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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday remains at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas for UFC 250, which is not its 250th numbered event. Although the headliner likely lacks a decent avenue to make bank, several other close matchups on the card deserve attention. Time to take a few risks to hit it big in this UFC 250 edition of Prime Picks.
Raphael Assuncao (+120)
A lot can change in three years. Once on top of the world after styling on Dominick Cruz, Cody Garbrandt’s highest of highs transitioned to the lowest of lows when rival and former training partner T.J. Dillashaw leveled him at the second event in Madison Square Garden. Although Garbrandt could hold his head high knowing he nearly scored the finish, a rematch the following year was much more emphatic. To make matters worse, a seemingly emotionally compromised “No Love” attempted to bounce back several months later but fell victim to his own aggression and was put out by Pedro Munhoz. Even though he claims to be in a better head space for this bout against Assuncao, we believe the Brazilian counterstriker can get the upper hand in this marquee matchup at 135 pounds.
Garbrandt has the skills and the power to beat any bantamweight in the world. As to what holds him back, he put it this way: “It’s me vs. me, always. If I can battle myself, if I can defeat myself, I can go on and destroy.” When a fighter is coming off of multiple devastating knockouts, a change can do his head some good, so Garbrandt relocated some of his training from Team Alpha Male to New Jersey to train with the likes of Ricardo Almeida and Mark Henry. For Garbrandt’s sake, one hopes they train him to control his overconfidence in the cage, as well as his reckless aggression. With a single training camp split across the country, it seems unlikely that bad habits like those can be shaken so soon.
Garbrandt’s bad habits—which have recently consisted of holding his hands down and his chin up in the air—can easily be exploited by a measured but effective striker like Assuncao. Long considered to be a neutralizer among the bantamweight ranks, his style may not have done him any favors while he lingered in the Top 5 without any serious consideration of a title shot. To beat Garbrandt, Assuncao will need to be at his suffocating best, either mashing the former champ against the cage or dragging the fight down to take away the Ohio native’s best weapons.
Dating back nearly 10 years, the losses for Assuncao—beyond a blistering right hand from Erik Koch in his UFC debut—can be attributed to Dillashaw, Cory Sandhagen and Marlon Moraes. Garbrandt will find himself in an elite club should he get his hand raised, but at this juncture, there are more ways for Assuncao to win than there are for Garbrandt. The former champ could easily blow up this line by landing one of his crushing right hands, but assuming Assuncao takes few risks in this fight and does not get caught standing in front of his opponent for long, the Brazilian should get his hand raised. It may not be pretty, but there will be no crowd to boo and encourage the referee to separate the fighters quickly, so there could be a real incentive for Assuncao to embrace the grind.
Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen Goes to Decision (-210)
This may be considered the safe route and a copout for not picking a winner in this pivotal bantamweight battle, but this closely matched affair is currently a coinflip. As it stands, Sterling is -115 while Sandhagen is -105, and this line will almost certainly fluctuate until it closes on Saturday. In this unusual time where fight camps happen in the garages of training partners or after sneaking into closed gyms locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some questions will linger even after the judges submit their scorecards for this major tilt. As both of these men are young, with Sterling two years the elder at a mere 30, it would not be surprising if this is the first of multiple fights between these two.
On paper, Sterling appears to be slightly better at each specific skill set than his opponent. His offensive and defensive wrestling is more effective, his submission game is more versatile and his striking is quicker. Both fighters have shown tremendous ability to take a shot, with the two bantamweights combining for one sole stoppage loss—when Moraes knocked out Sterling and a few of his immediate family members with a perfectly placed knee while the Serra-Longo Fight Team standout was shooting in for takedown. Outside of one flush knee that is still part of highlight reel packages today, the two men can take a shot. In fact, within the last year or so, both men have taken at least 100 strikes in a single sitting from various opponents.
The close nature of this bout leads many to wish that it took place over five rounds instead of three, providing greater stakes for the winner as well as better pay across the board. Championship lamentations aside, three rounds may not be enough to settle it between these two bantamweight contenders. Five of the last six wins for Sterling have come on the scorecards, while each of Sandhagen’s last two bouts went the distance, as well. While this fight could hinge on one making single mistake, the high level of skills involved leads us to believe that neither man will be able to capitalize on such a mistake to set up a finishing sequence. Should you disagree completely, the opposing line is +160.
Neil Magny (-135)
Rarely do many analysts read a pick completely in the opposite direction compared to how it happens, but this certainly took place at UFC 248 in March. The expectation of many was that Magny would wilt under the pressure of the surging Jingliang Li, but he held fast and clobbered “The Leech” for three rounds. Instead of falling victim to his opponent’s heavy hands, Magny survived a thudding right in the first round and went on to control the rest of the fight. Through it all, his jab was perhaps the most effective weapon in his coming back to get a win.
Since his rebranding from Tony Martin to Anthony Rocco Martin, the 30-year-old American Top Team Evolution fighter has developed his game to match his claim of having a well-rounded skillset. His lone setback the last few years came against Demian Maia’s stifling ground game, and a decent third round where he rocked the Brazilian nearly saw him pull out a draw on the scorecards. While Martin is absolutely good everywhere, Magny may be better where it counts.
Magny will hold a massive seven-inch reach advantage, which will work substantially in his favor should he rely on the jab once more to keep range. Although the long, rangy Magny has shown holes in his takedown defense over the years, Martin does not appear to be the fighter who will want put the fight on the ground. The last time Martin scored a takedown was against Johnny Case in 2017, but it was purely for lack of trying; he has not even attempted one in his last seven bouts. With a seeming advantage in the takedown game and the ability to establish his striking off of a long jab with a decent amount of pop to it, this could be Magny’s bout to lose. We do not anticipate a finish, and the prop for Magny Wins by Decision is a reasonable +145 should one wish to dig a little deeper.
Eddie Wineland (+400)
Fans of “Sugar” Sean O'Malley should not despair, but this is a line that looks quite intriguing given Wineland’s breadth of experience. O’Malley is the prohibitive favorite and perhaps rightfully so given his volume striking approach. Even so, there is solid value in a flier on the former World Extreme Cagefighting champ. Rarely has power presented itself in the bantamweight division like it has for Wineland, who is always a clubbing right hand away from separating someone from their consciousness. While O’Malley may be the one who gets his hand raised, the 35-year-old Wineland expressed on Media Day that he is in better shape now than he was 10 years ago . If O’Malley approaches this carelessly, he could easily get cracked.
In his most recent appearance, Wineland spoiled the debut of streaking Russian Grigory Popov in thrilling fashion. To do so, Wineland took some damage and a lot of kicks from the newcomer, but he had Popov hurt repeatedly in a performance some say turned back the clock. Wineland’s skillset is a fairly clear one at this stage in the game: O’Malley poignantly pointed out that Wineland keeps his hands low and prefers to brawl . Although he has lost four of seven dating back the last six years, Wineland’s victories in that stretch came by relentless, almost overwhelming knockout.
Level of competition is a question often posed about undefeated prospects who are looking to climb the ladder. In his last bout, the 25-year-old O’Malley—who had been plagued by injury and United States Anti-Doping Agency issues—sparked Jose Alberto Quinonez in the first round and made it look easy. Even so, Quinonez may have been his best opponent to date. Meanwhile, Wineland appears to be one brutal knockout away from the Top 15. While some adversaries may fall for some of O’Malley’s more flashy techniques and footwork, a seasoned vet like Wineland may not take the bait; and while the picks for most if not all of the Sherdog.com staff members might still read O’Malley, Wineland has a real path to victory and can spoil the party of the colorful “Sugar Sean” show. At +400—the line of Wineland by TKO/KO of +675 is similarly appealing—it could be a great way to quadruple your money if you are willing to take a risk or think that Wineland is too much, too soon for O’Malley.
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