Parlaying and Praying: UFC Fight Night 148 ‘Thompson vs. Pettis’

By Jordan Breen Mar 22, 2019

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday heads to Nashville for the fifth time, as former UFC lightweight king Anthony Pettis moves up to 170 pounds to face two-time welterweight title contender Stephen Thompson. Did you know that Tennessee does not have a single casino or racetrack? Well, that’s not going to stop us from making some money on UFC Fight Night 148.

We cashed nicely on Leon Edwards and a juicy three-team parlay at UFC Fight Night 147, and we might have made even more coin if the Tom Breese-Ian Heinsich bout had not fallen apart due to Breese’s medical issues. What is on tap this week to keep the money spigot flowing?

Beyond the Thompson-Pettis main event, we have heavyweight mauler Curtis Blaydes taking on Justin Willis, now 4-0 in the UFC, in a co-headliner that should offer us a good bit of play. We may not have a fully stocked slate of interesting underdogs, but half of the fights on this card in Music City feature a favorite that’s -160 or less, which gives us some options and flexibility. As such, you do not have to drive 250 miles into Mississippi from Nashville to cash out when it comes to UFC Fight Night 148:

Straight Up Cash

Curtis Blaydes (-250)

As always, we try to reserve the Straight Up Cash category for the main or co-main event, and recent money has been coming in on Pettis, driving Thompson from -450 to -370 in the last few days. Despite that fluctuation, unless you got Thompson opening at -285, you might as well stick to Blaydes against Willis, as he sits at an even better number and, for my money, represents a surer thing.

I imagine part of this line is prejudiced by the fact that Blaydes got absolutely clunked by Francis Ngannou in 45 seconds last time out, but Ngannou has been quick to remind us what a destructive puncher he is and Blaydes never even got a chance to do a single thing other than feint and throw a jab. How quickly we forget the beatings the much-improved Blaydes put on Alexey Oleynik, Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem. Don’t forget, Blaydes just turned 28, and when he entered the UFC less than three years ago, he was greener than grass and training out of a UFC Gym. Since linking arms with Elevation Fight Team under coaches Amal Easton and Eliot Marshall, he has improved tremendously skill-wise, complementing his enormous frame.

Willis, a former collegiate football player, is still pretty green himself and has developed solid kickboxing fundamentals working at American Kickboxing Academy. It’s no fluke that he has gone 4-0 in the UFC; however, he has fought very modest opposition outside of a completely shopworn and disinterested Mark Hunt. That being said, there’s a major statistical sticking point for me here: Blaydes averages a whopping 6.75 takedowns per 15 minutes, the highest rate in the UFC outside of lightweight Gregor Gillespie. On the other hand, take a guess at Willis’ takedown defense percentage. Zero. Why? In four Octagon appearances, Willis has not faced one single takedown attempt. Not one. I can’t imagine Blaydes isn’t going to exploit “Big Pretty’s” untested takedown defense. Once the Chicago native gets Willis on the floor, I suspect he’ll dish out exactly the sort of devastating punches and elbows he’s flexed throughout his MMA career on his way to a tidy stoppage.

Straight Up Pass

Jennifer Maia (+120)

Usual caveat: This isn’t to say Maia can’t defeat Alexis Davis. In fact, in the mythical world of “on paper,” she probably should. However, Maia is always mercurial, and in spite of how many advantages she theoretically possesses, she often finds a way to undermine herself.

It wasn’t long ago that the former Invicta Fighting Championships flyweight queen was at the top of the heap at 125 pounds, so there was some excitement around her UFC debut in July. However, against Liz Carmouche, she never got her striking game off and routinely let herself get run into the fence, and once she was taken to the floor, Maia looked nothing like a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, as “Girl-rilla” just pounded away and easily cut through her guard. While I thought Maia actually won the first around against Carmouche, she was less effective in every round thereafter, and by Round 3, she seemed completely defeated and out of it despite having a more diverse, technical striking game.

The 34-year-old Davis certainly isn’t much of an athlete, but she more than makes up for that deficiency. Also a BJJ black belt, she is fantastically technical and slick on the floor. Even when she gets stuck on the feet against superior strikers, Davis often manages to make the best of things with a steady-if-tepid kicking output, actually landing a surprising 4.18 significant strikes per minute despite that seemingly being at total odds with her game. She is not a dynamite wrestler, but she’s skilled at tying up foes and working them to the floor if they don’t disengage. If Maia just accepts the body lock the way she did against Carmouche, even if Davis is half the athlete, the Brazilian could find herself stuck to the floor and getting her guard dismantled. Again, if Maia is on point, this could be a great bounce-back fight for her, but given her history of underperforming and shoddy strategy, I wouldn’t be swayed by the +120 line. If you have your heart set on taking an underdog, I’d take Frankie Saenz at +140 over Marlon Vera.

A Prop-ular Bet

Stephen Thompson Wins by Decision (+150)

While I think a lot of these straight-up moneyline bets are either too long to be valuable or too iffy to invest in, there are plenty of interesting props. You could just as easily go for Blaydes by knockout at +200 or Luis Pena over Steven Peterson inside the distance at +170, both of which are fantastic. Yet similar to why I always reserve the Straight Up Cash portion for a headliner or co-feature, I’m cognizant that this column isn’t just about betting. Readers like some big fight analysis, as well, so for the sake of variety and some main event discussion, we’ll go with Thompson on points here.

I like “Wonderboy” in the fight for the reasons I suspect most do. Not only is Pettis moving up in weight, but he has eaten 5.55 significant strikes per minute over his last five fights and has looked like a shell of his former self. He’s a natural counterstriker, and while Thompson throws 8.15 significant strikes per minute, he does so while expertly controlling range. He’ll enjoy three inches on “Showtime,” who shouldn’t have much chance to land significant counter shots or body kicks. Plus, keep in mind, Thompson, despite how hard Tyron Woodley rung his bell, has never been knocked out in his career.

That’s why Thompson will win, but if this is such an open and shut case, why the love for this prop? Well, first of all, consider that “Wonderboy” has only scored knockouts in half of his pro wins and his only two in the last five years are over faded versions of Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger, both of whom were willing to chase and leap at him with punches. On top of that, while Pettis has been “knocked out” twice in his career, context is crucial. Once was coach Duke Roufus stopping the fight on account of Pettis’ broken hand in the Tony Ferguson fight and the other was human turbine Max Holloway decimating an overweight “featherweight” incarnation of “Showtime.” To my mind, even if Thompson is piling up the points on a languid, out of sync Pettis, the karate stylist will be content to preserve the distance and keep at his point-fighting attack for all 25 minutes.

An Unprop-ular Bet

Marlon Vera Inside the Distance (+175)

Since “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America,” Vera has improved quite a bit, and more than that, he’s worked his way into the hearts of fans as an all-action mid-card fighter. He’s 5-2 over his last seven outings, only losing to quality talent like John Lineker and Douglas Silva de Andrade. More importantly, he’s generally entertaining and goes all-out in every fight trying to earn a stoppage. In fact, he has finished his last four victories in the Octagon, so I can understand why folks would think this would be a juicy line to jump on with Vera facing the 38-year-old Saenz. I’d personally pump the breaks on that.

I feel Saenz is perpetually underrated as a grinder and a tough out. In fact, he actually lands more significant strikes per minute than “Chito,” 3.99 to 3.23. He even has better striking defense, absorbing only 3.09 significant strikes per minute to Vera’s 3.93. Better for Saenz is that while he will be giving up four inches of reach to the rangier Vera, his style is built on barreling inside and landing punch rushes before pressing his opponents inside the phone booth -- a tactic which may be able to defuse some of Vera’s wild, unpredictable striking.

Most formatively, Vera isn’t a great takedown defender or inside grappler. He can get lost in a clinch, and he was taken down twice by Guido Cannetti and Wuliji Buren, both inferior grapplers to Saenz. The American has been knocked out just once in over seven years and has never been submitted in his career, which is actually Vera’s bread and butter. While I think Saenz is the best straight-up underdog pick on the card, even if Vera is to win, he will likely have to go the full 15 minutes, constantly striking and scrambling in order to get his hand raised, making this prop less than desirable.

An Accumulation Contemplation

Curtis Blaydes (-250)
Bobby Moffett (-150)
Eric Shelton (-150)
Total Odds: +289

I already expressed my affinity for Blaydes. Granted, this inclusion is a bit of safe one, but frankly, every three-team parlay needs an anchor for safety, and who better to anchor you than a 265-plus-pound man? I’ve also expressed my affinity for Saenz as an underdog, and Deiveson Figueiredo at -135 could work here if you’re feeling especially bold. Yet I always think you want to balance the best mix of certainty and risk in a parlay, and I think that’s what we have here.

No doubt, Moffett is in for a tough fight against 10-0 Bryce Mitchell. Sure, his UFC debut came with some controversy, as Chas Skelly didn’t appear to tap to Moffett’s brabo choke. Nonetheless, “The Wolfman” has shown major gains in his overall game since getting with the MMA Lab, and his only loss in the last seven bouts was a borderline strikes stoppage to Thanh Le, which he immediately protested. An “Ultimate Fighter 27” alum, Mitchell is an aggressive, cutthroat grappler who finished his first eight opponents via submission. He’s well-rounded, but I think Moffett’s the sharper, more aggressive boxer, which should serve to set up his superior takedown game. From there, unless Mitchell can catch him from the bottom or sweep him, his own aggression may play against him and let Moffett take dominant position on the counter. This is a difficult matchup, but I still think Moffett at -150 is a nice link in our parlay chain.

With Shelton, my only concern is the fragmented nature of his game. He overachieved with his run on “The Ultimate Fighter 22” but has only gone 2-3 in the UFC. However, he could easily be 4-1, given how razor-thin his split decision losses to Alexandre Pantoja and Jarred Brooks were. He’s a fantastic athlete, he can box, his wrestling is sharp and he has a smothering top game. The major sticking point with his game is that it lacks some synergy; he’s good at individual components of MMA but often fails to meld them together as well you’d hope. Hopefully this changed since his shift to American Top Team. Jordan Espinosa is a tough wrestler in his own right and should be able to make things difficult for Shelton, but he is at a deficit on the feet and should struggle to get his own takedowns with consistency, hence our inclusion of “Showtime” to finish our three-team parlay.
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