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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday slides into home with a pay-per-view that feels as though it is hanging by a thread. This current 10-fight offering presents a rock-solid main card with some locks and a few surprising underdog offerings. We take a look at a few of these marquee matchups, so join us as we break down the thrilling headliner, a major middleweight contender battle and two huge underdogs that may be flying under the radar. The time has come for the UFC 256 edition of Prime Picks.
Deiveson Figueiredo Wins Inside Distance (-175)
Stop us if you have heard this one recently: The Brazilian has been an overwhelming force since signing with the UFC in 2017. In only 10 bouts, “Deus da Guerra” has eclipsed the flyweight knockdown record and tied the all-time flyweight finishes record. Already among the winningest flyweights in company history, he ran through Alex Perez less than three weeks ago to garner this second showcase atop a pay-per-view. Clobbering Perez and Joseph Benavidez in such a fashion made people take notice, but there may be a serious obstacle not named Brandon Moreno standing in his way: his weight cut.
Figueiredo owns the unfortunate distinction as one of a small number of fighters to ever miss weight for a UFC title fight, and it happened this year. Two hard cuts in less than a month can be quite taxing, and his condition could be a liability coming into this clash with Moreno. Typically, harsh weight cuts can impact cardio later in the fight or even relatively early on if a fighter burns through his gas tank trying to put away his opponent. Figueiredo rushes out of his corner each round like his hair is on fire, but so far, he has had the ability to get his opponent out of there within two rounds in most of his UFC bouts. His striking—among the most accurate of any flyweight to ever set foot in the Octagon—is bolstered by how hard he hits for a 125-pound fighter. To wit, Figueiredo has only ever needed to pass the 40 significant strike threshold once, and he knocked down Alexandre Pantoja at least once and put him through the proverbial meat grinder when he did so.
Moreno’s durability has held up throughout a career that started back in 2011. While the Mexican has never before been finished as a pro, it is worth remembering that Pantoja tapped him on their season of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2016. There are a select few power punchers that reside in the flyweight category, and Moreno has not faced one who could garner his respect and do enough damage to make his consistent smile fade away. “The Assassin Baby” can keep his face out of harm’s way by consistently pressing the grappling exchanges on his opponent and timing opportunistic takedowns when Figueiredo overextends himself on big strikes. Moreno hit an important takedown against Brandon Royval recently, ducking a spinning back elbow to ground the former Legacy Fighting Alliance champion, take his back and nearly secure a twister. Putting Figueiredo on his back and keeping him there may represent Moreno’s best chance for success, given that Figueiredo has competed against more acclaimed grapplers and lived to tell the tale.
If the first rounds of their last bouts are any indication, the pace will almost certainly be furious and frenetic. The later rounds may be where the weight cut rears its ugly head, but it is not likely this bout will even make it to the 10-minute mark, let alone 15 and beyond. Normally, a defensive guillotine choke can be landed when a fighter shoots for a double-leg and leaves his neck exposed; Perez kicked out Figueiredo’s leg, spun around on the cage and dived into top control, only to get tapped. This type of unorthodox submission makes Figueiredo an immediate threat while the two are dry, and Moreno will have to rely on his ability to scramble should it go to the ground. One way or another, Figueiredo will claim another scalp on his way to greatness, beating his opponent before the final bell and setting the record for the quickest back-to-back title defenses in company history.
Kevin Holland (+105)
At the highest echelon of most divisions, speed kills. Enter the 28-year-old Holland, who has all the momentum in the world as he attempts to record his fifth win in 2020. In arguably the toughest test of his career, he faces a once-terrifying threat who is 13 years his senior and still extremely dangerous. Souza was often the boogeyman of the division, taking out everyone but the absolute best as he loomed in the 185-pound weight class for years. “Jacare” finds himself in an unusual situation in the twilight of his run, as he is currently on the first losing streak of his 17-year career. Against Holland, Souza will face a quicker opponent whose striking is effective and powerful. “Trailblazer” is the underdog but only slightly, and the line may return to a pick-’em before it closes on fight night. The lines are correct, but the smart money may be on Holland.
A physical specimen even to this day, Souza’s ability to explode into and out of situations has waned as he grows older. Each of his last six victories has been by stoppage, with the majority of them extremely violent. As the old saying goes, “power is the last thing to go,” and Souza’s one-hitter-quitter ability will still be in his arsenal. The difference in recent performances and the glory days of old has been that Souza is less inclined to pull the trigger and commit to these strikes. When he does, they have largely been telegraphed and easy to avoid unless the opponent either blitzes in recklessly or has a suspect chin. Souza will have to use what should still be a strength advantage to bully Holland back against the fence, where he can unload or set up takedowns to implement his deadly submission game.
“Jacare” will not be taking on a man who will be standing in front of him for long. Holland currently sits as the most accurate striker in UFC middleweight history, landing a whisker under 60 percent of his significant strikes—above famed strikers like Anderson Silva, Paulo Costa and many others. His mighty nine-inch reach advantage will allow him to keep the Brazilian at arm’s length without taking a crushing overhand right that felled many others in the past. Chaining strikes from a distance into step-in knees and the like will work wonders for him, all while working a diverse array of punches, kicks, knees and elbows to keep Souza guessing. Youth does not always beat experience, and Souza’s takedown game may be all he needs to get the job done. Holland can scramble and may be the fresher fighter should this matchup go into the third round, as long as he does not fall into a trap that the wily veteran can set up. The easy alternative line is Souza, who is -125 and fluctuating, if you believe that he can turn back the clock and keep Holland away from the Top 10.
Junior dos Santos (+340)
Ciryl Gane is an extremely impressive talent, with a perfect 6-0 record that includes multiple diverse finishes, and he looks to be the huge (-425) favorite for a reason on the main card opener. The Frenchman will be receiving a massive step up in competition as he guns for a Top 10 spot, and he faces a sliding former champ on a lengthy losing skid. The last time dos Santos won a fight, Gane was on the outside of the UFC looking in. Gane has looked solid in three UFC bouts, including a decision a year ago over the rising Tanner Boser, but his strength of schedule is a far cry from the goliaths that dos Santos encounters match after match. This huge increase in competition level, the lengthy layoff for Gane due to a variety of reasons and the power that “Cigano” still maintains all come together for what could be a big upset special for dos Santos.
Dos Santos’ chin is not what it used to be. Seventy-five percent of his losses, which encompasses each of his last six defeats, have come when his chin failed him. Throughout much of his UFC tenure, dos Santos has maintained a clear speed advantage, but as he has aged, that has diminished to a noticeable capacity. Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik all beat dos Santos to the punch, when a prime “Cigano” may have been able to land first and more frequently. Fortunately for dos Santos, he is not facing either a lethal striker or a man who can lift him up and slam him down repeatedly; and should this stay at boxing range, the Brazilian can return to form quickly.
Gane is younger, faster, holds a longer reach and is potentially stronger than his opponent. “Bon Gamin” also is coming into their bout with momentum, and he has a style that could frustrate dos Santos should he stay out of harm’s way at the end of his punches while using kicks to keep distance. While Gane can grapple and targets unorthodox submissions when the fight goes down, these tricks are not the kind to which dos Santos will likely fall victim—unless he is hurt first. While this could still be a bout that a struggling dos Santos could lose, given Gane’s demonstrated ability and physical prowess, the Brazilian coming in as such a sizeable underdog is a bit surprising and worth taking a second look at. It is always a question of how a promising undefeated fighter reacts when getting hit hard for the first time, and dos Santos is the kind of guy that can ring Gane’s bell early and take over the fight.
Peter Barrett (+275)
This is a talented underdog who, like dos Santos, takes on a relatively unproven opponent, only on a far lower level. This pick hinges not necessarily on the ability of “Slippery Pete” as much as it addresses how Chase Hooper is this significant of a betting favorite at over 3-to-1. The current limits of the youthful Hooper were on full display against Alex Caceres, as he could not get Caceres down and keep him there in order to get his submission game going. Barrett may not be as slick of a grappler as “Bruce Leeroy,” but his hard-nosed and aggressive style can work to his advantage against a man who does not want to stand and bang.
Hooper’s lane for success is fairly direct and very manageable against a Massachusetts native in Barrett who displays spotty takedown defense. It remains to be seen if Hooper is a superior all-around grappler than Youssef Zalal, a man who nullified Barrett on the ground as he fished for numerous submissions on his opponent’s back. Zalal chained his grappling together with effective striking—an area where Hooper is unquestionably lacking. Barrett will not likely have to worry about a spinning back kick to the dome or several crisp combinations that box him up until he succumbs to a takedown. Instead, Hooper should prepare for Barrett’s forward-heavy strategy and secure a takedown as he charges at him.
Barrett’s game plan should be relatively simple in concept but likely far more difficult in execution: keep the fight standing at all costs. “Slippery Pete” would like nothing more than to stand in front of his opponent, spamming body and head kicks while making absolutely certain his back is far away from the fence. Barrett may hold a pair of submission wins on his ledger, but tapping Jay Ellis does not a champion make—at least 60 other men have done so. Instead, this should be a clear-cut striker-versus-grappler matchup, and Barrett’s chances to win come from his ability to stay upright long enough to sting Hooper. The grappler is often said to be the one who controls where the fight takes place, but bettors seem to have more faith in Hooper than his skills have previously demonstrated. A flier on Barrett is a solid option in what is currently the curtain jerker.
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