It’s a super-stacked fight card, but the focal point of UFC 235 shouldn’t be Jon Jones—it should be that it’s a welterweight grand prix between five guys and a megaphone. Tyron Woodley, the current 170-pound champion, is defending his title against the undefeated Kamaru Usman in the co-main event. The swing bout of the pay-per-view features the long-estranged and highly touted Ben Askren in his UFC debut against division stalwart Robbie Lawler. And crashing this weekend’s party is Colby Covington, the orphaned interim champion who flew out to Las Vegas with his bullhorn to protest the proceedings, lobby, and generally be a thorn in UFC president Dana White’s side.
The threads between these fighters are plentiful. Woodley and Askren starred on the University of Missouri’s wrestling team together more than a decade ago, and are close friends. Woodley, Lawler, and Covington all have affiliations with American Top Team in Florida, though Woodley considers Covington a “buffoon” and Lawler—before losing his belt to Woodley at UFC 201 in 2016—swore that he and Woodley were never teammates. Askren won’t fight Woodley, meaning that even if he beats Lawler on Saturday night a title shot might not be on his radar unless Usman beats Woodley. Confused?
Think of it like a soap opera where everyone has cauliflower ear. One way or another, Saturday night promises to advance the story line in the UFC’s welterweight division. If Woodley successfully defends his title against Usman, the obvious next challenger is Covington, who has been trotting the expired interim belt he won last June all over Vegas, including to an off-Strip casino where White was playing blackjack. (Dana wasn’t amused.)
The fights themselves are compelling too. Zoom out from the welterweight drama, and UFC 235 could be in the running for event of the year. Opening the card is superhero Polyana Viana, who in early January beat the living hell out of a would-be mugger in Brazil. Capping the night off is a light heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Anthony Smith, in what sneakily could end up far more competitive that some people think. Let’s break it down.
Round 1: A Quick Turnaround for Jon Jones
It’s been rough sledding for Jones over the past few years, but he came back at UFC 232 in December to reclaim a title he never officially lost. Not only did Jones beat Alexander Gustafsson in the much-ballyhooed rematch (and do so emphatically), but he signed on for another fight before he could fully exhale. This time it’s against Anthony Smith, a freewheeling brawler whom most people seem to think he’ll destroy.
Of course, in cage-fighting that’s a dangerous proposition. Since moving up to light heavyweight from middleweight, Smith has been crushing people. He’s won all three of his fights in the division so far, and isn’t exactly intimidated by the legend of Jones. His plan is to let Jones know he’s in a fight early, and then see if Jones can hang around once that realization sinks in. Smith is a feast-or-famine fighter, with each of his last seven bouts ending in a finish (six of those times in his favor).
The fun thing about this main event is that Jones is returning so eagerly and so quickly after a victory. It’s reminiscent of the vintage Jon Jones, the one the fight world fell in love with back in the early 2010s. People forget, but Jones was truly the phantom of the octagon back then. He was outclassing old veterans like Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko in ways that didn’t look entirely fair, and he did the same thing to Ryan Bader at UFC 126. It was right after then that he got the call to step in to fight Mauricio Rua just six weeks later. Jones, hungry and ready, never hesitated. At just 23, he became the youngest champion in UFC history, and he did it with such relative ease that he instantaneously achieved the look of a superstar.
He hasn’t lost, but it’s been up and down since then, and at times borderline tragic. There was the UFC 151 cancellation when Jones refused to fight Chael Sonnen on short notice, a decision that left White fuming. There was the MGM lobby melee with Daniel Cormier. There was the cocaine thing at UFC 182. There was the stripping of the title for a hit-and-run incident. There were the PED busts and the suspensions, and the hearings. At one point, White swore he’d never put Jones in a UFC main event again. It was laughable that he said that, but it everyone understood the sentiment.
All of that is in the past now, save for a few lingering picograms of residual magic dust that keep showing up on Jones’s drug tests. After hearing about them for so long, those picograms have become lovable little creatures that deserve their own Saturday-morning cartoon show.
The main takeaway from Fight Week is this: Jones is hungry again, and he’s walking around with a lightness of being. He’s very much like the Jones of old, the one who was dying to show the world how great he could be. These days it’s from the opposite side of the bookend, from the side where he wants to prove how great he still is.
Round 2: Will Woodley Ever Truly Break Through?
Despite a dominant run, Tyron Woodley has been a tough sell for fans, perhaps in large part because White is always harping on him in the media. Is Woodley—a fighter from Ferguson, Missouri—so polarizing that the UFC can’t make him into a star? Other realms of entertainment appear to eagerly embrace Woodley’s potential. He’s a burgeoning hip-hop artist. He’s been in movies. He’s a natural analyst on television. He’s very good at whatever he does.
He’s also a very good champion, verging on great. He has defended the welterweight title three times since 2017, and out-landed Darren Till in significant strikes 57-0 at UFC 228, before finishing him with a D’Arce choke. That fight won him some fans, but not as many as he might have hoped. The buy rate for UFC 228 was around 130,000—a significantly low number. Is it that the UFC doesn’t know how to market Woodley, or that Woodley isn’t marketable?
In any case, that’s why he’s fighting as the co-main event on Saturday night, as a table-setter for Jones. With all the eyes Jones will bring, Woodley has a chance here to make some headway in the fight-game psyche by becoming the first to defeat Kamaru Usman. Should he unleash his power—like he did against Lawler, and even against Till—his stock could finally rise to a place of main-event comfortability.
Should he toil against Usman, methodically outpointing him in a nondescript five-round affair, well, that would be trouble. Especially because no amount of bad blood between him and Colby Covington—who is sitting in the wings—will fool people into believing that a fight between him and Woodley would be fireworks.
Let the record show that Covington’s last four fights have gone to decisions. And seven of Usman’s last eight have gone the same way. Neither man is a go-for-broke fighter, which means it falls to the champion himself to not only win against caution-first strategists, but to do it in such a way that will excite the fan base. That’s a tough ask. But when Woodley is on—like he was against Till in Dallas—he’s more than capable of dropping some jaws, in more ways than one.
Round 3: A Quiet Robbie Lawler Is a Deadly Robbie Lawler
Ben Askren has more buzz than anybody heading into UFC 235, but the forgotten man in the equation is Lawler, who has never been one to beat his own chest before a match. He’s not doing it this time either. In fact, Lawler seems more than happy to let Askren take the lion’s share of the spotlight heading in, because his idea of hype is to simply show up and drop bombs. Let’s not forget his fight with Rory MacDonald at UFC 189, back when Conor McGregor steered all the boom mics away from everyone else.
Lawler was all but forgotten that time, too, and we all saw how that played out; he caved in MacDonald’s nose during one of the greatest fights in UFC history. That “Ruthless” nickname was never in evidence more than that night.
Askren will try and take the fight to the ground, where Lawler won’t be as dangerous. If he’s able to do that, it could be a long night for Lawler, especially given how strong Askren is on top. But let’s not forget that other pedigreed wrestlers have had this idea, too. People like Johny Hendricks, who fought Lawler twice and had mixed results in the wrestling department. Lawler is a sturdy, somewhat heavily grounded fighter, who punishes aggression just enough to give opponents pause in changing levels. Sometimes a single pause is all he needs to land that big shot of his own and ruin somebody’s night.
It’s not that hard to imagine Askren shooting in for a takedown, and Lawler uncorking a perfectly timed uppercut. It’s in that imagination that this fight becomes a must-watch event.
Round 4: Is Cody Garbrandt Really Back?
Garbrandt wasn’t being groomed as the next big thing when he had the bantamweight title a couple of years back—he was the next big thing. The way he beat Dominick Cruz at UFC 207 to win the belt left a wild buzz in the air, not unlike that of a young Jon Jones. He was 11-0 and he fought with equal parts attitude and grace. He had a backstory—his pact with his young friend Maddux Maple, which he wrote a book about—and knockout power.
Charisma? Check. And he had the look—tattoos up to his ears, a stylish haircut, designer shirts. Rivals were bubbling up all around him. His Team Alpha Male teammates envied him, his old acquaintances (like T.J. Dillashaw) hated him, and his artistic equals (like Cruz) found out quickly that they weren’t equals at all. Garbrandt was ready to explode into stardom.
Then Dillashaw came back and beat him at UFC 217, in what was billed as a personal blood feud between the two. It was a shocker. It remained that way until the rematch at UFC 227, when Dillashaw knocked Garbrandt out again. That one was devastating. Garbrandt kind of ghosted the fight world a little bit after that, taking a break from social media and refusing all media requests. He went into a deep phase of rediscovery.
Heading into his fight with Pedro Munhoz—which kicks of the main card on Saturday night—Garbrandt says he has found himself again. He became a father in 2018, which he says helped give him perspective. He also took solace in studying Cormier, who rebounded from losing to Jones twice to win belts in two different weight classes. Can Garbrandt bounce back and do something similar? That’s really the question. For some guys, losing changes them forever. Others just need a single win to regain any lost mojo.
The verdict is out for Garbrandt, and Munhoz—a quiet contender who’s won six of his last seven—isn’t exactly the sentimental type. It’s a cruel game. He wants to ruin whatever is left of Garbrandt, and to take his spot in the pecking order.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Jeremy Stevens vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov: Stevens has been around the UFC for more than a decade, and has fought just about anybody with a name—but this fight is different. Stevens confessed to some pretty harrowing stuff in the past couple of weeks, about how he had suicidal thoughts after his bout with Jose Aldo. Though he seems to be in a good place now, fighting Magomedsharipov—a tall, hissing live wire of a featherweight who looks like Abraham Lincoln and has the vibe of a future champion—is an incredibly risky undertaking. In fact, it’s what William Goldman would call “stupid courage,” the most admirable kind. Credit to Stevens for never saying no to a fight. But man, best of luck, Mr. Stevens.
Johnny Walker vs. Misha Cirkunov: If Jones’s return two months after winning his last fight strikes you as awesome, behold Walker. He fought Justin Ledet on February 2, and sparked him in just 15 seconds. His postfight dance moves left some glitter in the air down in Fortaleza, and the UFC suspects it has a star on its hands. This weekend will go a long way in filling in the blanks, as Walker fills in for the injured Ovince Saint Preux to face Cirkunov. Cirkunov loves choking people out. It’s a specialty of his. And let’s just say that Walker has a very long, very tantalizing neck.
Diego Sanchez vs. Mickey Gall: The last of the Mohicans, Sanchez, is still out there trying to knock people’s heads off whenever he gets the chance. Sanchez is the last active fighter from The Ultimate Fighter 1, and he’s done about everything there is to do (except win a title). This fight with Gall is more of a marvel from the Sanchez Is Still Going perspective than it is from a competitive standpoint. Gall is younger, fresher, taller, and stronger, yet he doesn’t have an ounce of the mysticism that fuels Sanchez’s longevity. Somehow, when taking together all the tangibles and intangibles, it ends up a coin-flip fight.