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UFC Fight Night 146 on Saturday hits the Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas, the city that gave us one of the world’s most powerful multinational corporations in Koch Industries and serves as the home of the stuffed crust pizza, Pizza Hut and miniature, barely edible White Castle hamburgers. It seems fitting for a city steeped in fast-food tradition that we have some heavyweights featured prominently on the card. How can we, ahem, “slide” in and make some cheese? Yes, that’s a horrible, double fast-food pun, and I apologize.
Stakes are high in our main event: Former UFC champion Junior dos Santos is looking for his third straight win and a chance to regain the title he lost over six years ago, but in order to do so, he will have to go through heavy-hitting Derrick Lewis, a man hoping to rebound from his failed bid to unseat Daniel Cormier in November. Meanwhile, the main card also features former World Series of Fighting champion Blagoy Ivanov, who looks for his first UFC win against a fellow former dos Santos victim in Ben Rothwell. “Big Ben” returns after a nearly three-year absence due to a United States Anti-Doping Agency violation.
If heavyweight affairs do not hold your attention, our co-feature boasts a thrilling clash of strikers at 170 pounds between Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and Curtis Millender in what is probably the most exciting on-paper fight on this 13-bout card. Speaking of the Zaleski dos Santos-Millender fight, it’s just about at even odds, which is emblematic of this event. It may not have the most star power in the world, but no favorite is above -220 and only two are above -200 period. Simply put, this is a tightly matched show, which might give you some headaches in a pick-’em league but makes you feel a lot better if you can make some money off of it. With that said, let’s figure out that part and recover some of the coin we lost with Tyron Woodley getting demolished at UFC 235:
Straight Up CashJunior dos Santos (-210)
It goes without saying that dos Santos isn’t the same fighter that he was six or seven years ago when he was atop the heavyweight division, but as we’ve seen in recent bouts, he’s far from a spent force. In fact, in the last three years, the only fighter to beat him was then-champion Stipe Miocic, who was at the peak of his powers at the time. Dos Santos may be 35 years old and his two vicious beatings at the hands of Cain Velasquez took an incalculable amount of his athletic prime away from him, but this is the heavyweight division, where high-level skill and athleticism has an incredibly long half-life, especially if you have some real technical striking ability like dos Santos.
Make no mistake, Lewis is a brute and a more well-rounded standup fighter than he gets credit for. He can land with one-hitter-quitter power from outside but also has nasty short punches, elbows and knees from the clinch. While dos Santos is by far fleeter of foot when compared to Lewis’ plodding style, “Cigano” does have a fondness to back himself to the fence and allow opponents to get inside on him from time to time, which is how upstart Tai Tuivasa got to him early in their bout back in December. Dos Santos is at his most vulnerable when he neglects his fantastic jab, and such an omission here could be disastrous against “The Black Beast,” who does some of his best work -- if not his very best -- when he can barrel his opponents into the fence and then strike off of the break.
With that said, Lewis’ flat-footed, trudging style should turn on the light bulb above dos Santos’ head here. Even if the Brazilian wants to circle the perimeter and try to bait Lewis, using a strong jab and heavy low kicks -- an attack Lewis rarely defends, to his detriment -- he can put a lot of damage on his opponent early and control the tempo, distance and rhythm of the contest. Also, dos Santos seldom flashes his wrestling, but Lewis’ top-heavy body and ho-hum defensive wrestling give “Cigano” another interesting offensive tool at his disposal, especially given his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt credentials. Do not forget, he did take down Shane Carwin twice, and even if Lewis is going to just secure double overhooks and try to stall for a restart, it’s yet another way that dos Santos can seek to exhaust the former Legacy Fighting Championship titleholder and his notoriously poor gas tank in a five-round fight.
Lewis is an ever-present danger on the feet and dos Santos is not as durable as he was in his heyday; there’s no disputing these two facts. However, dos Santos has far better fundamental MMA tools at his disposal, is far better conditioned and has shown he is capable of working methodical strategies geared towards five-round affairs. He cannot get lazy, forget to jab or let Lewis grimy up things inside, but if dos Santos can mitigate those factors, he should be looking at a late-round stoppage or a clear-cut decision win. If you bet dos Santos early and got your hands on him at -150, kudos to you, but even if you’re betting headed into the weekend, -210 is not a bad number for an all-time great heavyweight with such clear stylistic and tactical advantages.
Straight Up PassMillender (-120) -Zaleski dos Santos (-110)
As a spectator, I’m incredibly excited for this showdown of riveting welterweight strikers. As a gambler, I want absolutely no part of this bad boy. It’s not just because the odds are near a pick-’em price; there are plenty of even or nearly even fights that are exploitable. With this one, however, I think it’s best to just kick back and enjoy the fireworks.
Millender has three inches on Zaleski dos Santos in height and reach, but once you drop the measuring tape and go to the computer, they have highly similar statistics in the striking department. Zaleski dos Santos lands slightly more significant strikes per minute, 4.33 to Millender’s 4.24, while “Curtious” is more accurate, 45 percent to 40. “Capoeira” eats 2.95 significant strikes per minute and defends at a 62 percent clip, while Millender absorbs 2.93 at a 63 percent clip. In the broad strokes, there are some similarities between both fighters in terms of their general work rate and defense, as they operate at similar tempos and are most likely to get hit on the counterattack. That’s why it’s important to go inside the numbers on this one, and that’s where things get tricky.
Zaleski dos Santos has a strong jab but seldom chooses to use it, instead opting to close distance and set up punches with wild flying and spinning attacks. He often teeters on the precipice of being out of control, and while it works more often than not, when it doesn’t, he opens himself to takedowns and counter shots routinely. On top of that, while he’s not a poor clinch fighter by any means, the Brazilian excels when he comes forward and closes the distance while he attacks. However, Zaleski dos Santos sometimes struggles once he is actually locked in close quarters with an opponent, as we saw in his fight with Lyman Good. In his last outing against Luigi Vendramini, he managed to pull off the sensational flying knee for the win, but he also squandered the first round with reckless attacks that saw him give up his back.
Millender is not going to try to grapple with Zaleski dos Santos; in fact, if any party does the grappling, it will be Zaleski dos Santos. After all, look at Millender’s last fight against Siyar Bahadurzada, who was dead to rites after being nearly knocked out several times yet still managed to effortlessly take down the CSW export. However, Millender is the faster fighter, with power in both hands and especially both feet. More importantly to this situation, he prefers to feint and jab to make his opponents react before using his superior quickness to counter with his hands or throw up one of his lethal shins -- either of them -- from whatever stance. The American’s ability to simply dodge one punch, dip the opposite way and bring his leg with him straight into the jaw of his opponent is truly remarkable. With Millender being the speedier and more nimble man with superior countering skills, I’m left to wonder how effective Zaleski dos Santos’ whirling-dervish style is going to be if Millender is cutting angles and tagging him with fists and feet. At the same time, when opponents slow down the fight a shade, Millender can get lazy with his own jabs and feints if his adversaries are not giving him anything to counter, allowing them to catch him napping with sudden rushing shots.
I love the matchup and hope for some nifty, high-octane striking in this fight, the winner of which will really get a boost in the ever-stalwart welterweight division. However, given the style matchup and defensive liabilities of both guys, I’m far more content to remove the financial sweat from the situation and just enjoy a fantastic scrap with legitimate 170-pound implications.
A Prop-ular BetAnthony Rocco Martin-Sergio Moraes Goes to Decision (+105)
I’ve talked before about exploiting those lovely little gaps in the betting matrix, especially when it comes to prop bets, and I think this is one of those opportunities. Right now, the prop on Martin-Moraes to go over two and a half rounds is about -130, yet it’s +105 to go to a decision, meaning that oddsmakers have some kind of confidence in a potential stoppage in the final two and a half minutes of the third round. That seems bizarre and misinformed to me, especially if we consider the style clash here, which makes this a prop worth jumping on.
To be fair, Martin does have four third-round stoppages in his 16 wins, but only one of those, his submission of Felipe Olivieri, came in the final two and a half minutes of the fight. Meanwhile, even if Moraes is a 36-year-old man still picking up the striking side of things, he has only been stopped once in the last eight-plus years and that was by Kamaru Usman, the newly minted king of the welterweights. What exactly is the thinking here? I will admit, there’s a danger that Martin, who has also really picked up his striking lately, could level the Brazilian, or that Moraes, a legitimate world-class jiu-jitsu player, could tap Martin, just as Leonardo Santos and Beneil Dariush did. Again, however, I come back to the style pairing.
Yes, Martin is the superior striker and put his shin upside Ryan LaFlare’s head in October, but on the feet, he operates at a diligent pace behind a steady boxing game, usually to set up clinches and grappling opportunities. In fact, the LaFlare knockout is the only strikes stoppage of his entire seven-year pro career; Martin’s game is built around grinding down opponents to a nub before latching onto a submission. No matter how tired he gets, Moraes’ grappling pedigree is almost certainly going to allow him to avoid danger in that capacity. Moraes surprising Martin with a takedown of his own and getting an early submission is the biggest threat to this prop bet, but “The Panther” has only completed a dismal 34 percent of his takedowns in the UFC, and most of those were shot on far weaker and less physical wrestlers than Martin.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. Martin is most likely going to box up Moraes from distance and sprawl on his shots for 15 minutes, and while Moraes could bust our prop if he gets a takedown early in a round, his chances to lock up a clean submission are going to taper off as the fight wears on and the Brazilian’s iffy gas tank rears its ugly head; never mind the sweat factor involved in the grappling department. If this prop scares you for some reason, you could always take a flier on Rothwell, who hasn’t fought for nearly three years, going the distance with Ivanov at a tidy +130, but frankly, considering the unfathomable disparity between the late finish and decision proposition lines here, I love +105 for Martin and Moraes to go to the judges.
An Unprop-ular BetJeff Hughes-Maurice Greene Ends In Under 2.5 Rounds (+115)
Two big-bodied, non-elite heavyweights with 10 stoppages in their 16 combined pro wins seems like a recipe for a stoppage, and I will grant you that it’s a possibility in this fight. Still, I’m quick to caution -- at least depending on the style pairing -- against relying on division-based back-pocket wisdom. Just as it’s silly to assume that a flyweight bout is going the full 15 minutes because just about 59 percent of UFC 125-pound fights go to decision, it’s equally silly to imagine that any given heavyweight fight is a lock to finish because about 75 percent of them end inside the distance.
Hughes and Greene have already fought before, and guess what? Not only did it go to a decision in Hughes’ favor, but it was actually a five-round bout for the Legacy Fighting Alliance heavyweight title. Even with an additional 10 minutes for either man to find a finish, neither could. It’s not as though that fight is recent history, either, as it happened barely 10 months ago. This is not to say that a finish is impossible here, just that your bankroll could be better spent elsewhere.
Greene, despite being hyped as a kickboxer, is mostly a distance-based kicker with shaky defense. In fact, he is actually at his best and most dangerous on the floor, where he’s a surprisingly nimble submission grappler. Meanwhile, Hughes has a little pop in his hands and isn’t afraid to throw, but he’s at his best when he can use his punches to set up takedowns and grind on top, just as he did in his first bout with “The Crochet Boss.” Greene was out of gas quickly in their first encounter, and Hughes was happy to land punch volleys, tackle him to the mat and exploit his tired foe; the Strong Style Fight Team product has only finished half of his pro wins in spite of fighting on the regional circuit as a heavyweight.
I’m expecting a truncated repeat of their LFA title fight in this rematch and yet another decision victory for Hughes. I think the oddsmakers have this line just about right; after all, these are two big but unpolished heavyweights, so one man clunking the other is a possibility, but we already have strong evidence between their first bout and general understanding of their styles that makes it more than likely that this is one of the one-in-four UFC heavyweight fights that goes to the cards. Whether or not this ends up finishing inside the distance, I see this as an instance to err on the side of caution and not fall into the trap of imagining every bout between big boys is going to result in someone biting the dust.
An Accumulation ContemplationJunior dos Santos (-210)
Yana Kunitskaya (-170)
Total Odds: +252
I already detailed my preference for dos Santos in the main event, and while he’s the second-biggest favorite on the card, -210 is still a solid number to throw into any three-team parlay, especially for a strong favorite. More than that, dos Santos and Lewis are both known quantities, with plenty of experience, well-defined games and known strengths and weaknesses. When we look over the rest of this card, we’re looking at a lot of fights that are either more tightly matched, involve highly variable fighters with many question marks about their games or both. Dos Santos is no surefire bet, as this is a heavyweight fight and Lewis is a demolisher, but if we’re choosing three fighters, “Cigano” gives us not only a safer option but safety at a good price.
For that same reason, I like Dariush. Bittersweet as it might be, the book has been written on Dariush: He’s a well-rounded, talented kickboxer with legitimate Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt skills on the floor, but he’s often not much of strategist and his chin can be a major issue against fighters with real firepower. Fortunately for him, he has two inches of reach on Drew Dober, who is primarily a southpaw kickboxer like Dariush but not as good of one, eating 4.17 significant strikes per minute while only having two knockouts in the last eight years, one over the anonymous Jason Gonzalez and the other against a completely shopworn Joshua Burkman. Better still for Dariush, if he wants to go the wrestling route as he did in his last outing against Thiago Moises, Dober only defends 60 percent of takedown attempts against him. The Kings MMA product is getting a highly preferential matchup here and -200 is a quality number, so to add this to our three-team effort seems like a no-brainer.
As for Kunitskaya, this line would be sweeter if you caught her early when she opened around -150, but -170 ain’t too shabby. The danger here is that Reneau is a slick grappler with a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, and the biggest struggle Kunitskaya has had throughout her career has been giving up position and submission attempts. With that said, “Foxy” has improved her overall game since moving her training camps stateside, first with Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and now with Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. Her considerably improved standup game, especially her jab and kicking offense, should allow her to dictate terms on the feet. Where she really excels, though, is roughing up opponents against the cage, buying takedowns and pounding on top. What’s important here is that she is able to fight at her own tempo and not get greedy. Both Talita Bernardo and Bethe Correia were handling Reneau early on until they both gassed out and allowed “The Belizean Bruiser” to storm them late. Kunitskaya has proven she has the gas to go 25 minutes at a solid tempo in the past, so barring any incautious screwups in the grappling game, she should be able to grind out the decision here.