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TGIFighting: Aldo vs. Font Is Huge for Red-Hot UFC Bantamweight Division

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterDecember 3, 2021

Jose Aldo
Jose AldoAlex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we talk to top fighters, preview the weekend's combat sports action and make crotchety observations about the news of the day. Ready? Let's proceed.

       

UFC on ESPN 31 goes down Saturday from Las Vegas. As its name suggests, the card comes at no cost to everyone with access to basic cable or an ESPN+ subscription.

Free cards usually lack a bit of luster compared with their more glamorous pay-per-view cousins, and generally speaking, Saturday's event follows that trend.

However, the main event is more than worth a little time investment, pitting No. 5 bantamweight and former featherweight king Jose Aldo against an upstart No. 4 in Rob Font. The bout has immediate championship implications for one of the UFC's hottest—if temporarily injury-dampened—title pictures. As of Wednesday, Font is a slim -145 favorite, per DraftKings.

Bantamweight is one of the most star-studded weight classes on the UFC landscape, but injuries and bad fortune will help the winner of Saturday's matchup leapfrog to the front of the line.

Here's the title picture as it stands. There is still no targeted return date for injured champ Aljamain Sterling, who continues to recover from neck surgery. Meanwhile, Petr Yan, who Sterling defeated by disqualification in March following an illegal knee strike, won the interim strap in October with an impressive defeat of Cory Sandhagen, who despite that loss sits at No. 3 in the weight class.

Future Hall of Famer TJ Dillashaw sits at No. 2, although for all his legendary status he can't seem to stay in the ring. In his first fight back after a two-year suspension for violating the UFC's anti-doping policy, Dillashaw defeated Sandhagen in an exciting split-decision win, only to suffer a knee injury that will put him out of action at least until early 2022.

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Yan (right) lands an illegal knee on Sterling
Yan (right) lands an illegal knee on SterlingChris Unger/Getty Images

Saturday's winner can fill that vacuum. Heck, they may well get the next shot at Yan, if Yan doesn't feel like waiting for Sterling. A splashy bout with Dillashaw upon his return also is tantalizing, with the winner surely getting the next shot at the strap.

While Aldo has lived in the top five for most if not all of his UFC career, Font is a relative newcomer to this rarefied air.

Meanwhile, the 35-year-old Aldo is writing a redemption story. After being left for dead following three straight losses and a seemingly ill-conceived move down to 135 pounds, he claimed back-to-back victories to get right back in the mix. 

No matter how it goes, this one should play out on the feet. Aldo has great jiu-jitsu but uses it mainly as a deterrent. Font has grappling but converts only 40 percent of his takedown attempts, according to UFC stats. Simply put, both men are comfortable on the mat and can absolutely submit you, but neither is looking to bring this fight to the ground. 

As a striker, Aldo is known for his efficiency as a counterfighter. Font also does not land in bunches. He connects on only 3.63 significant strikes per minute compared with 5.58—nearly two strikes per minute more—for Font, which is good for fifth in the division. For comparison's sake, the division leader in this category, Sean O'Malley, lands 8.37 strikes per minute.

When Font hits, it counts. Ask Marlon Moraes about the knockout Font served up last December, or the career-altering victory Font earned after a dominant decision win in May over former champ Cody Garbrandt, a win that ran Font's current streak to four and gave him easily his highest-profile triumph.

Font (left) hits Cody Garbrandt
Font (left) hits Cody GarbrandtHandout/Getty Images

Aldo's famous shots are the leg kicks, and he certainly throws those with ill intent. But his defense and precision striking are his true calling cards. In his last fight, a win over Pedro Munhoz (see video above), Aldo held his opponent to just 41 percent of significant strikes landed.

As they say, this main event has all the makings. With Sterling and Dillashaw still on the shelf and Sandhagen coming off a loss, Saturday's winner could sneak through the cracks and shoot straight to the top of the division. 

        

Happy Trails (For a While), Kevin Lee

It wasn't terribly long ago that Kevin Lee was in the title picture at 155 pounds. In 2017 he lost an interim lightweight title bout by submission to Tony Ferguson, a contest that was competitive at first but saw Lee fade as the fight wore on. Then in 2018, a doctor's stoppage TKO of respected veteran Edson Barboza ran Lee's UFC record to 10-3.

After that, however, the wheels came off for the wrestle-boxer from Detroit.

Kevin Lee
Kevin LeeMel Evans/Associated Press

Following the Barboza win, Lee lost four of five over a three-year span that saw him experiment unsuccessfully with welterweight and display a notable tendency to get submitted. After his most recent bout in August, a loss to Daniel Rodriguez, Lee failed a drug test and was suspended for six months.

On Tuesday the ax fell and the UFC released him. It's a sad chapter in a solid UFC tenure, but don't shed too many tears just yet. He's eligible to return to competition in February and is still only 29 years old. Bellator or the Professional Fighters League will likely snap him up. I'd look for that announcement sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, Lee may have tipped his hand. He recently told MMA broadcasting personality Ariel Helwani (h/t Sportskeeda) that he'd "be a millionaire within a year," perhaps a reference to the PFL's $1 million tournaments.

              

The Squeamish Bettor

Record to date: 24-8

This week, we look to the light heavyweights. When last we saw Jamahal Hill in June, he was suffering through a gruesome-looking arm injury. Six months later, here he is a +140 underdog against Jim Crute.

Hill showed toughness in his last loss, and he'll be looking to erase that memory. What's more, he has the boxing to put Crute away. He'll keep it on the outside, manage range and prevent Crute from getting easy takedowns. Sound the upset alarms and lock this one in. 

      

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