The men considered to be the two best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport will be back in action at UFC 197, as Jon Jones returns to battle Ovince Saint Preux while Demetrious Johnson looks for his eighth straight title defense win while facing Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo.
Jones returns to action more than 16 months after his last trip to the Octagon, as he tries to regain the light heavyweight title in an interim championship fight with Saint Preux. Jones has endured a tumultuous year, but now he gets back to the business of fighting while trying to restore his reputation as the baddest man on the planet.
In the co-main event, Johnson looks to extend his streak of dominance while adding an Olympic gold medalist to his resume. Johnson has been virtually untouched in his last few title defenses, but Cejudo believes he has the skills to dethrone the only flyweight champion the UFC has ever known.
In this week’s Cheat Sheet, we examine both of those fights as well as a slew of other matchups to see who has the advantage going into UFC 197: Jones vs. Saint Preux.
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These are the fights that are just too close to call, but a few minor differences between favorite and underdog could lead one fighter to victory and the other to defeat
Demetrious Johnson (-440 favorite) vs. Henry Cejudo (+350 underdog)
It's been virtually impossible to pick against Demetrious Johnson since he became the reigning king at 125 pounds. Johnson has showcased an incredibly diverse skill set, with nearly 53-percent accuracy on the feet coupled with nearly four takedowns landed per fight to take his opponents to the mat. Johnson also happens to be the fastest flyweight on the planet, with lightning quick feet, head movement and technique.
It's what makes Johnson such an impossibly tough fighter to defeat, but Cejudo has a few weapons that he can use to try and slow down the 125-pound king.
Cejudo is a world-class wrestler, and while he hasn't used his grappling that much thus far in his UFC career, he's more than capable of unleashing that at any time. Cejudo is powerful with his takedowns and if he plants Johnson on the mat, it's going to be tough even for the flyweight champion to get back up again. Cejudo can also showcase tremendous takedown defense, which negates one of Johnson's best weapons to keep his opponents guessing. If Cejudo can stuff a couple of Johnson's early takedowns, it could shift the momentum in his favor just enough that he could take advantage on the feet or employ his own grappling attack.
That said, Johnson still remains the pick because he's not only looked good in his last few fights, but he's seemingly getting better. Johnson mixes his striking and grappling so well that it's impossible to predict where he's going next, and with supreme confidence on his side, chances are he's going to walk out of UFC 197 with his belt intact. Cejudo is a worthy challenger, but Johnson is just on another level right now.
PREDICTION: Demetrious Johnson by unanimous decision
Anthony Pettis (-165 favorite) vs. Edson Barboza (+155 underdog)
Right away it's easy to peg this matchup between Anthony Pettis and Edson Barboza as the likely Fight of the Night because these are two of the best and most dangerous strikers in the UFC and they are about to throw down.
Pettis is in desperate need of a win after two straight losses to Rafael dos Anjos and Eddie Alvarez, and while there's certainly no shame in falling to two of the best lightweights in the world, if he hopes to get back into title contention, he needs a victory at UFC 197. Pettis has faced a ton of adversity lately, with his last two opponents stopping his striking attack by bullying him against the cage and never giving him any space to work. Pettis is a distance striker who likes to throw kicks and long punches from the outside.
Meanwhile, Barboza has faced an up and down UFC career as well, with some very impressive wins countered by some devastating losses. Much like Pettis, Barboza is a world-class striker when he has space to work. Barboza is like a lumberjack the way he chops opponents down, starting at the legs and then moving up to the body and head. Barboza is a surgeon with his kicks, so Pettis would be advised not to get into a contest where he's simply exchanging strikes with the Muay Thai expert from Brazil.
On paper, this fight really is a toss up.
Pettis has more tools in his arsenal, with a solid submission game and decent wrestling, but chances are this fight is going to stay standing until one of these men falls over. Barboza is more than capable of landing a knockout blow to put Pettis away, but he's been tagged quite a few times in his past fights and his chin has been questionable. While Barboza is always one kick away from finishing an opponent, the odds still lie slightly in favor of Pettis to get the job done.
Pettis is still one of the top five lightweights in the world, and this weekend is his chance to prove it. Barboza will give him everything he can handle, but Pettis should still be able to land enough combinations on the feet to eke out a decision win.
PREDICTION: Anthony Pettis by split decision
Robert Whittaker (-345 favorite) vs. Rafael Natal (+285 underdog)
Robert Whittaker has enjoyed new life since moving up to the middleweight division, where he's gone 3-0 with two knockouts along the way. When his fight with Natal was first announced, it was a bit of a head scratcher, considering Whittaker appeared poised for a run at the top 10 but, make no mistake, this is a tough fight for the New Zealand native.
Natal isn't the flashiest fighter in the world, but he gets the job done. He's won four fights in a row while continuing to improve his style and technique along the way. Natal is a fantastic grappler, but his striking has been a primary weapon over the course of his UFC career. Natal lands with good accuracy at just over 48-percent, and he's got a good work rate with over three significant strikes landed per minute. Natal is more than capable of mixing in a takedown as well. He averages just under three takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage, so Natal is very adept at mixing things up and keeping his opponents guessing.
Whittaker is a little easier to predict, but that doesn't mean Natal can stop him. Whittaker is a punishing striker, landing nearly five significant shots per minute, and he's also shown great defense since moving to the middleweight division. Whittaker lands with brutal power, and his combinations have the kind of pop behind them to put an end to Natal at any point from the opening seconds until the final horn sounds.
The biggest enemy to Whittaker going into this fight is underestimating Natal, who isn't the top 10 opponent he was hoping to land after his last victory. Whittaker can't get complacent and believe he's just going to walk through Natal because that certainly won't be the case. If Whittaker has treated Natal with the respect he deserves, then the New Zealand native should find a way to land a finishing blow before the fight is over. Whittaker might be one of the most powerful punchers in the division right now, and he only needs to find one opening to crack Natal on the jaw and put him away.
PREDICTION: Robert Whittaker by TKO, Round 3
These are the fights that appear to be a little more one-sided, but remember that this is MMA, where anything can - and usually does - happen
Jon Jones (-550 favorite) vs. Ovince Saint Preux (+425 underdog)
Jon Jones finally returns to action this weekend as he looks to stake his claim to the throne of the light heavyweight division again while also reminding the world why he might just be the greatest fighter of all time. Jones' resume reads like a who's who list of future Hall of Famers, and outside of his lone fight against Alexander Gustafsson, no one has even gotten close to beating him inside the Octagon. From the feet to the ground and everywhere in between, Jones sets the bar for mixed martial arts perfection inside the cage and it's going to be difficult for anyone to stop him, much less an opponent facing him on short notice.
Ovince Saint Preux deserves massive credit for accepting the challenge to fight Jones after Daniel Cormier suffered an injury in training that delayed their title fight. Saint Preux is a legitimate threat to anyone in the light heavyweight division with his long reach, huge power and incredible athleticism, but beating Jones is a Herculean task for anyone in the world.
Unless Jones has somehow lost a step during his absence, he has a lot of different ways to win this fight and chances are he might even show off a few new tricks against Saint Preux on Saturday night. Whether Jones decides to keep this fight standing or toss Saint Preux to the gorund, expect the former light heavyweight champion to have his way in this fight, although there should be some caution that he might have a slow start. Jones has been away for more than a year, so there might be a feeling out process early, but once he finds his footing, expect greatness inside the Octagon, just like always.
PREDICTION: Jon Jones by TKO, Round 3
Carla Esparza vs. Juliana Lima
Juliana Lima is a tough customer for anyone in the world at 115 pounds, but she drew the short straw getting former champion Carla Esparza as an opponent on short notice.
Esparza has been out of action since last year, when she lost the title to Joanna Jedrzejcyzk, and thanks to shoulder surgery, her return has been delayed until now. When she's on her game, Esparza is still one of the best strawweights in the world and she'll do her best to remind the rest of the division of that very fact when she returns this weekend. Esparza is a top-notch wrestler who averages nearly five takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage, and she's got incredible control on the ground. Esparza performs at an unrelenting pace few fighters can keep up with, and her preparation for championship bouts puts her conditioning at the elite level.
Lima's biggest problem is that her style is similar to Esparza in that she likes to take her opponents to the mat and control them on the ground. Unfortunately for her, Esparza is just that much better in that particular aspect of the game. Lima could find herself in trouble early if Esparza takes this fight to the ground and begins to mount her attacks from there. Of course, Esparza will have to knock off some ring rust after a year away, but once she gets into a rhythm, Lima is going to be playing defense and just trying to survive.
PREDICTION: Carla Esparza by unanimous decision
James Vick vs. Glaico Franca
James Vick might be one of the most underrated lightweights on the planet and he'll look to prove why he deserves more respect with his fight against former Ultimate Fighter Brazil winner Glaico Franca this weekend.
Vick is a monster for the 155-pound weight class, standing 6'3" with a lot of power and incredible technique. He's good everywhere, but particularly tough on the feet with a size and reach advantage over almost everyone in the division. Vick lands a volume of strikes with good accuracy and he's punishing from the outside or fighting in a phone booth.
Franca is a solid prospect coming out of Brazil, but he's getting no easy treatment drawing Vick for his first fight after the reality show. Franca has power on the feet and a good submission game, but he's going to face a tall order (no pun intended) against Vick in every aspect of this fight. Vick is a guy to monitor as a potential top 15 prospect by the close of 2016, and this matchup will give him a chance to shine once again.
PREDICTION: James Vick by TKO, Round 2
Andre Fili (+130 underdog) vs. Yair Rodriguez (-150 favorite)
If Pettis vs. Barboza doesn’t get Fight of the Night, this featherweight matchup between Yair Rodriguez and Andre Fili should get the job done.
Rodriguez is one of the brightest young prospects in the division, with a ton of potential to get even better in the future. Rodriguez has spent some time training under the tutelage of Greg Jackson in New Mexico, and as time moves forward, he's only going to get better with experience.
So don't be surprised one bit if Rodriguez wins this weekend, but Fili presents a lot of problems that could give the youngster some issues in this fight.
Fili is a very long, lanky featherweight with nasty striking and a solid grappling game at his disposal as well. Fili is rarely involved in anything less than a dogfight, which means he'll draw Rodriguez into a few exchanges that could give him the openings to hurt the highly touted prospect. Fili looked better than ever in his last fight, and that kind of confidence could carry him a long way in this matchup with Rodriguez.
If Fili can hurt Rodriguez on the feet, he could force him to dive for an ill-advised takedown and then look to win in the scramble on the ground. Fili has faced struggles on the mat before, giving up a couple of submissions, but that threat won't be as great with Rodriguez as long as he's careful not to make any stupid mistakes.
This bout will probably be a real show stealer, but Fili has the striking and the power to hurt Rodriguez on the feet, and while he may not get a finish, he should be able to earn enough style points to get the win.
PREDICTION: Andre Fili by unanimous decision