A.J. HOFFMAN

UFC 231 preview: Holloway defends title

Max Holloway defends his title. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

UFC 231 is the last pay per view of 2018, and it looks like they have pieced together a pretty nice card. The headliner features Max Holloway defending his 145 lb. title against the unbeaten Brian Ortega, in a matchup of two guys who it's almost hard to imagine taking a loss at this point. The co-main features Valentina Shevchenko taking on former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the vacant women's flyweight title. The last two December pay per views have both been fantastic, and both ironically featured Holloway.

The main event is for the featherweight title that Max Holloway (19-3) has unfortunately been unable to defend in 2018, pulling out of three scheduled fights, including one with Ortega. Assuming his health is OK, this fight makes for a dynamic matchup. Holloway is a fantastic kickboxer who uses speed and timing to overwhelm opponents. His ground game is a plus, but he is at a significant disadvantage on the mat in this fight. Ortega (14-0) has proven to be one of the most dangerous submission artists in the UFC. He is typically a slow starter, and there have been rounds where it looked like he wouldn't be able to pull out a victory. He is opportunistic, though, and when a neck has presented itself, Ortega has been quick to choke it. My biggest concern is the health of Holloway, as he has struggled with a tough weight cut to 145 and concussion-like symptoms. Hopefully we get a healthy champion on Saturday, and along with it a "Fight of the Year" candidate.

The co-main event features two of the best pure strikers in MMA, male or female, fighting for the women's flyweight title. It has felt like Shevchenko (15-3) was the inevitable champion after Nicco Montano missed weight for their title fight. Montano was stripped of the belt, and there was consideration of matching Valentina with Sijara Eubanks, but this fight is far more interesting. Shevchenko is definitely the lower-volume striker, picking her spots carefully, which can occasionally lead to boring dance matches. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (15-2) makes that difficult though, as she is a volume striker who is typically the aggressor. Shevchenko will likely look to keep this fight close range, possibly even clinch and try to take the fight to the ground. Joanna, as always, will want to stay in kickboxing range and attack. This has all the makings of a fantastic fight as well.

Alex Oliveira (19-5-1) is on a tear, but will have his ground limitations tested against grappling ace Gunnar Nelson (16-3-1). Oliveira will want to be at range, as he has looked questionable in grappling situations even in the fights that he has won. He remains a great athlete with heavy hands, but he still comes across to me as more of gatekeeper than contender. Nelson, once considered a borderline title contender, but was knocked out by Santiago Ponzinibbio back in July of 2017, and has been inactive ever since. He will look to close distance and drag Oliveira into his world, but again, this fight is essentially a coin flip.

The matchup between Jimi Manuwa (17-4) and Thiago Santos (19-6) pairs two guys who will be willing and able to bring the violence. These guys are both willing to trade, and this fight has the makings of a quick night. Manuwa was once considered a top contender, but has fallen on hard times. A win here would be crucial for his resurgence. Santos had a successful debut at 205 lbs., getting a stoppage win over Eryk Anders back in September. He has now won 6 of his last 7, and looking to make a run in the division. Santos is a pure power puncher, and Manuwa is willing to brawl. This one should be really fun.

The prelims feature Claudia Gadelha, Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Dhiego Lima and an interesting matchup between Eryk Anders and Elias Theodorou.

Enjoy the fights!

PREDICTIONS:

Ortega by submission

Jedrzejczyk by decision

Nelson by submission

Bochniak by decision

Santos by KO

Gadelha by decision

Burns by decision

Chookagian by decision

Theodourou by decision

Lopez by submission

Laprise by TKO

Ferreira by submission

Rakic by decision

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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