The light heavyweight championship is on the line this weekend at UFC 192 in Houston. Daniel Cormier will seek his first title defense against Alexander Gustafsson, under the shadow of former champion Jon Jones, who remains under indefinite suspension due to disciplinary reasons.
The co-main welterweight matchup between Johny Hendricks and Tyron Woodley was taken off the card Friday after Hendricks had issues cutting weight. Don't agree with my predictions? Or perhaps you find them insightful and spot-on, and you'd wish to compliment me? Do so on Twitter: @bokamotoESPN.
Daniel Cormier (16-1) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (16-3)
Light heavyweight championship
Odds: Cormier minus-340; Gustafsson plus-280
It has now been two years since Gustafsson fought Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title at UFC 165. As you may recall, virtually no one gave him a chance to win. Although Gustafsson did ultimately lose, he shocked the MMA world along the way, taking Jones to the very brink of defeat in a close decision loss.
As his second chance to win UFC gold approaches, is history repeating itself? Are we overlooking Gustafsson again?
To answer that, it might be worth looking at how Gustafsson shocked us the first time. We probably underestimated the significance of his size (although I'm not sure how that's possible -- the UFC plastered Gustafsson's measurements on every poster and advertisement it produced for that event). But I'm not sure that was the main ingredient of Gustafsson's (near) success against Jones.
The reason Gustafsson, 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, almost beat Jones is that he rose to the occasion and brought a few wrinkles that weren't there before. He wasn't the exact guy Jones had studied on tape. His defense was better. His footwork was better. Within the first round, Jones realized how difficult Gustafsson was to take down, and by that time he had a real fight on his hands. Jones is a freakish talent and made the necessary adjustments, but Gustafsson surprised him with improvements and aspects to his game that hadn't been as finely tuned before as they were on that night.
I bring all this up because Gustafsson is going to need to do that again. Stylistically, there's a reason he's an underdog. Since day one, Cormier has been built to close gaps on bigger, longer opponents and either land inside punches or lift them off the ground and throw them on their heads. He has gotten very good at both. Gustafsson has footwork and speed that many of Cormier's previous opponents have lacked -- but the fact is, Cormier will get his hands on Gustafsson. The Swede can't keep this on the outside all night, and while he's certainly not a soft puncher, Anthony Johnson showed zero respect for his power when it came to a willingness to march forward.
Once Cormier initiates that clinch, is the fight over? This is where Gustafsson has to surprise us. When Jones fought Cormier, he embraced the clinch and challenged Cormier at his own game. Jones didn't use his reach much, but he still used his five-inch height advantage and physicality on Cormier. If Gustafsson can defend Cormier's takedown -- a big if -- and somewhat match him offensively in the clinch, we'll be on Gustafsson upset alert again. If he makes Cormier pay on the inside, he'll likely have more chances to force him into an outside fight. The latter probably doesn't happen without the former.
The early key to watch here is how Gustafsson performs in the clinch (and, obviously, if he's able to stay upright). He has had success in the clinch before. Don't forget, his previous win came in the form of a knee to Jimi Manuwa's chin from that position. But he'll have to be better in tight than he has ever been before in his career. The high-volume attack from the outside is not going to be enough on its own. He has to be able to fight Cormier in the trenches early, just as Jones did.
I think Gustafsson will hold his own, but the problem with takedowns is you can defend the first five, but if you give up the sixth, you've lost the battle. Cormier clinches, wrestles and ground-and-pounds his way to victory.
PREDICTION: Cormier by decision.
Rest of the main card
Rashad Evans (19-3-1) vs. Ryan Bader (19-4), light heavyweights:
Which do you prefer: experience and versatility with Evans, or pace and momentum with Bader? Tough call.
PREDICTION: Bader by decision.
Jessica Eye (11-3) vs. Julianna Pena (6-2), women's bantamweights:
Eye is more technical, as is usually the case, but Pena's physicality can be overwhelming. No surprise she's the favorite.
PREDICTION: Pena by decision.