Anthony Smith (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 235 Preview and Predictions

The UFC returns to Las Vegas on Saturday, March 2, for UFC 235.

Slotted in the main event is newly re-crowned light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who defends his belt for the first time against rising contender Anthony “Lionheart” Smith. Following a lengthy suspension, Jones returned in December to win back the belt with a victory over Alexander Gustafsson. Smith, meanwhile, has been making waves at light heavyweight with victories over two former UFC titleholders and one recent title challenger.

In the co-headliner, reigning welterweight champion Tyron Woodley seeks his fifth consecutive defense when he takes on Karmaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman. Woodley has retained his title through two close fights with Stephen Thompson and far easier victories over Demian Maia and Darren Till. Usman has made a slow and steady march toward a title bid since appearing on The Ultimate Fighter 21. The TUF alum has nine official wins in the Octagon, including recent victories over the aforementioned Maia and Rafael dos Anjos.


The UFC 235 pay-per-view card also features the UFC debut of Ben “Funky” Askren, who takes on former welterweight champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler. Other notable fighters on the card are former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, Jeremy “Lil Heathen” Stephens and Tecia Torres.

The action kicks off with four early preliminary bouts on UFC Fight Pass at 6 p.m. ET. The prelims shift to ESPN at 8 p.m. ET for four more fights. Then, it’s off to pay-per-view for the five-bout main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Matt Quiggins preview the lineup in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Anthony Smith has stormed through the light heavyweight division since moving up from 185 pounds. He’s already topped former champs Rashad Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, plus contender Volkan Oezdemir. Will Smith find success in his title bid against Jon Jones? Will this be a one-sided win for Jones?

Petela: The Oezdemir win carries much more weight than the quick knockouts of Evans and Rua. The two former champions are not nearly the fighters they once were, and Smith ran through them without any adversity. In the Oezdemir fight, Smith was tested for the first time at 205 pounds. He passed that test with flying colors.

However, Oezdemir is no Jon Jones. Smith will be in against an all-time great in the prime of his career for the first time when he squares off against “Bones” in Las Vegas. “Lionheart” will face the biggest test of his career against Jones. On paper, he doesn’t stand a chance. They don’t fight on paper, though. Smith will show Jones, and the world, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and come away with one of the biggest upsets in UFC light heavyweight history.

Smith has seen numerous ups and downs throughout his career. The 30-year-old already has 44 professional fights. He was cut by the UFC after making his promotional debut and worked his way back by winning seven consecutive fights, including middleweight championship victories with the Cage Fury Fighting Championships and Victory Fighting Championships organizations.

The adversity Smith has faced inside the cage is something that is relatively foreign to Jones. Other than an armbar attempt by Vitor Belfort in 2012 and the closely contested first fight with Alexander Gustafsson, we haven’t seen “Bones” in trouble inside the Octagon. Smith won’t let Jones steamroll him. I expect Smith to get his hand raised by unanimous decision, shocking the world.

Quiggins: I really want to be able to agree with my colleague, but my gut is advising against it. The biggest advantage Smith has in this fight is the element of surprise, but that won’t be enough.

Jones might overlook Smith as a competitor. After all, Smith suffered a loss just a few fights ago to rising contender Thiago Santos, who had his own impressive victory this past weekend. Jones does not see Smith as a fighter on his level. The champ will look for an impressive victory fast and early.

I would love to eat my words and see the rematch between Smith and Santos for the title, but it won’t happen.

In the evening’s co-headliner, welterweight kingpin Tyron Woodley puts his belt on the line against Kamaru Usman. Will these two wrestlers combine for a snoozer?

Quiggins: You really have to feel for Woodley. He is one of the only champions currently in the UFC that actually wants to fight people that compete in his own weight class. You have flyweight champion Henry Cejudo wanting to take away T.J Dillashaw’s bantamweight belt, Dillashaw looking to come down and take Cejudo’s belt, and let’s not even get started on the recent announcement of the UFC booking an interim lightweight bout between featherweight champ Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier. The latter of these is a fight that is sure to produce fireworks, but all of these bouts are defeating the whole purpose of weight classes.

Woodley has been in some snoozefests. There is no denying that he fights smart, which doesn’t always resonate with the fans. His last win over Darren Till was exponentially more exciting and more fan-friendly, though. He’ll carry that momentum into another win here against Usman, who has gone the distance in seven of his last eight bouts. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this ends up as a split-decision win for the champion.

Petela: This fight could go one of two ways. Either we get a boring contest where the wrestling abilities of the fighters cancel each other out, or one of these men will close the show swiftly by unleashing their otherworldly punching power and earning a performance bonus along the way.

Woodley had back-to-back lackluster offensive showings when he defended the title against Stephen Thompson in their rematch and then against Demian Maia. Those fights too often overshadow the first fight with Thompson, which won “Fight of the Night” honors at UFC 205, and the first-round knockout of Robbie Lawler that earned Woodley the title. Usman can also end the fight with one punch the way he did against Sergio Moraes in a fight that largely introduced him to casual MMA fans.

Unfortunately for fans, both fight camps are well aware of the risks in this fight. Neither man will want to end up on the wrong side of a highlight-reel knockout. Woodley should win a decision, showing that he is the better of the two standout wrestlers and giving Usman his first UFC loss in the process.

Usually, this is where we’d ask about whether fans need to know any of the newcomers. However, Ben Askren is the only fighter making a debut at this event, and most fans already know his name. How will the former Bellator and ONE champ fare in his first Octagon appearance against Robbie Lawler, and has he evolved his style enough to avoid UFC President Dana White’s scorn?

Petela: Lawler is among the most dangerous men on the feet who has any significant chance at stopping Askren’s takedowns. This makes him one of the worst match-ups the UFC could have given Askren in his debut. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the volatile relationship Askren has had with the UFC’s White.

Lawler has been fighting professionally for 18 years and has been in several grueling wars inside the cage that undoubtedly have taken their toll on his body. Injuries have kept him to only two fights since he lost the welterweight title to Tyron Woodley in 2016. Lawler will be able to thwart the first few takedown attempts from Askren, but eventually Askren will be able to get Lawler on his back and begin to grind him down in typical Askren fashion.

This isn’t a fight that will garner much praise from White, and his criticism of Askren’s style will remain. Whether White finds it entertaining or not, the one thing he won’t be able to say is that it is ineffective. Askren will be flashier on the microphone after the fight than he is during the contest, but, as always, he will get the job done.

Quiggins: It’s been a long time coming since fans thought it was even possible to see Askren inside the UFC. This weekend, it’s finally happening. The decision to give him Lawler right away is a risky move for the business and the division, but it could pay dividends.

If Askren is successful, it shuts down all the criticism and wonder over the years of whether or not he could hang with the higher level of competition inside the Octagon. If he is taken out by Lawler, it halts his rise toward the title currently held by his friend and training partner Woodley.

I’m excited to see what Askren can do against Lawler, and I expect nothing less than headhunting to ensue once the cage door shuts.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 235?

Quiggins: Johnny Walker. The man is making the most of his UFC run. This fight is his fourth outing in six months. He takes on a huge challenge in Misha Cirkunov, and it will be a tough test indeed. Even if Walker, who just fought on Feb. 9, takes a loss in this one, he’s still showing the company that he is ready anytime, anywhere.

Petela: Anthony Smith. In a night full of exciting bouts and plenty of potential finishes, Smith — if I’m correct and he can give Jones his first real MMA loss — will steal the show, even if the fight is not a bloody, violent war. He will join Matt Serra, Chris Weidman, Holly Holm and Henry Cejudo as contenders who do the impossible and dethrone a seemingly unbeatable champion. A rematch with Thiago Santos, who knocked out Jan Błachowicz in Prague last weekend, should be next for Smith.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 235?

Petela: Tyron Woodley. He’ll beat Kamaru Usman, but this isn’t going to be a flashy fight. The welterweight king will still draw criticism from UFC President Dana White and remain underappreciated by the casual MMA fan base. There are so many fights on this card that have the potential to steal the show, which means Woodley’s fifth title defense will largely fly under the radar. He will quietly continue to build his case as one of the best welterweights of all time, but he won’t be the household name that he deserves to be at this point in his career.

Quiggins: Agreed. Woodley is going to do everything he can to finish this fight and make it exciting, but it’s hard to say if Usman can contribute to make it an exciting fight. Woodley will watch his teammate’s fight very closely and might even call out Lawler if Lawler is victorious over Askren. If it happens this way, then it will be hard to deny Lawler a rematch and a chance for Woodley to have another exciting bout.

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

Quiggins: It’s really hard to call any fight that has Jeremy Stephens in it a “sleeper” fight, but honestly it’s the best pick. The pairing of Stephens and Zabit Magomedsharipov provides a proving ground for the Russian and a chance for Stephens to erase the recent loss to former champion José Aldo.

Petela: It’s a main-card affair, but the strawweight match-up between Tecia Torres and Weili Zhang is going almost entirely unnoticed on a fight card full of high-profile names and high-stakes fights. Zhang is 2-0 in the UFC, and Torres will be her introduction to the upper echelon of fighters at 115 pounds. Torres is coming off back-to-back losses to Jessica Andrade and Joanna Jędrzejczyk. She will look to prove she still belongs among the elite. This should be a closely contested, high-volume affair between two very technical fighters.

Pair this card with…

Petela: This card is loaded with heavy hitters, so pair it with a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. At 13 percent ABV, it will have you looking up at the ceiling and seeing stars if you aren’t careful. The same can be said for the fighters at UFC 235. It’s not often a card is packed from top to bottom with fighters with one-punch power, but that’s exactly what we get this weekend.

Quiggins: I have to go the pun route and suggest anything from the Funky Buddha family, maybe start with Vibin’. I love how my colleague went strong with a 13-percenter, but this five-percenter should pair nicely with the night of fights in store.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Quiggins’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW Championship: Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith Smith Jones
WW Championship: Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman Woodley Woodley
WW: Robbie Lawler vs. Ben Askren Askren Askren
Women’s StrawW: Tecia Torres vs. Weili Zhang Zhang Torres
BW: Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz Munhoz Garbrandt
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Jeremy Stephens vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov Magomedsharipov Magomedsharipov
LHW: Misha Cirkunov vs. Johnny Walker Walker Walker
BW: Alejandro Perez vs. Cody Stamann Stamann Stamann
WW: Diego Sanchez vs. Mickey Gall Gall Gall
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
MW: Charles Byrd vs. Edmen Shahbazyan Byrd Byrd
Women’s BW: Gina Mazany vs. Macy Chiasson Chiasson Chiasson
BW: Marlon Vera vs. Frankie Saenz Vera Vera
Women’s StrawW: Polyana Viana vs. Hannah Cifers Viana Cifers