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At the UFC 231 media day, light heavyweight contender Jimi Manuwa exhorted the media: “Never bet on MMA.” Aw, come on, Jimi. Where’s the fun in that?
The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns to Toronto, and unlike so many major UFC markets, “The 6ix” always gets treated handsomely with outstanding cards. This particular case is no different, as the UFC is serving up a title doubleheader, as Max Holloway puts his featherweight crown on the line against undefeated Brian Ortega and former kickboxing adversaries Valentina Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk renew their rivalry over the vacant women’s flyweight title. Even if the card has taken a few requisite hits with injuries -- most notably losing the fantastic Mirsad Bektic-Renato Carneiro bout -- there are no two ways about it: UFC 231 is a fantastic card. Is it worth betting on? You betcha.
UFC 231 is not a card filled with appetizing underdogs, but compared to your average UFC card, it has a lot of closely matched contests that offer particularly strong lines on several favorites who should be able to get the job done and get us to the pay window. While there are a few stereotypically lopsided tune-up fights on the undercard, the vast majority of this card is comprised of competitive contests with a clear favorite at an exciting price. In terms of betting, you can’t ask for much more in this day and age; we’re not about to luck into bookies not knowing that Wanderlei Silva-Mirko Filipovic 1 was an automatic time-limit draw while setting the price of a draw at +2400. Oddsmakers have gotten much sharper, so we need to be on our game to beat them. Let’s figure out how to do it with UFC 231:
Straight Up CashValentina Shevchenko (-340)
If you regularly read this column, you know that I prefer to use the “Straight Up Cash” heading to offer thoughts on a given card’s main event and which half of it is the smarter bet. Now, I still favor Holloway to beat Ortega and retain his title, but given the murky nature of his post-concussion issues, his unwillingness to discuss the subject and the simple fact that Ortega is a dangerous opponent, I’m more comfortable taking a pass on the main event. There’s simply too much variability for me to feel good about recommending some kind of play in the headliner. If you’re so inclined, Holloway by knockout is +360 and Ortega by submission is +240. With the straight moneyline just about even at this point, you may be better off taking a prop on the guy you like to prevail, knowing how both fighters operate.
Typically, I wouldn’t advocate for a bet on a strong favorite at -340, but I still feel beholden to the idea of offering insight on major fights on a major card, and after all, this is a title fight. Shevchenko is a strong favorite, and you’re probably not going to make major money on her unless you’re a high-rolling gambler with a big bankroll who is willing to plunk down thousands on a -340 number. However, this part is called “Straight Up Cash” for a reason; it’s about certainty, and I’m confident the “Bullet” is going to deliver.
Much has been made about the muay Thai history of Shevchenko and Jedrzejczyk -- Shevchenko went 3-0 -- but I don’t necessarily think their past kick-fighting endeavors inform the way this fight is going to play out. Nonetheless, I still strongly prefer MMA’s favorite Kyrgyz-Peruvian to deliver the goods here, as her MMA game is even more profoundly troubling to the former strawweight queen than her straight striking game. Rose Namajunas managed to unseat and then successfully defend against Jedrzejczyk on account of her counterstriking. “Thug Rose” knocked out the Pole and took her title in the first place because she was able to time her strikes and drill her with counterpunches; and in the rematch, even though Namajunas basically took Rounds 3 and 4 off, she carried the majority of 25 minutes by smashing Jedrzejczyk when she opened up with kicks. Shevchenko has hurt herself at points when she is too passive, but Jedrzejczyk’s general activity will give her plenty of opportunities to counter. Plus, she is the bigger, stronger woman.
More than that, Jedrzejczyk at her best is able to use her high volume of strikes to close in on her opponents, clinch them up and deliver short elbows and knees; this will have no purchase on Shevchenko, who will be able to either sweep her feet out into a takedown or bully her around with superior neck wrestling and clinch technique. If Jedrzejczyk does seek to clinch, she stands a major risk of ending up on her back, which is the worst position she could be in, as Shevchenko is an underrated ground-and-pounder. Again, if you’re a casual bettor who is just throwing down a Benjamin Franklin on a given fight, this is going to have a rich return for you. However, between the two fights in the UFC 231 championship doubleheader, this is the far safer and more predictable contest and is less likely to burn up your $100.
Straight Up PassKatlyn Chookagian (-190)
Again, as I’ve discussed often, this is not a non-confidence vote. I like Chookagian to get her hand raised against Jessica Eye. With that said, -190 seems like a line maybe worth seizing, and maybe you’re on the flipside and think that Eye at +165 is worth hopping on. Well, I’d recommend just staying away from this fight completely.
While I like the “Blonde Fighter” to win, the way that Chookagian fights is not conducive to confidence. She lacks finishing power and operates as a conservative out-fighter. She lands 4.03 significant strikes per minute but absorbs 3.97. She’s constantly circling away from her opponents, nipping them with clever jabs and well-placed kicks, but on a round-by-round basis, she seldom puts her stamp on a five-minute period. Every round of every fight in which she is involved ends up being determined by a razor-thin margin. I actually thought Chookagian lost to Alexis Davis her last time out, and while I thought she deserved the nod over Mara Romero Borella, she was outstruck 79-68 in significant strikes. With a style like hers, especially given her lack of stopping power, she is always going to be subject to the whims of the three judges outside the cage, which shouldn’t make any fan or bettor feel good.
On top of that, Eye is, if nothing else, aggressive. She has upped her wrestling and top-position grappling game, and she’s not averse to simply chasing an opponent and swinging heavy hands. Chookagian is fantastic at scrambling back to her feet when taken down, but if she’s simply circling away from Eye and touching her with jabs and kicks while Eye does a Leonard Garcia windmill routine, there’s absolutely no telling how three random judges are going to size up this bout. I think the New Jersey native is the more skilled and technical competitor in this matchup, but given the style clash and the way it’s likely to manifest in the Octagon, I think we’re headed for a nip-tuck sort of decision, and there’s simply no telling how the judges are going to peg as the more effective offensive fighter. When uncertainty is this high based on the style matchup, I have to give the fight a hard pass.
A Prop-ular BetHakeem Dawodu Wins by Decision (+150)
When it comes to prop bets, the best way you can make some cash is to find the dissonance between a solid favorite and oddsmakers misconstruing their most likely path to victory. In this particular case, I think we have a winner.
Dawodu is a righteous -165 favorite over Kyle Bochniak, yet +150 for him to win by decision seems entirely out of step. Sure, six of his eight career wins have come by knockout, but that was against vastly inferior competition against which his kickboxing style far overwhelmed his opponents. Bochniak may be a jack of all trades and master of none, but he’s rugged and tough, having never been finished in his pro career. Look no further than his last outing against offensive dynamo and red-hot prospect Zabit Magomedsharipov to see the kind of beating he can gladly withstand.
Dawodu has some nasty hands on him when he chooses to unleash them, but everything in his offensive game operates off of his kicking offense. With hat said, he is incredibly judicious with his kicking, perhaps even more after Danny Henry caught him early and cold in his UFC debut, plunking him with a right hand before effortlessly transitioning into a guillotine in just 39 seconds. In his last bout against Austin Arnett, the Calgarian was much more measured in his attack, preferring to counter and slowly work his leg kicks into the mix. This is likely going to carry him to victory against Bochniak, who seems pathologically averse to checking leg kicks at all, but more often than not, Dawodu is like a coiled cobra, more threatening his opponents with the idea that he could suddenly strike rather than actually attacking.
Ahead of his third UFC bout, Dawodu is still trying to restore some of the hype he had coming into the promotion before Henry so unceremoniously embarrassed him in March. I expect him to simply chop away with leg kicks for the vast majority of the fight, rather than being so emboldened to unload a lot of the exotic, spinning techniques we saw from him in the World Series of Fighting. It will be more than enough to carry him to victory, but against a tough out like Bochniak, it likely won’t be enough to get his man out of the cage. Dawodu’s striking should earn him every round, but I don’t think he’s going to open up enough and press the issue with his full arsenal to get a stoppage. The discrepancy between being a -165 favorite and +150 to win on the cards is enough for me to take a flier on this one.
An Un-propular BetShevchenko Wins Inside the Distance (+180)
I’ve talked to a lot of sharps who really like this particular prop, and while I vouched for the fact that I like Shevechenko to get her hand raised and take the UFC women’s flyweight title, I’m not so sure she’ll actually manage to get Jedrzejczyk out of the Octagon within 25 minutes.
As discussed above, I think Shevchenko has an answer and counter for everything Jedrzejczyk is going to offer her, but that doesn’t necessarily add up to a stoppage, even if +180 seems juicy given the five-round nature of the fight. While I fully expect “Bullet” to dominate proceedings, she is still at the end of the day a counter-fighter by nature. She’s going to take the openings that Jedrzejczyk gives her, but despite her advantages in size and physicality, she probably isn’t going to one-hitter quitter the former 115-pound queen; and even if she gets “Joanna Champion” on the floor in an advantageous position, Jedrzejczyk is still a more defensively competent and tougher opponent than Priscila Cachoeira, the woman on whom Shevchenko put an otherworldly beating earlier this year.
Shevchenko wearing down Jedrzejczyk and stopping her wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world, especially given the aforementioned size difference. Still, Shevchenko’s natural instincts suggest she’s going to prefer a counter-oriented standup battle, and even if she does get opportunities on the floor, Jedrzejczyk will prove to be a tough cookie while managing to stave off a stoppage and make it to the end of rounds. As always with these picks, it’s not about what will or won’t happen, but rather what’s likely to happen. In this case, you could do a lot better for a particular prop bet. On top of the prescribed Dawodu by decision bet above, you could also get Olivier Aubin-Mercier by decision at +140 or even a near slam dunk with Aleksandar Rakic by knockout at -120. Suffice to say, there’s better places to put your dollars.
An Accumulation ContemplationDawodu (-165)
Brad Katona (-185)
Total Odds: +355
This is what I talked about in the intro: solid favorites at respectable prices. I already explained why Dawodu was a righteous favorite and is going to seal the deal, so let me delve into the other two components of our classic three-team parlay.
When it comes to Aubin-Mercier, he has a preferential style matchup. Yes, Gilbert Burns is an outstanding and legitimately world-class jiu-jitsu player. However, Aubin-Mercier’s losses have come when he’s not able to buy takedowns. He couldn’t take down Carlos Diego Ferreira, and as we found out, Alexander Hernandez isn’t exactly an easy out. However, even with Burns’ continued training under Henri Hooft at Hard Knocks 365, Aubin-Mercier has vastly improved his striking, possesses superior conditioning and should be able to buy takedowns when necessary. This is absolutely his sort of fight to grind out.
As for Katona, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 27 winner doesn’t really have any particular individual skills that stand out above his contemporaries. However, he is dropping down to his more natural weight class at 135 pounds, and opponent Matthew Lopez, while he may be the more dynamic party, has an awful lot of trouble keeping up with opponents and routinely gasses out halfway through 15-minute affairs. I think Katona will work a conservative game. He’s going to pump his jab, land low kicks and be the superior scrambler to Lopez. It’s not going to be a dominant win by any stretch, but Katona should be able to use his fundamentals in every round to not just best Lopez but also tire him out and take a more resounding control over the bout as the fight rolls on to earn himself a tidy decision. That’s three competitive favorites sorted for +355, which is fine money if you ask me.