Alexander Gustafsson (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 232 Preview and Predictions

On Saturday, Dec. 29, the UFC closes out 2018 with its final pay-per-view card of the Fox era. It’s a fitting segue for the night’s main event.

Former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones returns from his second steroid suspension to rematch Sweden’s Alexander Gustafsson. The pair met previously at UFC 165 in one of the most competitive fights of Jones’s title reign. They’ll battle for the vacant 205-pound strap, which was recently stripped from two-division titleholder Daniel Cormier — the man Jones defeated at UFC 214 prior to his failed drug test.

The event could serve as the last straw for Jones, who forced the entire fight card to move less than a week out due to licensing issues in Nevada. His trainwreck of a career seems like the wrong thing for the UFC to bring with it into the ESPN era in 2019, but the company certainly took some extreme measures to keep him on the card.


In the evening’s co-headliner, women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino puts her belt on the line against the promotion’s bantamweight queen, Amanda Nunes.

The 13-fight event takes place from the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and kicks off with four prelims streaming on UFC Fight Pass at 6:30 p.m. ET. An additional four prelim bouts follow on Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET. The night’s five-fight main card airs live on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Matt Petela break down the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Alexander Gustafsson gave former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones one of the toughest tests of his career. Now, in a rematch with the vacant belt at stake, can Gustafsson finally outduel Jones?

Petela: After watching their first fight several times, I’m less convinced than ever that Jones actually won. These two men create a great stylistic match-up, from their crisp striking skills to their similar tall and slender builds. We should expect to see more of the same in the rematch. Both men have looked great in their most recent UFC appearances — Jones in his knockout-turned-no-contest over Daniel Cormier and Gustafsson in his fifth-round TKO of Glover Teixeira.

The big question is which one of these fighters will be more affected by the long layoff. Gustafsson has actually been out of the cage longer than Jones, whose UFC 214 contest against Cormier took place two months after Gustafsson finished Teixeira in his native Sweden. Injuries have kept the Swede out of the cage, while Jones has been busy dealing with a USADA suspension.

The distractions from the doping suspensions are going to prove to be too much for Jones to overcome as he faces off against someone of Gustafsson’s caliber. The Swede will even the score and earn a clear decision victory over Jones to set up a trilogy fight in their rivalry.

Tatum: At this rate, Mr. Petela and I are either going to look like geniuses or we’re going to be eating a heavy diet of crow as a New Year’s resolution.

Like my cohort, I also felt Gustafsson bested Jones in the pair’s first meeting at UFC 165. Without question, it was the hardest Jones has been pushed in the Octagon. The problem with leaning too heavily on the first meeting? That fight was five years ago!

What makes this fight so tough to predict is the lack of activity from both fighters since the first fight. Jones has fought just once a year since, largely due to putting illegal substances in his body. Meanwhile, Gustafsson has only made it to the Octagon one more time than Jones during that stretch, primarily due to injuries. With neither fighter setting foot in the cage over the last 12 months, there are more uncertainties leading into this fight than there are things you can take to the bank.

If you’re a fan of Jones, it’s not hard to envision him recapturing his previous form and once again becoming the sport’s most dominant fighter. However, his ability to stay out of trouble — both legal and USADA — casts serious doubts on that happening. While he looked strong in his rematch with Cormier at UFC 214, the bottom line is that he was stripped of the title for steroid use. That’s not debatable. And since Jones declined to use VADA testing in addition to USADA for this fight, all the questions surrounding his legacy are still relevant. Let’s put it this way: if the Jones that showed up at UFC 197 to fight Ovince Saint Preux enters the cage on Dec. 29, I have very little doubt that Gustafsson is walking away with the title.

On the flip side, Gustafsson also has red flags. After his loss to Jones, he’s battled numerous health issues. After a dominant win over Jimi Manuwa, he was absolutely demolished by Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in his native Sweden — albeit in the middle of the night. The towering Swede engaged in another title war with the aforementioned Cormier, but again fell short in his quest for gold. He’s since reeled off two straight wins, but, as my colleague pointed out, he’s been out of action since May 2017.

The pair’s first meeting is one of the best title fights in light heavyweight history. Let’s just hope the rematch can live up to the first fight. Whichever man shakes off the rust first could have a huge advantage. Given the close nature of the first contest, it’s truly a coin flip, but I’ll take “The Mauler” to use his crisp boxing to get the better of Jones on the feet and take home the title with a narrow decision victory.

Bonus question: Will this be a new start for Jones, or will he screw up again?

Tatum: At this point, is there any answer other than he’ll screw up again? What exactly has Jones done in the last few years to make you think otherwise? Multiple steroid suspensions, a hit-and-run, a positive test for cocaine. The guy’s a poster child for bad decision-making.

Of course, I would love to be proven wrong in this prediction. Jones is one of the most talented fighters to ever step foot in the cage. It’s shame that his actions have kept him in the news for all the wrong reasons over the past five years. Yet, if someone were to put odds on whether Jones gets suspended or arrested again before his UFC career ends, I’d be all-in on it happening.

Petela: Jones has the highest level of talent we have ever seen in combat sports, and yet it will always be overshadowed by his ability to get himself into trouble with the UFC or the law.

This most recent announcement that UFC 232 is being moved to Inglewood — because Nevada won’t license Jones due to another test with a trace amount of Turinabol — serves as yet another reminder that, given the chance, Jones will always let the fans down.

At this point, it would be a bigger surprise if Jones went his entire career without getting himself back into trouble than it would be if we find out he tested positive by the time his post-fight sample gets released.

Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino has dominated the women’s featherweight division for years now. Her UFC run includes five total victories, four of which came by stoppage. Now, the champ meets UFC’s women’s bantamweight queen Amanda Nunes. Can Nunes succeed where all others have failed?

Petela: If there is a woman in the UFC who can challenge Cyborg for supremacy, it is her fellow Brazilian standout Nunes. Cyborg should be the bigger and stronger fighter in the cage when the two meet, but Nunes has faced a murderer’s row of title challengers in order to earn and keep her belt. Nunes has bested Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey, Valentina Shevchenko and Raquel Pennington along the way. On the other hand, Cyborg has largely faced women who were a tier below elite talent, with the exception of Holly Holm.

The experience against truly elite competition at 135 pounds will go a long way in providing Nunes confidence when she steps in against her most dangerous foe to date. That confidence, along with increasingly impressive conditioning and a game plan from one of the best coaches in the business — Mike Brown at American Top Team — will be enough to do the seemingly impossible and make Nunes the first woman to hold belts in two weight classes. Nunes will topple the seemingly indestructible Cyborg.

Tatum: After reading that response, I might have to employ USADA to test Mr. Petela. I’m not sure if he spent his lunch break enjoying recreational drugs or if he has an affinity for bath salts.

No disrespect to Nunes, as she is truly a tremendous fighter, but she’s going against the most dominant female fighter of all time. Stylistically, Nunes will play right into Cyborg’s hands. Cyborg has showcased her power time and time again against overmatched opponents, but she also displayed a patient, technical striking attack against the aforementioned Holm. For everything that Nunes does well, Cyborg simply does it better.

Another factor in this match-up is the fact that Cyborg has been training with UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, who arguably beat Nunes when the pair met last September. Cyborg is going to know what Nunes is doing before she does it, and it’s not going to be a good night for “The Lioness.”

Cyborg retains her belt with a third-round stoppage.

On a side note, the promotion is putting the women’s 135-pound weight class on the back burner. First, Nunes is moving up in weight to face Cyborg. Further down the card, former bantamweight title challenger Cat Zingano is also stepping up a weight class to face former Invicta FC champion Megan Anderson.

While I recognize the organization is trying to build up the featherweight division, does it need to do so at the expense of the bantamweights? I’m sure there are plenty of fans who would watch a rematch between Nunes and Zingano at 135 pounds. After all, Zingano not only beat Nunes at UFC 178, she finished her. And now, Zingano, who previously competed as a flyweight, is moving up to featherweight?

It’s just hard to understand how this benefits anyone. If Cyborg wins, people will argue she beat another fighter smaller than her. Same with Anderson. And what of Nunes if she loses? Then you have a champion that UFC President Dana White has openly criticized coming off a loss. The ability to sell Nunes against challengers like Ketlen Vieira or Germaine de Randamie likely takes a huge hit from this event.

Bevon Lewis — do we need to know this name?

Tatum: At the UFC level, I always struggle to put too much stock into fighters with only six fights, but I’ve seen enough from Lewis to say that he deserves this opportunity against Uriah Hall.

Despite his limited experience, Lewis trains at an elite camp in Jackson-Wink MMA and has already competed at the highest levels of the regional circuit. Two of his six career bouts came under the Legacy Fighting Alliance banner, while another two came on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Although Lewis struggled to put away decorated wrestler Sonny Yohn in the LFA cage, he showcased a well-rounded attack for someone in only his third professional bout. Couple that with the violent finishes he secured on the Contender Series — including one over The Ultimate Fighter 23 veteran Elias Urbina — and it’s easy to see how Lewis caught the attention of the UFC’s matchmaking team.

Lewis, whose moniker is “The Extraordinary Gentleman,” is not getting an easy fight in his Octagon debut. Hall is far more experienced and has faced some of the best middleweights on the planet. The good news for Lewis is that Hall has wilted under the pressure of aggressive power-strikers. That’s exactly how Lewis earned his wins on the Contender Series, so don’t be surprised if that’s what happens come Saturday night. It’ll be fun while it lasts, but look for Lewis to get the better of a flashy firefight and earn a TKO win.

Petela: With the change from Las Vegas to California, Lewis could either have the best or worst luck of a debuting fighter. The Octagon jitters could become even more overwhelming with the change in venue, but he could enter the event thinking he has nothing to lose.

From a talent perspective, Lewis has the ability to come out with a win over Hall and make a name for himself inside the UFC. My colleague summed up his fighting style perfectly when he called it violent.

Lewis will impress fans who witness him fight for the first time. While Hall should be too much for the UFC newcomer, Lewis, with a little fine-tuning, should be a name to watch over the next couple years.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 232?

Petela: Alexander Gustafsson. A win over Jon Jones will cement his name as an all-time great in the light heavyweight division. It sets him up for a big-money rubber match against Jones, if Jones can stay eligible, or the beginning of a long title reign with the 31-year-old Swede firmly in the prime of his career.

The light heavyweight division has a number of new contenders, including Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos, making their way toward title shots, but I’d favor Gustafsson in fights against both men. A long reign as champion makes the Swede a sure-fire Hall of Famer and a name MMA fans will remember as one of the greatest to enter the Octagon long after his time as a fighter is finished.

Tatum: Well, if my colleague and I are correct in our main-event prediction, then the answer to this question is the underdogs. Gustafsson currently sits as more than a two-to-one underdog at the sportsbook, so if he gets revenge against Jones, it would be a big deal.

Add to that the sheer number of fights on this card that are coin flips, and it could be a huge night for those expected by the oddsmakers to lose. Can Megan Anderson use her size to best veteran wrestler Cat Zingano? Can Corey Anderson’s cardio outlast the wild haymakers of Ilir Latifi? Can former interim titleholder Carlos Condit turn back the clock and give Michael Chiesa a rude welcome to the welterweight division?

We’re going to be in for a wild night. When the dust settles, I expect plenty of underdogs to walk away victorious.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 232?

Tatum: Fight fans in Las Vegas (or those that were planning to travel there).

After the news that Jones again had trace levels of Turinabol in his system and could not be licensed in Nevada, the UFC went commission shopping. California was willing to take the event on short notice — dollar signs anyone? That meant anyone who booked flights, hotels and purchased tickets to the Las Vegas card was left scrambling on less than a week’s notice. What a truly awful way for the promotion to treat its fans.

The same could be said of MMA media and the friends and families of fighters on the card. The UFC should have removed Jones from the event and elevated the co-headliner to the night’s top-billing.

Petela: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but something tells me that Nunes pulls off the upset and leaves Cyborg at a crossroads. The seemingly indestructible Cyborg will look human for the first time in an MMA bout, and the fear she puts into all of her opponents before they even make the walk will have vanished.

Cyborg will still be a force to be reckoned with in the thin featherweight division, but if my gut is correct and Nunes, the proverbial David, is able to slay Goliath, then this fight is the beginning of the end for Cyborg’s run as an unstoppable force.

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

Petela: B.J. Penn and Ryan Hall.

Penn is a legend, and this match-up with a unique grappling ace very well could be the last time we see him in the Octagon. I’ve said that before, though, and yet Penn seems to have an undying passion to fight that keeps bringing him back to the UFC. However, if Hall is able to defeat the Hawaiian legend, then it will be tough for Penn to maintain a case that he still belongs among the elite.

Even without the long-term ramifications of this fight, it should just be a fun one to watch, especially for fans of high-level grappling. Penn is notorious for getting his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt in just three years and becoming the first American gold medalist of the Mundials. Combine this with Hall’s wild and unorthodox grappling, and fans are in for a treat as soon as these two men take the fight to the mat.

Tatum: There are so many choices on this card that it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. Certainly, the ground battle between Hall and Penn is a good choice by my writing partner, but I’m going to pick the other women’s featherweight bout on this card featuring former Invicta FC titleholder Megan Anderson and former UFC bantamweight title challenger Cat Zingano (nevermind the impact of this fight on the 135-pound division).

If there was ever a fight that embodied the cliche that styles make fights, then this might be it. Anderson is the very definition of a featherweight, towering over the six-foot mark. The lanky Aussie is a punishing striker who has true finishing ability. Zingano, meanwhile, is a former flyweight with a wrestling background. While her title challenge against then-champion Ronda Rousey came to an abrupt end, Zingano holds a finish of current bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes.

What intrigues me the most about this fight is where it takes place. Will the smaller Zingano be able to put Anderson on her back and neutralize her? Or will Anderson prove that her UFC debut against Holly Holm was a learning experience and keep this fight standing? I truly think this fight is up for grabs, but Anderson will rebound from the Holm loss by picking Zingano apart from range and punish her in the clinch. Give me the Australian by hard-fought decision.

Pair this card with…

Tatum: The new episodes of Vikings on the History Channel. If you’re a history nerd like me, then the show is an enthralling way to spend a holiday weekend (c’mon, it’s better than watching two barely-.500 college teams play meaningless football in the Who Gives a Shit Bowl — I’m looking at you Belk Bowl and the homophobic-fast-food-chain Peach Bowl). Plus, with my upset pick in the night’s main event, what better way to celebrate the UFC’s first Scandinavian titleholder than a show based on the region’s history? SKOL!

Petela: A pack of Stride Shift gum. The flavor-changing gum matches perfectly with the event originally to be held in Nevada. Leave it to the UFC to keep fans on their toes the same way Stride Shift changes from minty to fruity. Neither one leaves a good taste in your mouth.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Tatum’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW Championship: Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson Gustafsson Gustafsson
Women’s FW Championship: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino vs. Amanda Nunes Nunes Cyborg
WW: Carlos Condit vs. Michael Chiesa Condit Chiesa
LHW: Ilir Latifi vs. Corey Anderson Latifi Anderson
FW: Chad Mendes vs. Alexander Volkanovski Mendes Mendes
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Walt Harris Harris Harris
Women’s FW: Megan Anderson vs. Cat Zingano Zingano Anderson
BW: Petr Yan vs. Douglas Andrade Yan Yan
LW: B.J. Penn vs. Ryan Hall Hall Hall
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Nathaniel Wood vs. Andre Ewell Ewell Wood
MW: Uriah Hall vs. Bevon Lewis Hall Lewis
WW: Curtis Millender vs. Siyar Bahadurzada Bahadurzada Millender
BW: Brian Kelleher vs. Montel Jackson Kelleher Kelleher