Two highly-anticipated matchups are finally making their way to the fight capital of the world.
Of course, I’m talking about Inglewood.
It might not be Las Vegas as originally booked, but the UFC found a home for UFC 232, its final pay-per-view of 2018, after the promotion’s plans were thrown for a loop less than a week out from fight night. This past Sunday, the Nevada State Athletic Commission refused to license Jon Jones to compete in Las Vegas after analysis of his last 18 months of tests resulted in the discovery of a drug-testing abnormality.
While that mess will surely take some time to sort out, what matters now for the fans at The Forum and those tuning in around the world is that Jones is still set to make his return to competition Saturday after spending 17 months on the sidelines while dealing with his second USADA suspension.
Awaiting Jones is a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson that has been highly anticipated ever since their five-round classic at UFC 165 back in September 2013, a fight that Jones won by unanimous decision. Daniel Cormier’s vacated light heavyweight championship will be on the line, a belt that Jones previously held and defended eight consecutive times (never losing it in the Octagon) and Gustafsson has long coveted.
The co-headliner is a superfight that could easily have headlined its own show, UFC women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg defending her title against UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. Both have laid waste to their respective divisions, with Cyborg having won 20 consecutive bouts since losing her pro debut 13 years ago and Nunes owning UFC victories over Valentina Shevchenko, Ronda Rousey, and Miesha Tate. The winner of this duel can lay claim to possibly being the greatest female fighter in MMA history.
In other main card action, former interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit looks to snap a four-fight skid when he takes on lightweight transplant Michael Chiesa, light heavyweight contenders Ilir Latifi and Corey Anderson compete to get one step closer to a title shot, and Chad Mendes faces fast-rising featherweight Alexander Volkanovski.
What: UFC 232
Where: The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
When: Saturday, Dec. 29. The four-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:15 p.m. ET, the four-fight FOX Sports 1 preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson
Alexander Gustafsson is such a wonderful stylistic matchup for Jon Jones that you can understand why so many have been clamoring for him to get a second crack at becoming the first fighter to truly beat “Bones”.
The lead-up to UFC 165 revolved around Gustafsson being able to match Jones’s measurements, not the most electrifying build, but an aspect that proved to be important when the two ended up going toe-to-toe for 25 minutes. What wasn’t spoken of enough was Gustafsson’s excellent agility and footwork; at times, he moves more with the grace of an NBA guard than a cagefighter. This is what allowed him to befuddle Jones in their standup exchanges and neutralize Jones’s wrestling.
That said, I’m leaning towards Jones because he is at his best when facing the best competition. Some might forget that in the first encounter it was Jones who finished stronger, forcing himself to adapt and level up during the fight as it dawned upon him what a threat Gustafsson was. The same could be said of the second Cormier fight that saw Jones put down the best version of “DC” with a perfectly timed head kick (a result that has technically been stricken from the record books after Jones failed a drug test). By every indication, Jones is intent on improving on his first performance against Gustafsson, and if he’s locked in mentally, this could be the most potent version of Jones yet.
Gustafsson will go another five rounds with Jones as his only losses by finish came against Phil Davis, when Gustafsson’s ground game was still a work-in-progress, and Anthony Johnson, who has nearly unmatched one-punch KO power. This will be another war of attrition, one that I see Jones winning and by a more comfortable margin this time.
Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes
I’m picking Amanda Nunes.
Yes, going against Cris Cyborg is insane on paper given that the longtime queen of the featherweight division hasn’t tasted defeat, or really been seriously challenged, in over 13 years (!); however, I feel comfortable saying that Nunes is her best opponent and far superior to anyone that Cyborg has ever fought outside of Holly Holm. And she has definitely never been in the cage with an opponent who can match her aggressiveness and raw power.
On the other hand, Nunes has never faced someone with Cyborg’s combination of kickboxing expertise and size either. She had trouble defeating the much smaller Valentina Shevchenko, narrowly outpointing “Bullet” by split decision, and that doesn’t bode well for her chances against Cyborg in the standup department.
Yet I can still see Nunes’s catching Cyborg with one of those winging hooks she’s so fond of or going with a grappling-heavy attack and testing Cyborg’s jiu-jitsu. The onus is on Nunes to take Cyborg into areas of the fight that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable to her and she’s capable of doing it. Even standing and brawling would be a better option for her than trying to win a tactical battle against Cyborg.
I’ve said for years that if the right challenger came along, I’d predict a Cyborg loss. Nunes is that challenger.
Pick: Amanda Nunes
Carlos Condit vs. Michael Chiesa
This could be an unpleasant experience for fans of “The Natural Born Killer”.
The fan favorite veteran has won just two of his last nine contests and he just hasn’t looked the same since losing a five-round split decision to Robbie Lawler in one of the most brutal fights ever at UFC 195. While he’s always been a game fighter off of his back, Condit’s grappling deficiencies have been badly exposed in his losses to Alex Oliveira, Neil Magny, and Demian Maia.
Michael Chiesa isn’t quite the specimen that Magny is, but the former 155er is going to be comfortable size-wise against Condit and he may employ a strategy similar to Magny’s: Use his jab, close the distance, and get Condit down where he can’t open up with his spectacular striking.
As stiff a challenge as this is for Chiesa’s first welterweight fight, it still feels like he’ll be too much for Condit on the ground and that will be enough for him to pick up a win and extend Condit’s career-worst slump.
Ilir Latifi vs. Corey Anderson
The game plan for Corey Anderson will be the same as it always is: look for the takedown early and often and maintain control for three rounds. It’s a formula that’s served him well in his UFC career, though against a tree stump like Ilir Latifi it won’t be so easy to implement.
Simply put, Latifi has never been taken down in 10 UFC contests. It’s worth noting that he’s never faced a wrestler of Anderson’s caliber except for Ryan Bader, who’s flying knee finish early in their contest meant we never got to see him test Latifi’s wrestling defense. Latifi is a stout 5-foot-10 and while Anderson should be able to score a takedown, holding Latifi on the mat is another story.
Latifi is a constant threat to finish and just has more ways to win, so look for him to score an early KO or submission in this one.
Chad Mendes vs. Alexander Volkanovski
Chad Mendes is going to see a lot of similarities in this matchup with Alexander Volkanovski and also plenty of headaches.
The two featherweights are both compact and explosive fighters, with Mendes having a slight speed advantage and Volkanovski the longer reach. Mendes has made a career out of having great cardio and top control, plus elite wrestling that will make him Volkanovski’s toughest test to date.
In Volkanovski’s favor is not just his reach but also his patience and counter-wrestling. The Australian has shown that he’s comfortable grinding for takedowns against the fence and also capitalizing on his opponent’s mistakes when they try to shoot on him. Combined with his varied striking arsenal, he’s going to present some major problems for Mendes.
This is as close as any of the matchups on the main card, but I like Volkanovski to pull off the minor upset via decision.
Walt Harris def. Andrei Arlovski
Megan Anderson def. Cat Zingano
Petr Yan def. Douglas Silva de Andrade
Ryan Hall def. B.J. Penn
Nathaniel Wood def. Andre Ewell
Uriah Hall def. Bevon Lewis
Curtis Millender def. Siyar Bahadurzada
Brian Kelleher def. Montel Jackson