 2015 at UFC on Fox 14, where he was knocked out by the heavy-handed Johnson. Despite the loss, the UFC is now giving the 28-year-old the title shot that escaped his grasp due to injury in 2014.
The fight is truly a clash of styles. Cormier will look to get inside like he was able to do with Jones in the first and second rounds of their bout. The striking inside punching range and underneath the strikes of Gustafsson will be key in Cormier being able to employ his offensive wrestling. Gustafsson will look to land his jab, keep the champion away from him and continue to pepper him with shots throughout the five rounds. Gustafsson has very good takedown defense, but he has been put on his back and dominated by superior wrestlers in the past, which is exactly what he will be facing in this match-up. If and when the fight hits the floor, Cormier will have a distinct advantage if he can control from the top position. Gustafsson has a sneaky ground game with a good submission offense, but he will want to avoid being put on his back at all costs in this fight. Cormier will be able to outlast his Swedish foe, taking him into the championship rounds before getting the finish, most likely with his hands wrapped around the neck of Gustafsson.
These two men are considered to be the two best light heavyweights in the world, but if not for the absence of Jones, neither man would be in position to don UFC championship gold around their waist. Jones’s court hearing is scheduled to take place on Sept. 29, just days before the UFC light heavyweight title is up for grabs. With the future of Jones still up in the air, it is safe to say we don’t exactly know when the pound-for-pound king will return. With the UFC schedule booked through the end of the year, the light heavyweight title may not be defended until March or April of 2016, giving the time needed for the former champion to make his comeback if he were indeed able to do so. I believe the UFC is hoping for the stars to align and the chips to fall into place so that the rematch between Jones and either Gustafsson or Cormier will be for the undisputed light heavyweight title at UFC 200 in July 2016. If the title were to be defended before that date, the winner of the UFC 192 bout between top-10 ranked Rashad Evans and Ryan Bader would most likely be the next man in line.
Henderson: Cormier’s wrestling has made him a handful for almost every fighter he faces, be it at heavyweight or light heavyweight. Mix in that ever-improving striking that my colleague pointed out, and Cormier looks unstoppable. Well, unless he’s facing Jones, in which case Cormier starts looking rather average.
Gustafsson, meanwhile, seems like the perfect foil to Jones. He’s a rangy striker who is quite capable of holding his own in a grappling affair. Yet, Gustafsson has dealt with his own share of setbacks beyond his loss to the former champ. Before he even made the climb to the title bid, the Swede was submitted by Phil Davis. Granted, he has improved greatly since that 2010 defeat, but Gustafsson is now fighting an opponent whose ability to mix striking with takedowns is leagues beyond what Davis offered.
The next-best light heavyweight question could have two answers. If we’re talking about who has the best chance of defeating Jones, I’m inclined to go with Gustafsson. He pushed Jones far more than Cormier did, and he’s capable of offering up a repeat performance if the two finally meet in a long-awaited rematch. However, if we’re talking about the outcome of this fight, I’m going with Cormier. His wrestling will be the difference. He’s ragdolled fighters who are far superior wrestlers than Gustafsson. The lanky Swede might stuff some of Cormier’s takedowns, but not all of them. And once Cormier gets the fight to the mat, his dominance will really kick in.
There are several hoops for Jones to jump through before returning to action. First, there’s the legal ramifications of his poor choices. We should know where he stands in that regard in the very near future. Beyond his court date and the judge’s ruling, though, there’s also the former champ’s mindset. Is he ready to return? Then he has to get back in fighting shape. In other words, I agree with my fellow writer in predicting that UFC 200 is the most likely scenario for Jones’s return. I, too, see Bader or Evans as the more likely next ma in line.
Every time Tyron Woodley seems to gain some momentum, he stumbles. It happened against Nate Marquardt in the final days of Strikeforce. It happened twice more in the UFC when he suffered losses to Jake Shields and Rory MacDonald. Now, Woodley is coming off back-to-back wins against strong competition. He’s set to face Johny Hendricks. Will he stumble again?
Henderson: Short answer? Yes.
Woodley’s a talented welterweight competitor. He’s even notched wins against the likes of Carlos Condit, Dong Hyun Kim and Kelvin Gastelum over his UFC tenure, so he’s not a fighter whose resume is built on wins over cans and has-beens. The two-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler can take opponents down. Early in his professional career, he could even submit his opponents. He’s also a talented striker who has five wins by some form of knockout. However, barring an explosive knockout, Woodley isn’t consistently performing at an elite level. He’ll look hesitant on his feet at times and either abandons his wrestling or fails to use it to its full effectiveness. These things cost him in his previous losses, and they could factor into his performance on Saturday.
Woodley isn’t facing another Gastelum or Kim. He’s fighting Hendricks, a former UFC welterweight champion who almost beat Georges St-Pierre and went the five-round distance with current champ Robbie Lawler twice, earning one unanimous decision win and then relinquishing the belt in their rematch via a razor-thin split decision. Hendricks also topped Matt Brown in a three-round fight recently. This is a guy with an equally strong wrestling base and just as much power in his fists.
That last detail is why Woodley will stumble. He’ll turn in a hesitant performance as he seeks to avoid absorbing any of those big left hands from the former champ. When Woodley falls into that lower volume mode, his offense suffers. Goodbye explosiveness.
Woodley has lost via knockout and could be separated from consciousness again if Hendricks lands. If the Team Takedown fighter fails to turn out Woodley’s lights, he’ll still emerge as the more effective striker en route to the decision win.
Aittama: This is most assuredly the odds-on favorite outcome for the fight. The left hand and right hook that Hendricks throws can put any UFC welterweight down at any moment. While Woodley employs power himself, he has been hit with heavy leather and faltered in the past. And, as my colleague suggested, the activity of Woodley has been in question against top opponents. Woodley needs time to get into a rhythm and set up his footwork in order to land his explosive counter shots. Hendricks will pressure Woodley much like Rory MacDonald was able to do at UFC 174. If Woodley can’t set his feet to throw, he can’t land his effective power punches, completely taking away the entirety of Woodley’s offense on the feet.
The three-round match doesn’t bode well for Woodley, either. Known for taking his foot off of the gas pedal in long stretches of fights, Woodley will be at a strong disadvantage against Hendricks, who tends to start fights off quickly and continue that pace into the championship rounds. As the seconds tick down, Woodley becomes less dangerous.
Hendricks will have an advantage in the wrestling game, most likely being able to get Woodley on his back if he feels the need to get the fight to the floor. Although all of these factors spell out victory for the former champion, Woodley is still dangerous. Hendricks has a solid beard, which bodes well against the heavy hooks of the St. Louis native, but never say never in the sport of mixed martial arts, as evidenced by Uriah Hall’s turning side kick to the heavily favored Gegard Mousasi at UFC Fight Night 75 last weekend.
Hendricks will put it on Woodley and grind him out for 15 minutes of heavy-hitting action, taking the judge’s’ decision and possibly earning himself a third fight with UFC welterweight champion Lawler.
Rashad Evans and Ryan Bader are set to meet in one of the evening’s main-card bouts. Bader, despite a four-fight winning streak, has been passed over for a title shot. Now, he’s booked in a fight with a star who hasn’t competed in nearly two years. If Bader grinds out a decision here, will it be enough to finally convince the UFC brass to give him a title bid? And if Evans emerges as the winner, does he instantly snatch the No. 1 contender spot?
Aittama: This match-up of former college wrestlers and The Ultimate Fighter winners Rashad Evans and Ryan Bader will most likely determine who is next in line for the UFC light heavyweight title.
Evans has been a staple in the UFC’s Octagon since he won the second season of TUF in 2005. He went unbeaten in 12 bouts before he was awarded a shot at Forrest Griffin’s UFC title at UFC 92 in December 2008. Evans stopped Griffin in the third round with a series of ground-and-pound strikes that earned him the UFC light heavyweight title. Evans lost his first fight and the title in his next bout, an absolute drumming at the hands of Lyoto Machida. Machida folded Evans over with a punch against the cage, taking his title with the second-round victory. Evans continued his strong run of fights, though, by earning victories over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Tito Ortiz and Phil Davis on his way to his second chance at UFC gold, this time against former training partner Jon Jones at UFC 145 in April 2012. Jones dominated Evans on the feet for the full five rounds. A myriad of injuries, dropped fights and work in the Fox studios kept Evans outside of the Octagon since his dominant knockout win over Chael Sonnen at UFC 167 in November 2013, 22 months ago.
Bader is taking a step up in competition in hopes of getting his shot at the UFC title after a strong stretch of victories. He is undefeated since a knockout loss at the hands of former title challenger Glover Teixeira at UFC Fight Night 28 in September 2013. Bader earned dominant wins over Anthony Perosh, Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante and Ovince St. Preux before fighting Phil Davis at UFC on Fox 14. Bader upset the favorite Davis with a split decision victory. He hoped to earn his shot at the title in that January 2015 bout, but he didn’t get the call despite some jawing with Daniel Cormier at the UFC 187 press conference. Bader will have to cement his attempt at UFC gold with a victory over one of the best light heavyweights to ever grace the Octagon.
Despite the experience of both men, the deciding factor in this fight will be determined by control. Where the fight takes place, who is in control and how they are winning will most likely be determined with effective striking between long stretches of battling for a takedown and top position. Evans should be the more comfortable fighter on the feet, but he has been inactive for almost two years while Bader has been defeating top-10 opponents. The excitement level in this fight could be through the ceiling, as at times both men have put a stamp on their opposition. Or it could be an inactive, drawn-out 15 minutes in which neither man really impresses in their hopes for a shot at the title. Let’s hope the former is the outcome in this fight and we gain an exciting No. 1 contender in the process.
Henderson: Bader has become one of those fighters who needs to do double the work to earn a UFC title bid. He’s gained a reputation as a boring fighter who grinds out wins. He’s earned that reputation, too.
A fight with Evans gives Bader a chance to notch a win over a former champion, and that might be enough to finally seal the deal, assuming the right set of circumstances fall into place. Jon Jones must remain inactive until UFC 200, but Daniel Cormier also needs to emerge as the victor in the title fight. Why? Well, if Gustafsson wins, the UFC can use it as an excuse to give Anthony “Rumble” Johnson another go at the belt since Rumble already holds a win over the Swede. If Cormier retains the belt, the UFC doesn’t have quite as good of an excuse for once again passing over Bader.
Evans could potentially dive right back into the title mix with a win of his own. The UFC would bank on his previous championship run, his well-known name and a win over a contender like Bader to legitimize Evans as a title challenger. With few other options, it could work.
Bader seems like the favorite in this match-up, but I’ve never trusted Bader to get the truly big wins. He lost to Ortiz, after all. He’s also stumbled against the aforementioned Teixeira and Machida. Evans has the superior striking and a strong wrestling base that will make him into a tough opponent for Bader. I’m counting on this one going the distance if Bader wins, but my gut is telling me that Evans will finish it inside the distance via a knockout.
The Ultimate Fighter 18 winner Julianna Pena will be making her first major step up in competition when she meets top-10 ranked Jessica Eye. Can Pena succeed against the tougher competition? If she wins, how long until she enters the discussion as a challenger for the title against Ronda Rousey?
Henderson: Fans may have forgot about Pena after her long absence while recovering from a severe knee injury she sustained in training, but Pena reminded everyone of just how talented she is when she returned in April and destroyed Milana Dudieva in just a tick under four minutes. The win garnered Pena a “Performance of the Night” bonus and vaulted her back into the mix of the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division. However, wins over fighters like Shayna Baszler, Sarah Moras, Jessica Rakoczy and Dudieva are a far cry from the level of competition she’ll encounter in Eye and, if she were to make it that far, Rousey.
Pena has put together a strong resume that features three official wins via strikes and three official victories by way of submission. She added submissions of Baszler and Moras during the reality show, along with a two-round decision over Gina Mazany. She’s an aggressive fighter who will press the action. That could work against Eye, who fought at flyweight before entering the UFC and focuses most of her efforts on her boxing. If Pena can get the fight to the mat, she should have the clear edge. If the action stays upright, we should see some strong exchanges from both ladies and a lot of active clinch work.
Will Pena win? I say yes. Will she enter the title conversation as a result? Maybe. Rousey has knocked off contenders as quickly as they emerge. Miesha Tate, as deserving as she might be of another title shot, was passed over because she’s already been there — and failed — twice. Holly Holm was boosted into a championship contest based more on her reputation than her merit inside the Octagon. Pena, with a win over a top-10 fighter, could see a slightly accelerated run to a title berth. That’s not to say a win over Eye will be enough. Pena’s probably going to need one or two more big wins before she’s discussed as a contender. This is only her second fight after a year and a half absence, so the UFC will want to build her up more before Rousey gets a chance to tear her down and tear her arm off.
Aittama: Eye was in line for a title shot if she had been able to defeat Tate at UFC on Fox 16 in July. Instead, she was beat down and dominated by Tate. Tate dropped Eye on multiple occasions and controlled the fight in all facets of the game. Eye will be undersized in this fight against a very strong fighter in Pena.
While Eye has fought a much higher level of competition than Pena, the physical tools that “The Venezuelan Vixen” brings into the Octagon favor her greatly. Pena brings a diverse set of offensive skills that usually lead to a finish of her opponent. Pena showed her ability to avoid her opponent’s striking against the aforementioned Rakoczy at the TUF 18 Finale. A first-round stoppage over Dudieva is an impressive win on anyone’s resume, let alone the resume of a fighter returning after a year and a half layoff. Pena will be making a big step up in competition, but she should be the fighter with her hand raised after a difficult test. The fight won’t be easy for Pena unless she can put on a pace that breaks Eye and forces the referee to interfere.
Pena will earn her place in the top 10 with a victory over Eye. While she continues to work toward a shot at the title in the future, Pena has an opportunity to get better as the other challengers ahead of her in line fight for the belt. Holm, Tate and maybe even Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino will have Rousey wrapped up well into 2016, giving the Washington native time to develop her skills and further reach her full potential as a fighter.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Aittama: With so many strong fights on this fight card, choosing one sleeper fight is counterintuitive because you need to watch all of the fights from the Fight Pass prelims through the pay-per-view main event.
I expect one particular fight to explode with entertaining exchanges when exciting young prospects Yair Rodriguez and Daniel Hooker meet on the Fox Sports 1 preliminary card. Rodriguez is an exciting 23-year-old prospect from Mexico who won The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America crown at featherweight when he beat Argentinian Leonardo Morales at UFC 180 in November 2014. Rodriguez last fought Charles Rosa at UFC 188 in June in an exciting back-and-forth “Fight of the Night” winner. Rodriguez used his unorthodox striking and aggressive grappling to beat American Top Team’s Charles Rosa in an absolute war.
Speaking of exciting fights, Hooker put his chin on the line and displayed his unrelenting heart in a slugfest with Maximo Blanco at UFC Fight Night 52. Hooker ate every shot that Blanco could throw — 132 significant strikes to be exact — and came back strong every time, winning the third round after hurting Blanco with strikes throughout. Hooker put an exciting end to his UFC debut against Ian Entwistle and his most recent bout at UFC Fight Night 65 against former No. 1 ranked featherweight Hatsu Hioki. Hooker landed a left head kick that dropped Hioki before the Kiwi fighter pounced and stopped the Japanese fighter face down with right hands.
Don’t miss this fight.
Henderson: This card is indeed full of must-see fights. Another promising bout on the preliminary card features Rose Namajunas and Angela Hill. Both ladies are young and lack extensive MMA records, but they have the skills to put on an exciting battle.
Namajunas, who emerged as a star during her run on The Ultimate Fighter, holds black belts in karate and taekwondo, but she first caught widespread attention for her “Submission of the Night” performances against Emily Kagan and Kathina Catron under the Invicta banner. She suffered her first loss in an entertaining war with Tecia Torres and then entered the TUF competition. During the reality show, she posted wins over Alex Chambers, Joanne Calderwood and Randa Markos en route to the finals, where she lost to Carla Esparza.
Hill’s game is much more focused in one realm, striking. The Muay Thai fighter competed on the same season of TUF as Namajunas, but she had the misfortune of drawing Esparza as her first opponent. In her official pro campaign, she’s topped the aforementioned Kagan and scored a TKO finish of Stephanie Skinner. Her first pro loss came to Torres, but Hill hung in there for three full rounds.
Hill’s Muay Thai and the dynamic submission game of Namajunas provide the potential for an entertaining affair that could play out on the feet or on the mat. Namajunas will get Hill down at some point, and we can expect the result to be a highlight-reel submission finish.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: Queso, chips and some Ziegenbock. This event takes place in Texas, and while the setting of Houston makes seafood a tempting choice, I’m leaning toward something a little more Tex-Mex in nature to go along with a beer that only recently became available for purchase outside of the Lone Star State. But this pairing isn’t just about location, it’s also the perfect spread for a lineup that contains 13 fights and plenty of promising match-ups all the way down to the UFC debut of standout prospect Sage Northcutt in the opening prelim affair. It should be a great night of fights, and nothing seems more fitting for such a night than to gorge oneself on an excess of good eats and drinks to accompany the excess of action in the Octagon.
Aittama: Super Glue. Take the entire bottle, slowly pour its contents onto your couch, recliner or barstool and spread over the entire surface. Grab anything you might need for the next six to seven hours. Once you’ve gathered your food, friends and maybe a bottle just in case, sit your butt down and glue yourself to the television on Saturday night. UFC 192 is just one of the many exciting offerings the UFC is bringing to the fans in the last three months of 2015. This fight card features exciting prospects, potential finishes and plenty of top-10 talent in multiple weight classes. You’re going to want to stay put and take in all of the action from Houston however you enjoy watching fights, whether that be with friends or alone in the comforts of your own home. Just don’t forget the super glue.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW Championship: Daniel Cormier vs. Alexander Gustafsson
WW: Johny Hendricks vs. Tyron Woodley
LHW: Ryan Bader vs. Rashad Evans
HW: Shawn Jordan vs. Ruslan Magomedov
Women’s BW: Jessica Eye vs. Julianna Pena
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Ali Bagautinov vs. Joseph Benavidez
FW: Daniel Hooker vs. Yair Rodriguez
WW: Alan Jouban vs. Albert Tumenov
Women’s StrawW: Angela Hill vs. Rose Namajunas
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Islam Makhachev vs. Adriano Martins
FlyW: Chris Cariaso vs. Sergio Pettis
HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Viktor Pesta
LW: Sage Northcutt vs. Francisco Trevino
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