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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday in Las Vegas will put on a pay-per-view for all the marbles, as fans are treated to a headliner that may determine the greatest UFC heavyweight of all-time. In this UFC 252 edition of Prime Picks, we take some risks and go out on a limb for four fighters who are not favored to win their respective matchups. Can we take advantage of some potential upsets on this card?
Stipe Miocic (-105)
This headliner trilogy match is a pick-’em—Daniel Cormier comes back at a slightly more favored -115—for obvious reasons. Not a great deal of time has passed for either man since their last bout. Although they have met once per year, no UFC fighter has ever faced the same opponent three times in a row inside the Octagon, and Miocic will achieve the unusual feat at the UFC Apex. With no other opponents to test your skills against and a presumably limited training regimen due to the pandemic, we expect that the two best versions of these men will not be present on this card. It is not likely that Miocic will have shored up his wrestling enough to stop what Cormier did to him in the first round of their second meeting, just as it is as equally unexpected that Cormier will be able to protect his midsection from a vicious assault.
Miocic’s first go-round with Cormier ended poorly, and although he was arguably winning most of their initial exchanges, a deadly right hand in the clinch was all “DC” needed to get his hand raised in the end. The knockout was so devastating that Miocic’s short-term memory was eradicated, and he needed to watch the replay in the cage to learn he was ever in a fight. Cormier tried to tie up Miocic and replicate those results in their rematch, but the greatest success the former light heavyweight king enjoyed was in the wrestling department. The man who managed to lift catch wrestling extraordinaire Josh Barnett in the air and tossed him to the canvas as if he were a bag of fertilizer did something similarly demoralizing to Miocic in their second encounter. The horn was the only thing that helped Miocic return to a standing position in the opening round.
In what was easily one of the most impressive comeback performances we have seen inside the UFC cage this side of Derrick Lewis-Alexander Volkov, Miocic changed his entire strategy after giving up at least the first two rounds. In Round 3, the tide started to turn as Miocic began to find his range and even implement his own takedown game. The fourth frame was where it all changed, as Miocic almost exclusively targeted the then-champ’s midsection, as if “DC” were King Hippo from “Punch-Out.” As the damage mounted, Cormier wilted and Miocic gained his belt back.
Miocic should use the same strategy he used to officially become the first man to finish Cormier, with caveats. Cormier will be looking for these left hooks to the body, at which point he could counter with a short right or jabs that he was using in the early going. It might have behooved either fighter to bring in Bas Rutten for their camp, whether to defend against those particular body shots or for how to aim and set them up properly. On the other hand, Cormier’s primary path to victory is to not get lured into a slugfest and instead employ his superior wrestling to overcome Miocic. If the Strong Style Fight Team star can stay on his feet long enough, this fight should be his to win; these two fighters are heavyweights, so there are no guarantees with the power they display.
Should one pursue this line to its logical conclusion, a narrower prop bet that may have some bang for its buck is Miocic Wins by TKO/KO at +170. Selecting Miocic on a straight line at nearly even money allows for the unlikely outcome of his needing a full 25 minutes to get his hand raised. Savvy bettors that may not have confidence in one over the other can pursue the option of Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision at a still palatable -245, as Cormier could easily come in and knock off Miocic’s block again to spoil the pick. We cannot see many ways that this fight will go five full rounds unless the two approach one another cautiously, a la Israel Adesanya-Yoel Romero. For that prop, we expect that either the nearly 80 percent knockout rate of Miocic or the 68 percent finish rate of Cormier will shine through and seal the deal before judges get involved. We predict that Miocic will be the one to get it done.
Marlon Vera (+225)
While many analysts fully expect the “Sugar” train of Sean O'Malley to roll right over Vera, there is value in the line of “Chito” as the significant underdog. O’Malley has come into the UFC like his hair was on fire—or perhaps more appropriately, like his hair was an ever-changing canvas—and has rattled off four wins since being signed off of Dana White’s Contender Series. At UFC 250, we similarly analyzed that Eddie Wineland presented an interesting style matchup and offered odds that were worth taking a flier on; and although Wineland gave a decent account of himself in the first 60 seconds, it did not take long for O’Malley to smite him. While an aging Wineland—whose chin is not what it once was—fell short, Vera could very well become the first man to beat O’Malley.
The Ecuadorian fighter has never been stopped in professional competition, having withstood heavy blows from the likes of John Lineker, Yadong Song and Brad Pickett, among others. “Chito,” a relatively rare finish-minded bantamweight, has stopped his opponent in his last seven victories dating back to 2017. To date, all six opponents to beat him have done so by matching the Team Oyama fighter’s volume and intensity. A hard-charging fighter who may throw caution to the wind a little more often than he should, his style could give O’Malley fits, or it could be exactly what the undefeated prospect is hoping for.
For as long as this fight lasts, it will almost certainly be a thrilling affair and one worthy of the attention it has been shown. The two have earned post-fight bonuses in each of their last combined five bouts, and this has all the makings of a “Fight of the Night” scrap. In both of O’Malley’s UFC encounters that reached the scorecards, he faded during a round of the fight. With multiple third-round finishes on his ledger, Vera will not likely run out of steam as he keeps throwing everything and the kitchen sink at his opponent. It is entirely possible that “Sugar Sean” sweetens his record by staying at the end of a minor reach advantage like a sniper, clipping Vera while he comes in. The risk-reward factor for a Vera upset is worthwhile, and this fight may be closer than the lines indicate.
Junior dos Santos (+110)
Like the heavyweight main event, any upside for this pick could be wiped out in a single murderous right hand from Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Dos Santos’ chin is not what it used to be. Couple that with the sledgehammers that are sure to come from the Suriname-based kickboxer, and there is inherent risk in selecting the former heavyweight king. Inside the Octagon, five men have toppled “Cigano,” and all five either held or are currently holding the strap or are top contenders eyeing the belt. While Rozenstruik could indeed be a fighter of that caliber, crumbling in 20 seconds to Francis Ngannou raised some questions about his striking defense. Although he does not present a similar style to Ngannou and was also posterized by “The Predator,” dos Santos has the veteran chops and technical boxing prowess to get the job done.
Some fighters come back different after their first defeat, and others act gun-shy when knocked out for the first time. Rozenstruik’s return poses a lot of questions that he will have to answer early, especially if dos Santos rushes him. All five of Rozenstruik’s UFC appearances have ended by knockout, win or lose. The last four outings for dos Santos similarly avoided the judges due to strikes. Along the same lines as the marquee matchup, Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision is an appetizing -280—and rightfully so. One way or another, one of these two heavyweight bruisers will be taking a nap before the night ends.
Ahead of his third meeting with Cormier, Miocic has displayed a seemingly lighter physique that could improve his speed. Dos Santos has come into this bout with a similar approach, looking more like an action figure than a rumbling, bumbling heavyweight brawler. A slimmed-down dos Santos—he was a mid-sized heavyweight to begin with—could offer some significant challenges to the man who weighed 260 pounds in his last showing. In the UFC’s largest division, speed kills; a smart, elusive “Cigano” is one that can fluster Rozenstruik and make him hit nothing but air. He could very well get hurt by any number of the bombs “Bigi Boy” will be lobbing at him. However, as long as he does not get backed up to the fence where Rozenstruik can unload on him, dos Santos can excel in this main card striker’s delight matchup.
Jim Miller (+110)
Although Miller has gone 4-3 dating back to 2018, the three losses came to upper-tier lightweights Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira and the recently defeated Scott Holtzman. In the meantime, “A-10” racked up four first-round submission victories, where he earned his 10th UFC tapout and joined the company of Oliveira, Demian Maia and Royce Gracie among the most all-time submissions. The most active fighter in promotional history, Miller will be entering his 36th UFC contest at the ripe age of 36, and strangely enough, he will not be the elder fighter in the cage.
Pichel’s UFC tenure has been accurately reflected in his nickname of “From Hell,” as this will be his eighth UFC fight since his promotional debut in 2012. Injury woes kept the California native out of action repeatedly, and Pichel was never able to put much momentum together. Although his last appearance was a victorious one—he captured a decision over Roosevelt Roberts—the bout came over a year ago. A November pairing against Alexander Yakovlev was scuttled due to Pichel’s withdrawal due to another injury, and in that span, Miller has competed three times.
Pichel has demonstrated throughout his time on the roster that he has a well-rounded skill set and shown a willingness to take the fight down when he cannot gain a striking advantage. To date, however, Pichel’s best win appears to be handing Roberts his first career defeat or beating a weathered Anthony Njokuani in 2014. Although the days of Miller among the Top 15 elite may be behind him, he should still have enough to upset and possibly finish Pichel in what could be a fun battle for as long as it lasts. Should Miller get the better of the striking exchanges and force Pichel to take the fight to the mat, the savvy veteran could set the trap to pull off yet another submission. One way or the other, Miller appears to have more tools to emerge victorious.
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