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UFC 236 goes down on Saturday in Atlanta, and in a circumstance that is now par for the course, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will crown two champions in weight classes that already have champions. On the other hand, regardless of what you think of interim titles, it doesn’t mean you can’t bet on the proceedings.
After all, we have some of the most exciting fighters in the sport in our headlining bouts, with Max Holloway seeking to avenge his 2012 loss to Dustin Poirier and net a UFC title in a second weight class, while Israel Adesanya tries to continue his rapid ascent in the sport by claiming gold against Kelvin Gastelum. Sure, things would be sweeter with Khabib Nurmagomedov and Robert Whittaker around, but good fights are still good fights and might be worth a gamble.
On a 13-fight card, we have only one favorite bigger than -210 right now, along with a gaggle of underexposed fighters, which tends to have a positive impact on the payout. Some gold is getting handed out at State Farm Arena, but let’s figure out how to get some green to go with it courtesy of UFC 236:
Straight Up CashMax Holloway (-210)
Holloway and Poirier are fantastic, exciting fighters and, frankly, should be fighting for UFC titles under better, more legitimate auspices. However, this is not same fight it was when they first met over seven years ago, and while Poirier is much improved, Holloway is much more improved.
Poirier lands a muscular 5.59 significant strikes per minute, while Holloway lands a staggering 6.90. While Holloway does absorb 4.03 to Poirier’s 3.69, he actually defends a higher percentage of the strikes coming at him and more importantly for me has an iron chin that has basically never seen him rocked in his entire pro career. Statistically speaking, many of the shots that Holloway eats tend to be pot-shotting punches and kicks, which is almost a necessity of his style, since the Hawaiian prefers to let his opponent engage early, get a look and feel for what he’s dealing with and then start delivering seven-strike combinations, spinning attacks and digs to the body. Poirier has five-round experience, but the modern incarnation of Holloway in a 25-minute affair is a sight to behold, a proverbial snowball going downhill just racking up momentum until his opponent breaks.
The curious issue for me is the grappling department and whether Poirier tries to push it early, but Holloway has massively improved his takedown defense, and even when he has been taken down, as he was in the Brian Ortega fight, he is able to quickly escape to his feet and -- more importantly given the context of Ortega’s game -- avoid giving up position in a scramble, which bodes well for him here. Also, when Poirier does seek to use his grappling, he tends to corral his opponents along the fence and then suck them to the floor. No doubt, Poirier is going to have his moments here, especially early as Holloway tries to get a beat on him, but he’s going to have to be at a whole different offensive level to put Holloway out here, all while being defensively savvy enough to survive an ever-increasing onslaught of angles and strikes.
Straight Up PassIsrael Adesanya (-170)-Kelvin Gastelum (+150)
Too much volatility here for my taste. Adesanya is a shiny young thing, which I think distorts the line. It was barely a year ago that he was dropping rounds to Rob Wilkinson and Marvin Vettori courtesy of being taken down. He has been put in prominent positions, but with all due respect to an aged and disinterested Anderson Silva, the Nigerian-born Kiwi’s best wins have come against Brad Tavares and Derek Brunson, who while serviceable are lesser fighters than Gastelum in almost every respect. While he has clever feints and counters with his hands -- and ambidextrously so -- the sheer amount of kicking he does makes him an even more susceptible target to get run to the canvas. Let’s not forget that Gastelum is a hard hitter, and while his striking isn’t as flashy or as polished as Adesanya’s, he has major power in both hands and is a capable kicker. Plus, we haven’t seen Adesanya really get tagged or how he’ll respond to it.
As for Gastelum, even if we assume some sweetness in the line due to Adesanya’s sudden rocket to relevance and exciting style, I’m not sure I could pull the trigger on a play like this, just due to his unreliability. While Gastelum is a capable wrestler, he really doesn’t make it his main mode of attack, preferring to rely on his jab and heavy southpaw hooks. He’s facing a nine-inch reach disadvantage against a switch striker with a better jab and the ability to use low kicks to disrupt Gastelum’s flat-footed base. More than all of that, he has a weird tendency to fall asleep at the wheel for large portions of fights, letting his opponent dictate the location and tempo, which seems like an awful trait to have facing Adesanya.
We should certainly get a better understanding of where “The Last Stylebender” sits as an all-around mixed martial artist and whether Gastelum has shored up a lot of the unnerving hiccups that have undone him frequently in his career, but I would say this is more a fight to be watched and enjoyed than gambled on due to the high degree of uncertainty associated with it.
A Prop-ular BetAlexandre Pantoja Wins by Decision (+175)
Not the sexiest bet in the world, but just simply one that makes sense. That’s what makes dollars.
Pantoja’s opponent, Wilson Reis, is a battle-tested veteran and no doubt a potent grappler. Pantoja has given us some takedowns during his UFC tenure and really got slammed around by the resurgent Dustin Ortiz 15 months ago, but I think what’s more critical here is that his straight defensive wrestling isn’t always the sharpest. Good wrestlers who are using their strikes to set up takedowns have gotten him down, and he is a shifty, aggressive grappler in scrambles and from his back. Reis is powerful on top, but he’s not a high work-rate grappler, so it’s even possible that we could wind up with some referee restarts here, meaning Pantoja may not even need to use his grappling acumen to get back to his feet.
On the feet, “The Cannibal” is simply a much more active, technical and precise striker than Reis, who only lands 1.86 significant strikes per minute and lands a paltry 29 percent of those he throws. He’s plodding, formulaic and really only throws punches to close the distance and set up power double-leg takedown attempts. Pantoja is a crisp counterstriker with a great knack for maintaining his comfortable range and knowing how to set up his opponents for clean punches, kicks and knees. Just watch his performance against Brandon Moreno, whose face was demolished, to see the consummate professionalism in his striking game. He’s not a natural home run hitter and Reis has a tough chin. I think we’re going the full 15 minutes, and I don’t think there will be any debate about who creates more offense, so I dig this play.
An Unprop-ular BetMontel Jackson Wins by Knockout (+290)
Could Jackson wind up winning via knockout? Absolutely. This kid has some hands … and feet, elbows and knees, too. That’s part of what makes this line look appealing, but I think Andre Soukhamthath, even if he’s the biggest underdog on the card by a wide margin, might have enough to stay in there.
When you see a -530 favorite and a naturally gifted striker at +290 to ring up a knockout, it’s the kind of thing that normally gets you excited. However, Soukhamthath is a certified battler with a great chin and has never been stopped in his career. He’s a diverse striker and when he lands a heavy counter, he can really follow up and finish the job. He’s also simply a better fighter than advertised. He should probably be 4-1 in the UFC, having endured some iffy split decision losses to Albert Morales and Alejandro Perez out of the gate.
Soukhamthath isn’t the sharpest wrestler, but if Jackson does wind up on top, it’s doubtful he does enough damage to do what no one else has been able to do to “The Asian Sensation” in 19 pro bouts. Jackson should win and may have a bright future, but this time around, he may need to just settle for the decision.
An Accumulation ContemplationMax Holloway (-210)
Eryk Anders (-190)
Alexandre Pantoja (-150)
Total Odds: +276
I already discussed my preference for Holloway and Pantoja. Holloway may seem like a strange inclusion, as I’ve seen many people mention they think the line should be closer than it is, especially after he opened as a -230 favorite. However, that seems to be more out of a fondness and reverence to Poirier, as the vast majority of fans, fighters, trainers and media seem to strongly favor Holloway; and really, -210 is a good number for such a reliably fantastic fighter that everyone seems to think will win.
When it comes to Pantoja, like I said, the dude is just plain good and seriously underrated. I do think he’ll have to do some serious takedown defending and scrambling to deal with Reis’ wrestling, but I think he’s more than capable of doing so. Given Reis’ paltry output on the feet and just how skilled “The Cannibal” is at managing distance, feinting and setting up heavy, clean counters, -150 suits me just fine.
Then there’s Anders. Barely a year ago, he was a hot prospect. Now, he’s 1-3 in his last four. With that said, he deserved the Lyoto Machida decision and could have gotten the nod against Elias Theodorou; and while getting clubbed by imminent title challenger Thiago Santos is forgivable in general, more than anything, Anders paid for his own zeal in taking the fight on such short notice. The move up to 205 pounds could prove fruitful for such a naturally large, athletic guy. More than anything, this is a bet against Khalil Rountree, who despite being a powerful striker is a major glass cannon. Rountee has just a few minutes of gas. After that, he’s hittable and vulnerable to wrestling and submissions. Rountree never seems to have the cardio or defensive acumen to withstand an opponent who really pushes back, and so long as Anders can withstand an opening barrage, this should be easy money.
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