It’s not every day that the UFC schedules its top two pound-for pound fighters for fights at the same event. While neither Jon Jones nor Demetrious Johnson are the company’s top draws, they are the finest at their craft, and UFC 197 is a rare opportunity to catch them both.
Neither man has a true defeat at his current weight class. Jones’ lone career loss came via controversial disqualification in 2009, while Johnson’s only semi-setback at flyweight was a 2012 draw in his debut at 125 pounds — he won a rematch in his next bout.
Both are in championship bouts, although Jones is the challenger after legal issues led to him being stripped of the light heavyweight title. Johnson, on the other hand, is the only man to hold the UFC’s flyweight crown.
Read on for more on the fights that matter in a busy April full of important bouts. All rankings in parentheses come from my personal rankings, which are available to view in full at www.ufc.com/rankings.
April 10: UFC Fight Night: Rothwell vs. dos Santos (Zagreb, Croatia)
- Heavyweight: Ben Rothwell (2) vs. Junior dos Santos (4)
- Women’s strawweight: Maryna Moroz (10) vs. Cristina Stanciu
On a card littered with less-heralded heavyweights, the main event is a true must-watch contest. While dos Santos has fallen on hard times since losing his championship to Cain Velasquez, his boxing prowess gives him a good chance against the well-rounded Rothwell. Look for him to get back on track with a late-round TKO.
At about half the weight of the headliners, Moroz is the only other ranked fighter on the card. She welcomes a fellow prospect, unbeaten Stanciu, to the octagon. This is a tossup, but experience favors Moroz to earn another submission.
April 16: UFC on Fox: Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson (Tampa, Florida)
- Lightweight: Tony Ferguson (1) vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
- Light heavyweight: Glover Teixeira (3) vs. Rashad Evans (9)
- Lightweight: Beneil Dariush (4) vs. Michael Chiesa (12)
- Women’s strawweight: Tecia Torres (3) vs. Rose Namajunas (8)
- Bantamweight: John Dodson (2 FLW) vs. Manvel Gamburyan
- Featherweight: Cub Swanson (6) vs. Hacran Dias (11)
- Middleweight: Lyoto Machida (6) vs. Dan Henderson (12)
- Women’s bantamweight: Bethe Correia (11) vs. Raquel Pennington (14)
It’s hard to recall a more stacked card that didn’t cost around $50 to watch.
The network TV headliner features two of the top three lightweights in the sport. As a matter of fact, the unbeaten Nurmagomedov was the last man to beat champion Rafael dos Anjos. He’s been sidelined by injuries, but his suffocating, grappling-heavy style should neutralize the all-offense game of Ferguson to earn a championship rematch.
The cofeature at 205 pounds favors Teixeira. Former champ Evans isn’t a championship-level fighter anymore, and Teixeira should win a decision behind his superior boxing.
Dariush’s spot in the top five is tenuous — his last win over Michael Johnson is considered a loss in many minds. He’s got a tough challenge against another grappling-oriented fighter in Chiesa. It’s a tough call, but the pick is Chiesa by decision.
Torres already defeated Namajunas in 2013, and a second win should earn her a title shot later this year. Namajunas looked excellent in her win over Paige VanZant, but Torres is a different breed who should win another decision.
Dodson returns to 135 pounds after his second loss to the flyweight champ, and he’s got a real chance to enter the bantamweight title picture quickly. Navigating Gamburyan’s takedown prowess won’t be easy, but Dodson packs a wallop and should fight a way to finish the fight.
Swanson followed a six-fight win streak with two losses in a row. Making sure Dias doesn’t extend the skid won’t be easy, but the finish-minded Swanson should find a way to end it one way or another.
Machida edged Henderson in a lackluster light heavyweight bout three years ago. At 45, Hendo’s chin has worn thin, and Machida will take advantage in a very violent way.
Correia’s self-promotion earned her a title shot last year, but she remains only a midlevel 135-pounder. She could be in trouble against tough out Pennington, who should win a close decision.
April 23: UFC 197 (Las Vegas)
- Light heavyweight title: Daniel Cormier (C, 12 pound-for-pound) vs. Jon Jones (1, 1 P4P)
- Flyweight title: Demetrious Johnson (C, 2 P4P) vs. Henry Cejudo (3)
- Lightweight: Anthony Pettis (3) vs. Edson Barboza (7)
- Women’s strawweight: Carla Esparza (4) vs. Juliana Lima (13)
- Middleweight: Rafael Natal (7) vs. Robert Whittaker (9)
- Featherweight: Yair Rodriguez (14) vs. Andre Fili
Jones last fight before being stripped of his title was a convincing decision against Cormier. While D.C. has been an impressive champion in his own right, he needs a win to legitimize his reign. Unfortunately for the champ, Jones is just a better fighter, and he’ll prove it again.
Johnson has been so dominant at 125 pounds that it’s hard to imagine Cejudo succeeding where better fighters have failed. He’ll be a game opponent, but look for Johnson to tap out the challenger at some point.
Anything short of a Fight of the Night winner would be a disappointment for Pettis-Barboza. Former champion Pettis is the more dynamic striker, but not by much. Because of that, he the slight favorite to win via TKO.
Esparza, the former champion, should be a step above Lima. She’ll win a decision as long as a yearlong layoff hasn’t left her too rusty.
A pivotal middleweight bout between Natal and Whittaker figures to produce a potential title challenger for 2017. Whittaker’s striking give him the edge, and he should end Natal’s night early.
Rodriguez’s early returns in the UFC are impressive. He’s not likely to rise much in the rankings with a win, but he’ll get the victory nonetheless.
Outside the octagon...
April 2: World Series of Fighting 30 (Las Vegas)
- Middleweight title: Dave Branch (C) vs. Clifford Starks
- Welterweight: Jon Fitch vs. Joao Zeferino
Branch, who also reigns as WSOF’s light heavyweight champ, is a cut above Starks. Look for the New Yorker to retain his middleweight strap via submission.
Fitch isn’t an elite 170-pounder anymore, but he remains a tough out. In the rich Fitch tradition, this fight should go his way on the judges’ score cards.
April 15: ONE Championship 40 (Manila, Philippines)
- Welterweight title: Ben Askren (C) vs. Nikolay Aleksakhin
The title at stake is misleading. ONE Championship now has its welterweight limit at 185 pounds — the typical middleweight max. All that said, Askren should roll here. He is perhaps the top non-UFC welterweight in the world for a reason.
April 22: Bellator 153 (Uncasville, Connecticut)
- Welterweight title: Andrey Koreshkov (C) vs. Benson Henderson
- Featherweight: Patricio Freire vs. John Teixeira
Henderson, the high-profile free agent acquisition and former UFC lightweight champion, should be favored to beat the champ, but don’t write off Koreshkov completely. Henderson is still untested against upper-level welterweights, and Koreshkov is Bellator’s best. Still, Henderson is a smart bet to win a decision.
Freire will look to bounce back after losing his 145-pound title. His aggression should lead to an early finish of Teixeira.