It’s been 15 months since Jon Jones stepped foot inside the Octagon. Saturday night, the wait is over. While Jones has certainly remained intriguing and entertaining outside of the cage (his interactions with Daniel Cormier being particularly amusing), there’s nothing quite like seeing the best pound-for-pound fighter in MMA today — and perhaps the best in history — in action. This wasn’t exactly what the UFC had planned for Jones’ return, with Cormier falling out of the fight with a case of “trains at AKA”. However, seeing how Cormier’s oft-injured teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov returned this past weekend on FOX and throttled an overmatched opponent, perhaps Jones facing Ovince Saint Preux isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Obviously the Cormier rematch would have done bigger numbers for the UFC, but a dominant performance by Jones will only help build to that. There’s also a touch of irony to Jones fighting for an interim version of the title he never lost, while the man who inherited that very same belt sits on the sidelines unable to compete. This card isn’t all about Jones though (well, it is… but there are other fighters around as well). With Jones’ suspension flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson became the longest tenured UFC champion, as his reign now sits at 3 years, 7 months. He will be taking on olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo in one of his more intriguing challenges. Cejudo didn’t even start his MMA career until after Johnson was already UFC champion, and he has quickly climbed the ranks to challenge for the belt through a combination of his wrestling ability, slick boxing, and immense athleticism. There is also a fantastic lightweight bout on tap, as former UFC and WEC champion Anthony Pettis takes on Edson Barboza is what could be a matchup of the two best kickers on the UFC roster. The main card is rounded out by a pair of rising prospects looking to continue their ascents. Robert Whittaker goes up against Rafael Natal in a middleweight bout, while Yair Rodriguez takes on Andre Fili at featherweight. Odds have already been released for each of the main card bouts. Jones, Johnson, and Whittaker are all favored in excess of -300 at 5Dimes Sportsbook, while Pettis and Rodriguez are slight favorites of -175 and -150, respectively. Today, MMA oddsmaker Nick Kalikas opened the betting odds for all of the preliminary bouts at UFC 197. They include: flyweight Sergio Pettis taking on Chris Kelades, former strawweight champion Carla Esparza returns on less than a month’s notice to face Juliana Lima, and the latest UFC newcomer from Dana White’s ‘Lookin for a Fight’ Cody East facing returning UFC vet Walt Harris. All-in-all, the preliminary portion of the card is seven bouts split across UFC Fight Pass and Fox Sports 1, which will start at 6:30pm ET. All of the odds have been released at 5Dimes Sportsbook, and here are the opening numbers for each of the bouts on the card: ——————– MAIN CARD (PPV, 10pm ET)
——————– PRELIMINARY CARD (Fox Sports 1, 8pm ET)
——————– PRELIMINARY CARD (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30pm ET)
——————– Brad’s Analysis: Sergio Pettis’ name still get him more credit that he’s truly earned, but the youngster has been showing some nice improvements in his recent fights. He is still susceptible to lulls on offense, and that could be a problem for a fighter who isn’t as skilled as him, but will continue to push forward like Chris Kelades. If Pettis comes in with a good gameplan, circles off the cage quickly, and doesn’t let himself get stuck in the clinch, he should batter Kelades with counter shots for 15 minutes. If he fights like a Pettis and lets himself get pressed against the cage for long stretches, he could lose a tight decision. Don’t be shocked if this fight looks similar to his brother’s bout against Eddie Alvarez, and given that possibility, I may take a shot on Kelades once the public lets the Pettis name push the line higher. What will Carla Esparza look like coming back from the beating she was handed by Joanna Jedrzejczyk? What will she look like against a bigger opponent who she can’t just muscle with her wrestling? What will she look like after over a year off, taking a fight on relatively short notice? There are some serious questions about Esparza heading into this one, while we know what we’re going to get out of Lima. It won’t be exciting, but she’ll grind away out there. I think her size will allow her to wear Esparza down in the grappling exchanges and her stout takedown defense will keep her from spending too much time on her back. Definitely some upset possibility here. And over 2.5. Always over 2.5 with Lima. I think ‘Hot Chocolate’ is gonna make this one quick. He’s a bigger, longer, more powerful, and generally better striker than Steele, more slick on the ground, and while he may get taken down a time or two early in this bout, it really doesn’t seem to faze him. Also, Roberts has a big advantage in the nickname department, and we all know that goes a long way. With a 6’3″ lightweight taking on a 6’2″ lightweight, you might expect some serious tall guy defense in this one, but James Vick has actually improved his defense recently. He still struggles at times, and that could be exacerbated by facing someone with Franca’s reach. In terms of poor defense however, Glaico Franca sometimes he looks like he went to the Steve Montgomery school of “please punch me in the face”. I feel like Franca really benefited from his size advantage in winning TUF _____, but faced with a fighter of equal stature, I expect him to struggle. It may not be all roses for Vick, as figuring out his opponent’s equally lengthy reach may take a round or two, but I expect him to get there. At some point, I think Franca shoots a sloppy takedown and Vick locks up his nasty guillotine for the win. Well, let it never be said that Dana White doesn’t have a type. Cody East knocks people out, and Dana loves people that knock people out, even if they’re incapable of doing much else. East can wrestle a little bit, but once he faces fighters who can put him on his back, he’ll be in trouble. Walt Harris isn’t that type of fighter, and East still might be in trouble here. Harris is an inch taller and has four inches of reach on East, which isn’t the greatest recipe for a heavyweight without great head movement or setups on his entries to the pocket. It’s still likely that East manages to get in and clip Harris with something because he’s a good enough athlete to get by at this level, but this is heavyweight and Harris hits hard. Just sayin. Going up in weight shouldn’t be much of a concern for Clint Hester. He’s certainly big enough to compete at 205. The problem for him is still his defense. If Marcos de Lima finds his chin it could be lights out, and Hester has been clipped plenty of times by lesser strikers (although only stopped by two high quality strikers in Robert Whittaker and Vitor Miranda). Luckily, if Hester comes into this fight as wrestles for the first round, de Lima will probably be so gassed by the second that Hester can do whatever he wants. It would be tough to back Hester if I have to lay any juice, but I like him in this spot at even or better if the line gets there. This is a rebound fight for Kevin Lee, and a pretty smartly booked one. He just got knocked out by a BJJ guy, so they gave him a worse BJJ guy who hasn’t shown any real power in his career. If he can’t make good on this one, the Lee bandwagon that was starting to fill up quite nicely will be a desolate place. Lee should be the better striker here, and Escudero loves to give up takedowns and play from his back, which Lee could be more than willing to indulge as well. I’m not sure he finishes Escudero, but it should be a dominant win to get back on track for Lee.