UFC 235: 10 things we learned as Jon Jones retains belt, Kamaru Usman makes history
A couple times each year, the UFC puts together stacked fight cards that feature terrific matchups from top to bottom.
UFC 235 was one of those cards.
Comprised of an intoxicating mix of prospects, contenders, former champions and title fights, Saturday’s fight card at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas was the first in a number of months that had everyone counting down the days until the action hit the Octagon.
And once things got under way, the early results exceeded expectations while the championship bouts delivered dominant performances.
In the wake of the most entertaining, enjoyable and interesting night of action this year in the UFC, it’s time to take a look at the biggest takeaways and talking points from Saturday night.
Here are 10 things we learned Saturday night.
1. And still
Jon Jones retained the light heavyweight championship on Saturday night in Las Vegas, crafting a shutout against challenger Anthony Smith in the main event of UFC 235, the first time he’s successfully defended the title since his UFC 172 win over Glover Teixeira.
After a methodical start, Jones opened up on Smith in the championship rounds, busting up the challenger before losing two points in the final seconds of the frame after landing an illegal knee. While Smith started more aggressive in the fifth, Jones weathered the attack and went back on the offensive, salting things away and pushing his unbeaten streak to 16 overall.
The point deduction made the final scores look wonky, but make no mistake – this was a dominant effort from the long-time titleholder, who reclaimed his throne just over 60 days ago. This was another performance that highlights just how tactical and technical a fighter Jones is and how demoralizing it must be to stand opposite him in the Octagon, as the usually aggressive Smith had absolutely nothing to offer “Bones” in this one.
2. Kamaru Usman, UFC welterweight champion
Kamaru Usman is the new UFC welterweight champion.
Saturday night, “The Nigerian Nightmare” pitched a shutout against Tyron Woodley, dominating the reigning champion from start to finish to earn a clean sweep of the scorecards and claim the throne.
From the very beginning, the challenger pressed forward and controlled Woodley, grinding on “The Chosen One” and punishing him with a steady diet of knees and punches to the body. Late in the fourth, Usman hurt Woodley and pushed to finish, but couldn’t get the champion out of there, not that it really made a difference.
This was one of the most lopsided wins turned in by a challenger in recent championship history, reminiscent of Rafael dos Anjos’ drubbing of Anthony Pettis at UFC 185. Usman was relentless and controlled Woodley in every facet, beating the champion at his own game to complete his 10-fight climb to the top of the welterweight division.
Having now won 14 straight, Usman’s first title defense is likely already set up, as former interim champ Colby Covington stands at the ready, though it will be interesting to see if the brash American Top Team product wants any part of the new champion after this performance.
In claiming the title, Usman enters the history books as the first fighter from Africa to win UFC gold.
3. Champions facing challengers, as it should be
While the twin championship fights were far from barnburners, Saturday marked the first time in a long time that champions defended their belts against deserving challengers, and although you could argue it should have been Covington in the cage with Woodley, Usman’s nine-fight winning streak was more than enough to merit a title shot as well.
This is how it used to be and how it should be far more frequently going forward.
There was too long of a period where the UFC was putting together flashy matchups and “Champion vs. Champion” clashes, passing over competitors who had earned their way into title contention. Not only did it result in possible contenders getting killed off and divisions stagnating, but it also took away some of what makes those few massive fights each year feel truly special.
Rather than picking and choosing who is going to get the next title shot, keep lining up the contenders and have the champions continue to try to knock them down. Both Jones and Usman have obvious challengers in line and others waiting in the wings, so keep them active, keep the divisions moving forward and see if something memorable can’t come together organically down the line.
4. Ben Askren’s wild, crazy debut
UFC newcomer Ben Askren was easily the breakout star of UFC 235 Fight Week, riding shotgun with his long-time friend and teammate Tyron Woodley and having all kinds of fun. But then he stepped into the Octagon on Saturday night against former champ Robbie Lawler, where things got real in a hurry before getting really confusing.
Askren looked for a takedown almost immediately and Lawler defended well, scooping the former Bellator and ONE champ into the air and slamming him to the canvas with a modified version of Jon Cena’s finisher. “Brutal Bob” started elbowing him from top position, opening a cut next to Askren’s right eye and it looked like the much ballyhooed debut would be over quickly, but the former University of Missouri standout survived and started to rally.
With Lawler tied up along the fence, Askren looked to take his back and when the veteran finisher countered, the Roufusport product grabbed hold of a bulldog choke, which appeared to render Lawler unconscious. But when referee Herb Dean stopped the fight and separated them, Lawler objected right away, turning the finish into a controversial stoppage.
While the ending wasn’t what anyone wanted, Askren still managed to show he belongs in the UFC. Most fighters would have looked for the exit after getting hit with that Death Valley Driver and Lawler’s elbows from top position, but Askren weathered the storm and went back on the offensive.
The early stoppage sullies the final verdict, but this was a quality showing for “Funky” and he should get another shot at a top welterweight next time out.
5. Zhang Outworks Torres for biggest win yet
Weili Zhang extended her winning streak to 19 on Saturday night, using her strength and power advantages to collect a unanimous decision win over Top 10 fixture Tecia Torres in a spirited battle in the strawweight division.
After mauling Jessica Aguilar last time out, Zhang had to work much harder for this one, as Torres matched her in strikes and scrambles throughout the first two rounds. But in the third, the Chinese upstart was able to gain a decisive edge, controlling Torres on the ground down the stretch to get the nod from all three judges.
This is a serious breakthrough win for Zhang, who faced unranked opponents in each of her first two UFC starts. But Torres is an established figure in the division, having shared the cage with the cream of the crop in the 115-pound weight class, and Zhang proved on Saturday that she’s going to be ready to face those same elite talents pretty soon.
6. Massive win for Pedro Munhoz
Pedro Munhoz picked up the biggest win of his career on Saturday night, scoring a first-round knockout win over former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt in a performance that should elevate him into the title conversation.
Early in the fight, Munhoz attacked with low kicks, prompting Garbrandt to switch his stance. Midway through the frame, the two seemed to clash heads during an exchange, leading to Munhoz getting top position momentarily. When they got back to their feet, Garbrandt pressed forward angrily and the Brazilian was happy to engage.
The duo stood toe-to-toe, winging massive shots at one another. When one would land, the other would respond, bringing the crowd to their feet. But late in the frame, Munhoz landed clean inside one of Garbrandt’s wide hooks, spinning the former titleholder to the ground and finishing him there.
This was a tremendous performance for Munhoz, who has now won three straight and seven of his last eight to establish himself as a legitimate title contender. As for Garbrandt, it’s a third straight stoppage loss where his willingness to exchange and faith in his chin has let him down.
7. Magomedsharipov passes another test
One of the most hyped prospects on the UFC roster and someone viewed as a potential championship contender, Zabit Magomedsharipov stepped into the cage for the toughest test of his career, squaring off with perennial tough out Jeremy Stephens in Saturday’s final preliminary card fight.
Though he slowed late in the contest, the rising star recorded his fifth straight UFC victory, outworking Stephens over three rounds to secure a unanimous decision win. While it wasn’t as flashy as some of his previous outings, it was a triumphant effort against a Top 10 opponent and the kind of win that should elevate Magomedsharipov to the fringes of contention going forward.
Affectionately known as “Zabeast,” the surging featherweight from Dagestan has shown flashes of elite upside and continues to make small improvements between each appearance. Stephens is a handful and Magomedsharipov used a smart, tactical approach to out-work him throughout the first two rounds before coasting to the finish.
The 145-pound ranks are flush with talent at the top and the streaking upstart should find himself in the cage with someone residing in the Top 5 next time out.
8. Johnny Walker: Straight, no chaser
Johnny Walker’s first two UFC appearances lasted just over two minutes combined and propelled the Brazilian light heavyweight to cult hero status right out of the gate. But after two quick wins, many wondered how Walker would fare with a step up in competition on Saturday night against Misha Cirkunov.
Walker finished him in 36 seconds, dropping the Latvian-Canadian with a flying knee that landed flush and had the Las Vegas-based grappler covering up right away.
In the last 28 days, inclusive, Walker has registered two wins in a combined 52 seconds and over the last eight months, Walker has collected three stoppage wins, running his winning streak to nine in the process.
While he’s carefree and playful on the way to the cage and not overly serious when the fight starts, the 26-year-old looks like a real problem in the light heavyweight division going forward. He has tremendous size, moves exceptionally well and clearly has explosive power and if he keeps this up as he continues to climb the rankings, the charismatic emerging talent could find himself in the title mix sooner rather than later.
9. Not done yet
Nearly 14 years after defeating Kenny Florian to become the first “The Ultimate Fighter” and more than a decade after his last finish inside the Octagon, Diego Sanchez proved that he’s still got something left, pounding out a second-round stoppage win against Mickey Gall in the first televised preliminary card fight of the night.
While Gall came out aggressively, Sanchez stood his ground and once he was able to take the fight to the canvas, the veteran was able to dominate and break Gall’s will. After controlling the second half of the opening round, Sanchez took charge in the second round, eventually climbing into mount and collecting the stoppage behind a torrent of unanswered elbows and punches.
The 37-year-old has now won back-to-back contests inside the Octagon for the first time since his controversial win over Martin Kampmann gave him a tidy two-fight winning streak. Constantly counted out and questioned for continuing to fight, “The Nightmare” showed on Saturday that he’s still got a little something left in the tank.
10. Sophomores shine
Edmen Shahbazyan and Macy Chiasson both made their sophomore appearances inside the Octagon on Saturday night and they each wasted little time getting the job done.
Shahbazyan, who is the third youngest fighter on the UFC roster and the first fighter signed to Ronda Rousey’s One Fight Management team competing in the Octagon, scored a first-round stoppage win over fellow Contender Series alum Charles Byrd, stuffing an early takedown attempt and hurting the veteran with a series of elbows to the side of the head. Just 38 seconds after it started, Shahbazyan has secured his second UFC win and extended his winning streak to nine to begin his career.
One fight earlier, Chiasson made her debut at bantamweight after winning Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter” at 145 pounds. Paired off with local veteran Gina Mazany, the Fortis MMA product pushed forward behind wide power shots, putting one on Mazany’s chin and bring the fight to a halt just before the two-minute mark of the opening round.
Both neophytes have solid potential, but are still very green and very early in their respective careers. While they looked impressive on Saturday night, the UFC would be wise to bring them along slowly and give them a chance to continue stacking wins and starting to make a name for themselves.