Opportunities abound for the key players of Saturday’s UFC 235, and now come their moments of truth.
Light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, having submitted to a record number of drug tests following four years of career turbulence, has the potential to thrust himself beyond the negativity by defending his belt barely two months after recapturing it.
Underappreciated welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, in his fifth title defense, looks to extend his unbeaten run dating to 2014 against a remarkably fit challenger in Kamaru Usman and elevate his position in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings.
And Woodley’s close friend and training partner Ben Askren makes his anticipated UFC debut after already displaying a captivating personality that carries potential to make him a forceful draw.
Jones (23-1) is tagged by the biggest question mark given his 2015 street drug use that led to his belt being stripped, and performance-enhancing-drug positive test results that brought suspensions in each of the next two years.
“This camp has been controversy-free and I’m grateful. I have nothing to hide and nothing [about Smith] concerns me,” Jones said.
“He’s a talented athlete who’s earned his way to fight for the highest medal in combat sports. He’s obviously a threat. I’m excited to fight against a young, hungry challenger — the new blood — to keep me on my toes. I’m here for it to be hard. Thank goodness that’s the lane I’m back traveling in.”
Smith recognizes Jones’ rare talent, but the challenger says his skills have peaked while going 3-0 as a light-heavyweight since moving up in weight help him while Jones’ attention to improvement has been distracted.
“What I’m seeing is that Jon isn’t doing a lot of skill building because of all that outside stuff he’s had to deal with,” Smith said.
Woodley (19-3-1) is ranked No. 6 in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings after capturing his belt in 2016 against rugged veteran Robbie Lawler, who fights Askren (18-0) on Saturday.
In defending his belt previously, Woodley weathered two complex, patient challenges from Stephen Thompson, snapped a long winning streak by veteran Demian Maia and knocked out touted English challenger Darren Till.
Still, UFC leadership and fans have sought more violent entertainment from the champion.
“I feel I’m competing against myself, against my last performance,” Woodley said. “It’s about being humble and putting the gas down like never before.”
Nigerian-born Usman (14-1) on Thursday confronted criticism of his placement in the title fight by top-rated welterweight contender Colby Covington (14-1), who attended Usman’s workout with a megaphone and a “Make America Great Again” cap on and called Usman “boring.”
Covington filmed his complaint to White, who was seated at a gaming table in Las Vegas. Flustered and angered, White told the former interim champion to go away.
“My confidence is not wavering now that I’m here,” Usman said. “I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I know I can last longer than he can. A lot of guys decline after the first round. It’s a human trait. But I get better. I climb a ladder as the fight goes on.
“I dominate and dictate where the fight will take place. That’s something he hasn’t faced yet.”
Woodley has taken comfort in being accompanied on a UFC card for the first time by his former University of Missouri wrestling teammate Askren, a two-time NCAA champion who was acquired via an unprecedented trade with the Japan-based One Championship that sent former long-reigning UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson to One.
Lawler takes no insult in being assigned to Askren’s showcase debut.
“I’m not into thinking big picture,” Lawler said. “I’m into the small picture of winning a fight, and that becomes a big picture naturally, so I’ll focus on beating Ben Askren and the big picture will show up. I’m treating it as the next step I need to take.”
The charismatic Askren sees a victory over Lawler as a way to further his push for the UFC to create a new 165-pound division, since he refuses to harm his friendship with Woodley by seeking his belt.
“You’re not going to out-grapple me, you’re not going to outlast me … the only guy who can [effectively compete] has decent wrestling defense and heavy hands [like Lawler], so my job is pretty straightforward: close the distance, stay close and don’t let him unload those power shots — to make his night a long, miserable 15 minutes,” Askren said.
“Pretty cut and dry. I know my game plan. I have to execute. I’m going to do that.”
Main Event: Jon Jones (23-1) vs. Anthony Smith (31-13) for Jones’ light-heavyweight belt
When: Saturday, pay-per-view portion begins at 7 p.m.
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Undercard: Tyron Woodley (19-3-1) vs. Kamaru Usman (14-1) for Woodley’s welterweight belt; Ben Askren (18-0) vs. Robbie Lawler (28-12), welterweights; Tecia Torres (10-3) vs. Weili Zhang (18-1), women’s straw-weights; Cody Garbrandt (11-2) vs. Pedro Munhoz (17-3), bantamweights