For the first time in more than 15 months, Jon Jones will return to the Octagon.
The UFC's top-ranked light heavyweight, and pound-for-pound king, Jones (21-1, 15-1 UFC) will headline Saturday's UFC 197 (10 P.M. EST, Pay Per View) main card, taking on late replacement Ovince St. Preux (19-7, 7-2 UFC) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The two fighters will vie for a UFC interim title.
Jones, the former light heavyweight champion, last competed at UFC 182 in January 2015. Shortly thereafter, while preparing to make his ninth-straight title defense, against Anthony Johnson at UFC 187, Jones was stripped of his title and suspended from action following his arrest.
Now fully reinstated, Jones takes on St. Preux, but only after the UFC's sixth-ranked light heavyweight stepped in for injured champion Daniel Cormier, who was forced from the bout with a leg injury.
A heavy favorite, Jones has all the tools to beat St. Preux everywhere inside the Octagon. His creative striking and reach advantage will allow Jones to keep St. Preux at a distance and control the cage. Jones, who has won 12 straight bouts overall, can also withstand any advances toward the ground on account of his wrestling and takedown defense.
St. Preux does possess some heavy hands. He has demonstrated the ability to floor charging opponents with crisp counter striking, but St. Preux has never faced an opponent of Jones' caliber, and it's difficult to imagine an upset here.
Look for Jones to take his time in the first round. Having been away from the Octagon for so long, he'll likely want to reacquaint himself his surroundings and throw some long rangy kicks and punches. Eventually St. Preux will respect Jones' reach and stay on the outside; at that point Jones will employ his offense and move in for the clinch, following up with a takedown and some ground and pound.
St. Preux will find a way back up to his feet, but as Jones continues to use the takedown, St. Preux will be unable to recover. Jon Jones wins his comeback fight via TKO in the third.
Co-main event: Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo
The only flyweight champion the UFC has ever known, Demetrious Johnson, will attempt an eighth title defense of his 125-pound belt, this time against former Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo.
Johnson (23-2-1, 11-1-1 UFC), who has won nine in a row overall, and is unbeaten in his last 10, is one of the UFC's most well-rounded athletes, adept on both the feet and on the ground. Last seen at UFC 191, Johnson has become one of the promotion's most dominant champions, employing his high level wrestling and kickboxing games.
For Cejudo (10-0, 4-0 UFC), the UFC's number-two ranked flyweight, the key is, and will always be, his world-class wrestling. A dominant grappler with heavy hips and excellent control in top position, Cejudo will most certainly look to bring Johnson to the mat and lay on the ground and pound. It just remains to be seen if Cejudo can complete takedowns and keep Johnson on his back.
And while Cejudo possesses elite wrestling and has shown growth and patience throughout his MMA career, Johnson will, again, prove to be too much for his competition, outlasting Cejudo to take the decision.
Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza
The former UFC lightweight champion of the world, Anthony Pettis (18-4, 5-3 UFC) has seen better days. Pettis, a striking specialist and the UFC's number-three ranked lightweight, has lost two straight decisions to wrestling-centric fighters, and this bout against number-eight Edson Barboza (16-4, 10-4 UFC), another striker, is a leading candidate for Fight of the Night.
Pettis, who was last seen in action at Ultimate Fight Night 81, possesses some of the most crisp striking in the UFC. His only problem, of late, has been withstanding pressure from grapplers, and Barboza is the perfect opponent to ensure a high-volume and action.
Look for both fighters to come out early and establish range with kicks. And while Pettis will attack the midsection, Barboza will go for his signature leg kicks.
Both fighters will land kicks, forcing each other to switch stances and change attacks. Eventually, both Pettis and Barboza will look to transition to the mat and land takedowns to score points.
Expect 15 minutes of flashy kicks and spinning attacks, mixed in with the occasional takedown. And after three rounds, Pettis will secure the decision.
Rafael Natal vs. Robert Whittaker
A battle of surging middleweights, this contest between number-13 Natal (21-6-1, 9-4-1 UFC) and number-seven Whittaker (15-4, 6-2 UFC) features a pair of fighters in the midst of four-fight win streaks.
Natal, whose Brazilian jiu jitsu is some of the finest in the division, relies on his ability to slow fights down and clinch up with dirty boxing and takedowns. Whittaker, who is undefeated at middleweight inside the Octagon, likes to swing for the knockout; he's very effective with his punches.
And while Whittaker has emerged as part of a new generation of middleweights, Natal's experience will prove to be the edge.
Look for Natal to score the decision victory. But don't expect it to be flashy.
Andre Fili vs. Yair Rodriguez
A pair of highly touted featherweights kicks off the UFC 197 main card, as Fili (15-3, 3-2 UFC) takes on Rodriguez (6-1, 3-0 UFC).
Fighting out of Sacramento, California's Team Alpha Male, Fili has the ability to fight on the feet and on the ground. Rodriguez, a Mexican national and former winner of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, is a creative striker who has drawn many comparisons to Jon Jones.
In his last bout, Rodriguez not only broke his foot early on in the contest, but he also demonstrated the ability to continue in the face of adversity, using his boxing and distance strikes to dictate the pace of the fight. And while Fili has some refined striking skills of his own, his best chance here is to bring the fight to the mat. Unfortunately, Rodriguez is not the easiest competitor to take down.
Expect a back-and-forth striking battle, with Rodriguez taking the decision.