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We may be well over two weeks into 2019, but for MMA fans, the calendar never truly rolls over until the first major fight card of the New Year, and speaking of new things, this Saturday gives us the first Ultimate Fighting Championship card on its new home: ESPN. More importantly, the UFC is serving up a main event with pound-for-pound stakes, as bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw drops down to 125 pounds and looks to become just the fourth simultaneous two-division champion in promotional history.
For some of us, though, there may be something more enticing and intriguing than such a historic main event and a rock-solid card: Can we be it? Yes, we can.
On this 13-fight card, we have three fights with favorites that are -500 or higher. However, beyond that trio of seemingly lopsided fights, we have a whole slate of well-matched, potentially exciting contests that demand your attention and, if you’re a little spicier spectator, perhaps your dollars, too. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the UFC’s first ESPN endeavor -- no pun intended -- has one of the best slates of reasonably priced favorites, interesting underdogs and worthwhile prop bets that we’ve been offered in quite some time.
At the end of the day, the UFC’s decision to hop to ESPN was a money move. Shouldn’t you as a fan get to make some money moves of your own as the biggest MMA promotion in the world leaps to its new broadcasting partner? Let’s figure out how to do it with UFC Fight Night 143 “Dillashaw vs. Cejudo”:
Straight Up CashDillashaw (-210)
More often than not, I feel the need to qualify this section by pointing out that the biggest fights excite and entice fans, casual and hardcore alike, into betting. No such caveat is needed this time around. I simply think that at a respectable -210 price, the vastly more achieved, physically larger 135-pound king has the ball in his court and is worth putting some scratch on.
Honestly, I was hoping for a sweeter line on Dillashaw by this point: “Killashaw” opened at -175 and immediately got hammered by sharps, but my anticipation was that when the entire buildup for the fight began to center around social media pictures of Dillashaw’s ridiculously lean and strapped body, igniting questions about his weight cut, some folks would start to put in money on Cejudo. That hasn’t been the case, but it shouldn’t deter folks from betting on the more experienced, more complete and better all-around fighter in Dillashaw. Yes, this is MMA and we can never deny the possibility that a first-time weight cut to a new weight class, no matter how well-considered Dillashaw claims the process has been, could be detrimental to his performance. Nonetheless, this is his fight to lose.
Dillashaw has three inches of reach on Cejudo and lands 5.38 significant strikes per minute to Cejudo’s 3.42. More than that, Cejudo is not a natural finisher, meaning that in order for him to win, he’ll need to get inside of the two-time bantamweight champion, pop him with punches and, in all seriousness, ground and stall him out. With the Olympic gold medalist lacking the offensive panache and finishing ability of Dillashaw, in addition to being at a size disadvantage, he’ll need to be almost flawless to pull this off, even if the weight cut has some drain on Dillashaw.
In a 25-minute fight, it’s more likely that Dillashaw is going to be able to use his beguiling, stance-switching style to land more effective shots and thwart Cejudo’s short-arm punching and wrestling. At -210 for a main event superfight, I’m more than comfortable with Dillashaw as a rock-solid pick, unless he shows up to early weigh-ins on Friday morning looking like death warmed over. Even then, rehydration, size and advanced striking alone may be enough to carry him to dual-division titles inside the Octagon.
Straight Up PassAlexander Hernandez (-200)
I’ll admit, when Hernandez came in on less than two weeks’ notice against Beneil Dariush, having faced meager opposition on the local Texas scene, I didn’t think he’d be much competition. Then he rushed Dariush in the face and crushed him in 42 seconds flat. In July, he showed different dimensions to his game, outwrestling a tough grappler in Olivier Aubin-Mercier to run his winning streak to eight fights. With all that said, the death of opponent Donald Cerrone has been greatly exaggerated, and “Alexander the Great” has never dealt with a fighter like this.
This is precisely why I clowned on Cerrone closing at +140 against Mike Perry barely two months ago. Yes, “Cowboy” turns 36 in March and is 2-4 over his last six bouts. Still, his losses in that run all came at 170 pounds and all of them came against elite fighters in the weight class. Even though Perry fought like a moron by inexplicably trying to take down Cerrone before getting schooled on the floor -- something Hernandez isn’t likely to replicate -- it was a reminder that even if Cerrone is removed from his prime and in the twilight of his career, he is still a dynamic threat, standing and on the ground, and one who is keen to exploit a novice, overzealous or unsuspecting foe.
Don’t get me wrong here. Hernandez is nearly a decade Cerrone’s junior and has demonstrated serious striking power, rugged wrestling and consistent pressure, which are three qualities that have historically given “Cowboy” problems. However, the Aubin-Mercier fight showed that Hernandez may not have the best strategic instincts at this point, as despite being dominant, he tired out himself going for repeated takedowns while still getting the better of things on the feet. Cerrone has arm and leg reach advantages over him, is the more well-rounded and craftier striker and is undoubtedly slicker on the floor, which isn’t something that dissipates as quickly with age.
This isn’t a vote of no-confidence against Hernandez, who could book his ticket to a big-ticket fight at 155 pounds with a big win here. Rather, it’s a vote of uncertainty, as Cerrone is still much livelier and more dynamic than much of the MMA public wants to give him credit for, especially when taking on an up-and-comer who has never faced an opponent with his offensive skill set. With a bevy of better options, you’re best served to look elsewhere.
A Prop-ular BetDillashaw by Knockout (+220)
There is a plethora of juicy proposition bets on this card. If you’re looking for a hot prop but were scared off by Dillashaw’s overly ripped physique at an admitted 135 pounds on Wednesday or you just prefer Cejudo straight up, there are some other appetizing options. Ariane Lipski by decision over Joanne Calderwood is +155; Dennis Bermudez by decision over Te Edwards is +265; and Paige VanZant over Rachael Ostovich via decision is +160. All of these are viable plays at which a shrewd bettor should take a hard look.
Assuming that Dillashaw’s weight cut goes according to his alleged master plan and he is at peak fitness, he should own just about every advantage over Cejudo. I don’t want to cast Cejudo, an Olympic gold medalist who has vastly improved his MMA game under coach Eric Albarracin, as a fluke. Still, Dillashaw has every functional advantage here. Cejudo, to my mind, didn’t even deserve to win the flyweight title over Demetrious Johnson but regardless, he got the nod because of “Mighty Mouse’s” willingness to back up and counter, which is something Dillashaw will simply not do.
Despite being a natural stance switcher, Dillashaw can’t land video game-type combos while switching his feet like, say, Max Holloway. However, even if he isn’t as nimble and ambidextrous, he still has the unique and often devastating ability to move forward with rushes of punches and kicks from either side that confuse his opponents. Dillashaw’s biggest technical flaw is that he isn’t much of a lateral mover; speaking of video games, he moves like a D-Pad, just going in-and-out, side-to-side. However, Cejudo isn’t the fighter to take advantage of that, because he’s not a natural boxer.
“The Messenger” succeeds when he can feint and confuse opponents with whether he will strike or shoot before rushing inside with short volleys of punches to set up his takedowns. However, Dillashaw has given up only five takedowns in his entire MMA career: One of them was a complete surprise against John Lineker of all people, and the other four all came against Dominick Cruz, who master classed him but, more importantly, buttered him up with superior boxing. Cejudo does not hold that advantage.
This fight is scheduled for 25 minutes, and assuming his weight cut isn’t a fight-crippling nightmare, Dillashaw should be afforded five full rounds to put the entirety of his game on a smaller man at a three-inch reach disadvantage who punches even shorter because he never throws straight crosses while coming into close range. So long as Dillashaw is healthy after the cut and doesn’t get overly cocky, he should be able to implement his full offensive arsenal, confusing and cracking Cejudo with a 25-minute window. At +220, that feels pretty good for me.
An Unprop-ular BetGeoff Neal by Knockout (+165)
Advising against a particular bet is not a vote against a particular fighter. I actually think the Neal-Belal Muhammad fight is an awesome bit of matchmaking at 170 pounds, and like oddsmakers, I like Neal to get his hand raised. Even so, with an 8-1 record with six finishes over his last nine fights -- especially with his brutal head-kick knockout of Frank Camacho in September still ringing in the minds of MMA fans -- I see a lot of folks expecting “Handz of Steel” to blow Muhammad out of the water. In fact, if you Google search “Geoff Neal Sherdog,” the third result is a forum thread entitled “Geoff Neal future champion or not?” I mean, the man has fought twice in the UFC. Don’t get too excited, at least not yet.
With so many succulent props, I would simply caution against this one. Yes, Neal lands an insane 7.74 significant strikes per minute, but that’s based on a very small sample size in which he blew out both of his UFC opponents, so it’s more important that we analyze the actual style matchup here. Neal has vastly improved his entire offensive game over the last three years, but he is still a diligent stalker. Muhammad prefers to circle away and preserve distance, working his out-jab while leg kicking his opponents. I like Neal to win this fight because I think his forward pressure and flashy striking are going to curry favor with the judges, perhaps dinging Muhammad, as well. With that said, Muhammad likes to keep his distance, and he is going to force Neal to chase him across the cage to land his newly found brand of high-octane offense.
Neal has a bright future at 170 pounds, whether it’s in the UFC or otherwise, but this is a case where the hunter is going to really have to chase his prey and a dangerous prey at that; it is not as though Muhammad’s leg kicks can’t add up or that he can’t land hard punches off that counter. Look for Neal for to earn the W, but the emphasis is on “earn.” This is the kind of fight that lets us know where both fighters stand, with a rigorous and difficult style matchup for each fighter. That seldom amounts to a dramatic knockout, so you’re better left jumping on some of the delicious props I previously addressed.
An Accumulation ContemplationDillashaw (-210)
Glover Teixeira (-125)
Total Odds: +337
I’ve already twice espoused why I like Dillashaw to get the job done, hence why I like him as the anchor of a three-team parlay on this card. If you don’t feel likewise or maybe just want a better multiplier, I’m an understanding sort of dude. May I recommend Bermudez at +105 against Edwards? “Dennis the Menace” has only recently lost tough split decisions against top-flight featherweight opposition, and Edwards is still incredibly raw and lacks the wrestling skills to deal with Bermudez’s stereotypical oeuvre.
Maybe I’m a coward, but I always like a bit of a safety net in my parlays, knowing how drastically things can go to hell in a handbasket in this sport. If you’re a bit saucier, substituting the decent favorite Dillashaw for the moderate underdog Bermudez, your three-team odds jump from +337 to +507. Pick your poison, baby. Trust your intuition. I’m just a goof writing a column.
With Teixeira, there’s some justified trepidation, as the Brazilian is now 39 years old and certainly on the backside of his career. He is going to lose his status as a perennial Top 10 light heavyweight in the very near future, but I don’t think Karl Roberson is the man to take that status from him.
Cezar Ferreira humiliated Roberson on the mat just nine months ago. Teixeira is still a physically imposing 205-pounder with above-average wrestling, especially against a one-dimensional striker. I like Teixeira to play this one close to the vest, seek takedowns and play his top game for 15 minutes or less, with a significant chance that his top-heavy grappling game could even garner him a submission against a far less-heeled adversary like Roberson.
As for VanZant, she has every advantage in the world here. I know there is a natural animus against VanZant because the UFC chose her as its golden girl and she hasn’t shown the otherworldly skill of another strawweight like, say, “Ultimate Fighter” winner Tatiana Suarez. Still, she’s only 24 years old, a plus athlete and, more importantly than anything, the UFC wants to prosper on its investment and is giving her a physically attractive and under-skilled opponent in Ostovich -- someone against whom she can land volumes of strikes and thoroughly outscramble, even with her iffy wrestling.
More cruelly and at the risk of being morbid, we can’t discount Ostovich’s recent personal travails, dealing with the psychological toll of domestic abuse. I take no relish in this; it’s a horrifying, lamentable and grim situation that unfortunately seems to encircle not just Ostovich but women in this sport in general. Nonetheless, it’s not something that can be overlooked. VanZant is recently engaged and living the time of her life, and Ostovich is dealing with something that no person ever should ever have to go through while trying to train for the biggest fight of her life. It’s a gruesome and semantically skeptical proposition. I’m aware this may sound cold, but while my heart begs for Ostovich to harness her pain and garner the biggest win of her career, I know that’s not how fighting works and fully expect her decision to fight onward to get the better of her and for VanZant to capitalize.
Frankly, the UFC on goodwill should have pulled Ostovich from this bout, paid at least her show purse and given VanZant a new opponent. If Ostovich pulls the upset, it may stand as a testament to the strength of human will and an equalizing power for women in this sport. However, reality intercedes: VanZant is an active offensive fighter, and even if she is sloppy with her wrestling, she atones for it with her natural scrambling ability. There’s a decent chance she takes Ostovich’s back and chokes her out, but even if she does not, “12 Gauge” is going to be in the driver’s seat here. Suffice to say, whatever their individual reasons, the MMA populace will be rooting for an upset. I can’t blame them.
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