UFC 197 Preview: Return of the GOAT?

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DC_vs._Jones_2This Saturday night sees the return to the UFC Octagon of former Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones (21-1) up against Haitian fighter Ovince Saint Preux (19-7) for the interim title.

This is the first time we will have seen Jones in 15 months following the incidents around this time last year that saw him stripped of his title and suspended from the UFC for around 5 months. Now back, he was expected to duke it out with rival Daniel Cormier (17-1) but the Louisiana native suffered an injury, leading to Saint Preux coming in at short notice to fight Jones.

That caps off a great card full of interesting prospects and returning fighters as well as an incredible co-main event between Flyweight King Demetrious Johnson (23-2-1) and undefeated Olympic Gold Medallist Henry Cejudo (10-0).

Here are full fight breakdowns and predictions for the entire event, set to go down in the MGM Garden Grand Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Fight Pass Prelims

Efrain Escudero (24-10) vs Kevin Lee (11-2): The first fight of the night features one of the many interesting prospects on the card in the shape of the ‘Motown Phenom’ Kevin Lee. Lee is a highly rated fighter at lightweight but comes into this one on the back of an upset knockout loss to Leonardo Santos (15-3-1) in December. Escudero, a UFC veteran of 13 fights, also comes into this fight fresh off of a loss, with his coming in his native Mexico against Brazilian grinded Leandro Silva (19-3-1). This fight will be a test of how much Lee has learned from that defeat to Santos and I fully expect him to have picked up a lot, especially against someone like Escudero who seems to have firmly plateaued as a fighter. Prediction: Lee via unanimous decision.

Clint Hester (11-5) vs Marcos Rogerio De Lima (13-3-1): Another fight on this card comprised of two men coming off losses, this bout also marks Clint ‘Headbussa’ Hester’s debut at Light Heavyweight. Hester has moved up after suffering KO losses to Robert Whittaker and Vitor Miranda (12-4) at Middleweight but this fight will not hold much better prospects for the American. His fight IQ was the reason he got KO’d twice and whilst Pezao’s is not particularly high either, the Brazilian packs a harder punch and will likely find his mark fairly quickly and secure the win. Prediction: Rogerio de Lima via first round KO.

Cody East (12-1) vs Walt Harris (7-4): The Fight Pass portion of the PPV is capped off with a heavyweight clash between East, the former Legacy FC Heavyweight Champion, and Walt Harris. East was the latest fighter to be signed up as part of the show ‘Dana White’s Looking for a Fight’ and will make his debut at this event against Harris, currently 0-3 in two spells with the UFC. East is a powerful heavyweight striker, mixing in good kicks with strong punches and whilst Harris is no slouch, he is too hittable and expect East to make a statement and take Looking for a Fight fighters to 4-0 in their UFC debuts. Prediction: East via first round TKO.

Fox Sports 1 Prelims

James Vick (8-0) vs Glaico Franca (13-3): American lightweight James Vick returns to the cage in this contest against TUF: Brazil 4 winner Glaico Franca. Franca won all his fights on the show by submission before taking a decision over Fernando Bruno (15-3) at UFC 190 in the final. Vick is a top prospect at 155 pounds but has yet to put on an incredibly impressive performance, perhaps the closest to that being his win last May against Australian prospect Jake Matthews (10-1). Vick has always had a height and reach advantage in his fights due to his lanky frame but that will be reduced against submission threat Franca. However, Vick’s takedown defence and sprawl game will be enough to counter the Brazilian’s takedowns and his striking game is the far more refined. Prediction: Vick via unanimous decision.

Danny Roberts (12-1) vs Dominique Steele (14-6): This fight definitely on paper appears to be one of the easier ones to call across the fight card. Roberts, a top English prospect, made an instant impact in his UFC debut back in December, finishing veteran Nathan Coy (15-6) with a choke midway through the first. With five wins by knockout and five by submission, Roberts is a finishing threat and is far more dynamic than his American opponent. Prediction: Roberts via second round TKO.

#2 Carla Esparza (10-3) vs #14 Juliana Lima (8-2): This fight sees the first appearance of the inaugural UFC Strawweight champion Carla Esparza following her March 2015 title TKO loss to Joanna Jedrzejczyk (11-0). She is a short-notice replacement for former WSOF Strawweight Champion Jessica Aguilar (19-5) after the Mexican tore her ACL in preparation for the fight. Most of the issues Esparza faced in her title loss will be recurring problems as the division continues to evolve and bigger women come through but her wrestling should be effective against the Brazilian Lima. This fight will likely be dominated by grinding and fighting in the clinch where they should be fairly evenly matched and therefore will come down to the few striking exchanges, where Esparza is certainly more fluid. Prediction: Esparza via unanimous decision.

#14 Sergio Pettis (13-2) vs Chris Kelades (9-2): A TKO defeat to Ryan Benoit (8-4) threatened to derail the momentum of Sergio Pettis last March but he got back on track last September with a decision win over Chris Cariaso (17-8). His underrated wrestling and impressive striking should put him at a level above the crafty Greek-Canadian fighter Kelades, but he has proved he cannot be ruled out of any fight. Upset wins over Patrick Holohan (12-2-1) and Chris Beal (10-2) have showed Kelades is always a live dog and his all-round skill set threatens to spoil the party for ‘The Phenom’. Prediction: Pettis via unanimous decision.

Main Card

Yair Rodriguez (6-1) vs Andre Fili (15-3): A fight between two of the UFC’s brightest featherweight prospects with the winner possibly moving into the Top 15 or at least into a matchup in future with a Top 15 opponent. If the UFC has a particular fighter they want to win this one it will be the Mexican Rodriguez who won the first season of TUF: Latin America and will be key in they seek to further the foothold they are trying to establish in Mexico. Fili is a very good fighter as well though, currently fighting out of Team Alpha Male, but has always lost his momentum just as he looks as though he is about to make a major push to stardom. The same things looks as though it might happen here. Prediction: Rodriguez by unanimous decision.

#7 Robert Whittaker (15-4) vs #13 Rafael Natal (21-6-1): Much as Rodriguez is a star for a potential international expansion of the UFC, the same would be true of middleweight of Robert Whittaker, who has won three straight since his move up to middleweight. Whilst some were surprised that he got matched with ‘Sapo’ Natal this time and did not receive a higher ranked opponent, it is a match that will test him and prove that the ranking he has achieved is deserved. Natal has a great Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu background but always seems keen to stand and strike with his opponents, something that has cost him in the past and will cost him here against someone who hits very hard. Prediction: Whittaker via second round TKO.

#3 Anthony Pettis (18-4) vs #8 Edson Barboza (16-4): Former WEC and UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis returns to the cage tonight against Brazilian striker Edson Barboza looking to get back in the win column. Losses to Rafael Dos Anjos (25-7) and Eddie Alvarez (27-4) have put Pettis on a two-fight skid and therefore he almost finds himself in a must-win situation against the Brazilian, who himself is coming off a defeat to Tony Ferguson (20-3). The issues Pettis had against Dos Anjos and Alvarez, where their wrestling limited his offence, will not be as big an issue against Barboza who is more a striker. However, Barboza is amazing on the fight and will push the former champion all the way but ultimately Pettis has a good enough chin and good enough cardio. Prediction: Pettis via unanimous decision.

Flyweight Title: (C) Demetrious Johnson (23-2-1) vs #2 Henry Cejudo (10-0): The co-main event of this stacked card features the fighter I would argue is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson. The man has defended the title seven times now and the most remarkable thing has been that he has shown considerable improvement in every fight, showing constant evolution and showing what it means to be a fighting champion. Against 2008 Olympic Wrestling Gold Medallist Henry Cejudo, he will be facing the best wrestler he has ever fought before and that could challenge him. Cejudo’s wrestling though has been complemented in his MMA career to date by an impressive stand-up arsenal. However, the weight cut for Cejudo is tougher than it is for Johnson and therefore whilst his wrestling will be a feature early, he will fade as the fight enters the championship rounds and he lacks the finishing power to put Mighty Mouse away. Expect Mighty Mouse to remain champion at the end of the night. Prediction: Johnson via unanimous decision.

Interim Light Heavyweight Title: #1 Jon Jones (21-1) vs #6 Ovince Saint Preux (19-7): Seeing Jon Jones back in the UFC Octagon is huge and something for large parts of 2015 many of us thought we would not see ever again. Credit must be given to the Haitian Saint Preux for taking this fight on short notice but this is Jones’ fight to lose. He is so rangy and tall and has all the assets to shut down Saint Preux’s game. It is unlikely that this fight will end too early as Jones is likely to be a little reserved in the first couple of rounds, looking to get some cage time and not overcommit and then get tagged and suffer an upset loss. That said, his power should come into play and be the deciding factor as the fight progresses. Prediction: Jones via third round TKO.

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