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Analysis: UFC 235 headliner Jon Jones running out of worthy opponents

Light heavyweight championship is as high as a 14-to-1 favorite against Anthony Smith

UFC 235 News Conference

Steve Marcus

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, left, and Anthony Smith pose during a news conference for UFC 235 at MGM Grand Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Jones will defend his title against Smith at T-Mobile Arena Saturday, March 2, 2019.

UFC 235 News Conference

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones attends a news conference for UFC 235 at MGM Grand Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Jones will defend his title against Anthony Smith at T-Mobile Arena Saturday, March 2, 2019. Launch slideshow »

For the last several years, the greatest threat to Jon Jones’ career was considered the fighter himself.

Over the last few months, that’s flipped to others — or, more accurately, the lack of others.

Despite having sat out due to suspension for more than a year leading up to his comeback fight in December, the UFC light heavyweight champion has run out of viable contenders to face.

Jones will enter his next fight as the biggest betting favorite of his career, opening as high as minus-1400 (risking $14 to win $1) against Anthony Smith in their main-event bout at UFC 235 on March 2 at T-Mobile Arena.

"It's flattering, but at the end of the day, it's a very dangerous position to be in when you're fighting a guy who no one expects to do well," Jones said at a news conference formally announcing the card Thursday evening at MGM Grand.

Smith is a fine fighter, but not someone who has ever shown a sniff of anything that could remotely trouble a generational talent like Jones. Smith was cut from the UFC in 2013 before managing a comeback three years later to start a relatively uneventful run at middleweight.

Smith went 4-2 at 185 pounds, peaking with a knockout over 39-year-old former Bellator champion Hector Lombard, before moving up to light heavyweight. After putting on 20 pounds in fighting weight, Smith continued on his success against past-their-prime veterans — scoring vicious first-round knockouts of former champions Rashad Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

He supplemented those wins with an impressive upset of Volkan Oezdemir in the main event of UFC Fight Night 138 last October. It was a thrilling comeback third-round submission victory, but looked a bit short of a performance that earns a title shot.

Jones himself admitted that he thought Smith still had to work to do to reach a championship level. But to Smith’s credit, he never stopped campaigning.

After Jones defeated Alexander Gustafsson via third-round TKO at UFC 232, he and Smith had a brief confrontation on Fox Sports 1 that seemed to pave the way for this matchup.

“I’ve been doubted my entire career," Smith said. "I’m a small town kid from Nebraska, I’m not supposed to be here anyway, so we strip the name and face and get down to the problem ahead of us. No one's ever counted on me to win."

No one can fault Jones for wanting to stay busy. Although most, if not all, of the issues Jones has encountered are self-inflicted, they’ve resulted in taking away a significant portion of his fighting prime.

It’s been one thing after another for the phenom who once sought to craft a squeaky-clean, son-of-a-preacher image. But there appears to be fatigue around Jones’ recklessness, both among the UFC and fight fans.

For better or for worse, the modus operandi of this stage of Jones’ career seems to be to zone it all out and watch him fight.

How else to explain the unprecedented move of uprooting an entire event in a week so that Jones could compete at UFC 232? How else to explain the card winding up a blockbuster success anyway with a sold-out crowd at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and a reported 700,000 pay-per-view buys?

UFC 232 was in high demand, though, because Gustafsson had given Jones the toughest fight of his career in their first meeting. Fighters like Smith won’t supply the same draw.

That’s not to say Jones can’t take a mismatched fight or two, but at some point, there’s going to be dwindling returns. At some point, it’s going to be obvious that it’s not the best way to maximize the fighter with the most pure talent to ever enter the octagon.

Luckily, there’s an exit strategy. Jones has long been linked with a move to heavyweight, and the bigger weight class may hold some actual challenges.

It’s debatable whether a third fight with current heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier holds any interest after Jones already beat him twice, but there’s also a prospective betting line out on a potential matchup with former belt-holder Stipe Miocic. Jones is only a minus-160 (risking $1.60 to win $1) favorite over Miocic, which would be his lowest odds in more than a decade.

Also working in Jones’ favor — or detriment — is that this same concern has a history of working itself out. Some of the recent fighters whom, like Jones, supposedly had no equals included Demetrious Johnson, Cris Cyborg and Ronda Rousey.

All three ended up getting upset to make it a moot point.

But it’s just so difficult to imagine Jones losing right now, especially if he’s done wrecking his own career. Let’s hope he can find someone else worth wrecking.

"I take Anthony Smith extremely serious," Jones said. "He has 40 fights, he has double the experience I have and we're going to treat him like that type of person despite how other people feel about it. He'll get my undivided, full attention."

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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