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All hands are on deck for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s latest Las Vegas card—not at the UFC Apex but instead inside the jam-packed T-Mobile Arena. Even though no belt is on the line, UFC 264 on Saturday has a serious “big-fight feel” due to an amped-up trilogy match between top-tier lightweights. Major money will come in on that headliner and some of the other significant matches on the card, and there are definite avenues for victory. Join us on this edition of Prime Picks, as we crack into that main event, the co-main attraction, a possible heavyweight slugfest and a promising two-bout parlay to maximize our take-home.
Dustin Poirier (-135)
Our January Prime Picks breakdown for this battle noted early on that no man had ever bested Conor McGregor in a pure striking battle under MMA rules. Even though the major upset call proved successful, it did not play out entirely how we prognosticated. We expected Poirier would pick it up in the later rounds to finish the job. Instead, after a close first round, Poirier’s accumulation of leg kick damage led to McGregor’s undoing in the second and resulted in his first career knockout loss. Less than six months have passed since that rematch, and barring something unexpectedly transformative, the victor should be the same, at far fairer odds than the +245 line for Poirier at UFC 257.
McGregor has shown that he can come back in a few months to largely look like a different fighter after a humiliation loss. In March 2016, Nate Diaz throttled McGregor after taking a beating, and the Irishman showed up that August in the rematch and looked better, even if some scored it a draw. His approach to the second Diaz bout differed greatly, whether it meant finding his range with his sharp left hand or not letting the Californian get his hands off for long, other than the brutal third frame. At this point in their careers, Poirier has shown to be a far more well-rounded competitor who can mix things up and give McGregor problems anywhere the fight goes.
A narrative emerged from Poirier-McGregor 2 that “The Diamond” staged a comeback after taking a hellacious pounding in the first five minutes, but that could not be farther from the truth. Round 1 significant strikes clocked in favoring Poirier by a few, even if half of those strikes for the Louisianan were composed of effective leg kicks. Poirier was never rocked in that meeting, even after taking several flush punches on the chin and admitting he was a bit hurt. Even so, Poirier gave back nearly as often as he received, sneaking in shockingly effective right hooks and celebrating their successes a few times. The second round also proved to be in Poirier’s favor before his final barrage, as the less accurate McGregor headhunted with a large percentage of his strikes. Rarely did Poirier absorb the full brunt of the blows, and he did not often remain a stationary target.
Poirier still remains hittable, and his chin gets criticized because he frequently takes damage and relies on his recoverability to overcome adversity. Many elite lightweights have scored often on Poirier, but dating back the last five years, the radically inconsistent Michael Johnson is the only man to punch his lights out. The wherewithal to survive a ruthless onslaught of Justin Gaethje leg kicks and flatten the World Series of Fighting champ early in the fourth round was a sight to behold. To put this iteration of “The Diamond” away, one will need to put him out cold, or he will keep coming like the unstoppable henchmen from the film “RocknRolla.”
The ground game is still where Poirier holds a major advantage, and his hitting an early takedown less than 30 seconds into the first round gave McGregor a little pause, fatigued him a small amount and forced him to think about future attempts. A few pump fakes from Poirier drew flinches out of McGregor, and as it is often said, sometimes the threat of the takedown is enough to take a striker out of his game. Poirier is a mature enough competitor to not be drawn into McGregor’s mind games about takedowns, as if the Irishman were a younger version of Quinton Jackson complaining about fighters not just slugging it out with him. Barring a blistering left hand that catches Poirier right on the button—McGregor by TKO/KO is your obvious alternative play at +175—the American should have the skills, poise and durability to make it through the worst patch of the fight and gain the upper hand in the later rounds.
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Stephen Thompson (-160)
On the heels of an early 2019 knockout loss to Anthony Pettis—a battle he was winning until getting blasted with a Superman punch off the cage with seconds left in the round—Thompson’s chin was suddenly called into question. Even though it marked the first time the karateka had ever been stopped with strikes, much of the MMA community assumed Father Time had taken command and that Thompson was ready to be put out to pasture. The knockout came as the first convincing defeat he had suffered since his first career loss to Matt Brown in 2012, with a majority verdict to then-champ Tyron Woodley and an exceptionally questionable decision win for Darren Till not sitting well with “Wonderboy” fans, even though Thompson was dropped in both matches. Since then, Thompson has rattled off impressive wins over Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal to show he still has much left to offer, and he will next face a powerhouse grappler with an equalizing right hand. Should Gilbert Burns look to ply his striking for long, however, this is Thompson’s fight to lose.
Burns is quickly encountering the grappler’s dilemma, where a world-class submission artist or wrestler learns that he has power in his hands and overrelies on it. In doing so, the grappler in question abandons what got him to the dance, tries to load up on heavy strikes and presses forward recklessly. Perhaps Kamaru Usman’s piston-like jabs will have Burns reevaluate this position, but the concern is that his belief that he had Usman in the worst danger of his career may carry over into this fight with an exceptional striker. Thompson can feast on that kind of approach, gladly playing the matador to the Brazilian bull while teeing off on his opponent. In his path up the welterweight division, Burns faced practically no top strikers, with Usman and Woodley having the best hands in that jaunt. Thompson will show that there are levels to this game, and with his elusiveness and spectacular takedown defense, he will not fall victim to Burns’ ruthless ground game and win going away.
Tai Tuivasa Wins by TKO/KO (+175)
At one time, Tai Tuivasa-Greg Hardy was billed as the co-main event. Cooler heads slightly prevailed and at least slotted the aforementioned Thompson-Burns battle ahead of it. These two unranked heavyweights celebrate high-volume approaches, with 16 knockouts in their 18 combined wins. Both sluggers will almost certainly check in towards the heavyweight cap of 266 pounds, and both have had their chins fail them once in their respective careers. The two big men are still relatively inexperienced and in dire need of development, but this will be the ninth UFC bout for each of them. The major difference between these power punchers? Tuivasa has defeated a few noteworthy names in his division, while Hardy’s wins are all over men no longer on the roster. In a fight that should not see any ground involvement unless one of them falls down, Tuivasa’s hand speed and ability to close the distance are the difference makers.
Hardy has improved his striking to a degree, with an effective jab and some solid leg kicks to round out his standup. His grappling is a liability if he cannot simply muscle out of the position, but that should not likely be tested, as Tuivasa has never once completed a takedown. As he has honed his kickboxing, his power has waned from the one-shot kill artist into someone that would rather bowl you over with sheer force and pound you out when your legs give way beneath you. The Aussie’s chin and body should hold out without issue, and Hardy’s best course of victory may be on the scorecards after banking the first two rounds; Hardy by Decision is currently +310. Unless Hardy is able to stay elusive on his bike, sticking and moving while slowing his adversary down with chipping leg kicks, Tuivasa will catch him before it is all over and separate him from his senses.
Irene Aldana-Yana Kunitskaya/Jennifer Maia-Jessica Eye Go to Decisions Parlay (-120)
In the final selection on this card, instead of one fight, we will briefly take a glimpse at the two women’s matches. On the main card, Aldana faces Kunitskaya at bantamweight, while an early prelim draws a flyweight matchup between former title challengers in Maia and Eye. It is not simply that 62% of all women’s matches in UFC history have reached the scorecards, or even that 80% of the four women’s combined UFC bouts went the distance. It’s about the styles they bring into these two pairings. Three of the four would gladly stay in the clinch for prolonged sections of their encounters, and the other can get tied up to her detriment. As Aldana-Kunitskaya Goes to Decision is -265 and Maia-Eye Goes to Decision is -300, the accumulation option makes this play outstanding value since both tilts will almost certainly go 15 full minutes.
Of the four participants in this parlay, only one has notched more than one stoppage victory as a UFC fighter: Aldana, who tapped Bethe Correia with an armbar and knocked Ketlen Vieira out. On the other hand, only Kunitskaya has ever been stopped more than one time inside the Octagon, and her first stoppage loss was against the vaunted Cristiane Justino. If one were to bust this parlay, it may be Aldana. Her striking is deceptively fast, but Kunitskaya has improved her fight IQ since moving to American Top Team and figures to tie Aldana up any time she takes damage. When it comes to Eye-Maia, all three rounds could carry out against the fence, as both ex-flyweight title challengers try to impose their will and muscle the other about. The victors are not as important as the time elapsed, and both bouts in this parlay are the highest favored ones to end up in the hands of the judges.
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