Prime Picks: UFC 268 ‘Usman vs. Covington 2’

By Jay Pettry Nov 5, 2021

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Two weeks, two Ultimate Fighting Championship blockbuster shows, with this one taking over Madison Square Garden in New York. While a slate of big upset picks might not always get the job done, four choice prop lines of either plus or even money are unquestionably worth pursuing. Even though there is no Hail Mary +100000 option for this card, there is a stellar three-bout Trevor Wittman-coached parlay that comes in around +300 for two champs to defend and one below pick to score. Let us get on with the show with this UFC 268 edition of Prime Picks.

Kamaru Usman Wins Inside Distance (+145)

Since the first meeting between “The Nigerian Nightmare” and Colby Covington in 2019, Usman has defended his strap three times—two wins over Jorge Masvidal bookended a wild victory over Gilbert Burns—while the Clovis, California, native has competed just one time. Covington prevailed over ex-champ Tyron Woodley over a year ago, and he sat on the sidelines for 13 months waiting for another crack at Usman. The narrative of the first fight as one-sided domination for the champ is a bit misguided, as Covington was up on one official scorecard, tied on another and down on the third. Even so, Usman did what he needed to do to carve out a win, putting Covington down twice in the fifth round to record a stoppage that culminated in a broken jaw for the challenger. The line of Usman earning the finish again is too good to pass up in the rematch.

While Usman has markedly improved since they first fought, Covington remains a bit of a question mark as to what has changed in his game. Ever the volume striker who can mix in takedowns, the latter half of that approach is all but useless when facing Usman and his 100% takedown defense rate. Covington may try to take Usman down to mix things up and give the champion a surprise, much like Daniel Cormier was singularly focused on taking down Jon Jones even though he was losing in their first bout. Otherwise, it may be simplistic yet quite telling that he should pursue the same strategy as their first meeting, only better: more volume, more pressure and less standing in one place for long.

The massive difference between the 2019 pairing and this one is that Usman has cultivated a shocking amount of power in such a short time. Before, his power was enough to control but not enough to smash. In nearly two years, “The Nigerian Nightmare” has truly become a nightmare for his adversaries. When he hits them, they know it immediately. No longer required to hit a dozen takedowns in order to pull out a win, his hand speed and timing has leveled up drastically. The jab alone was enough to put Gilbert Burns on his back twice, and chaining the jab into power blows put Jorge Masvidal clean out. At this point in their careers, the last thing Covington wants to do is stand right in front of Usman and trade.

The range of this fight will make a difference and reveal who can dictate it at their specific distance. Usman would prefer to stay long, with a stinging jab that can do shocking damage on the level of a Gegard Mousasi. Covington, on the other hand, would like to get close enough to string together punching salvos and get out of the way in advance of the booming counters that could come. It will likely be telling in the early going when both fighters land cleanly; the discrepancy in impact will be noticeable. “Chaos” will have to earn Usman’s respect early with his hands and possibly do something unexpected in order to get out ahead in this rematch. If he does not, Usman will time him at the end of a jab, and the right hand that looms will do even more damage than when Usman broke his jaw—a nondisplaced midline mandibular fracture, as it was written by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Whether by strikes or by putting Covington on the mat and flattening him out ahead of a submission, the champion should notch another successful defense in destructive fashion.

Rose Namajunas-Weili Zhang 2 Goes to Decision (-115)

The champion, a woman that knocked Zhang out in 78 seconds in April, is currently the betting underdog despite that emphatic win. This might be expected, as many called the devastating blow a “fluke,” even though it was set up perfectly and initiated brilliantly. Whether to pick Namajunas to hold on to her strap or Zhang to force a trilogy, that is not as solid a value option as the fight going the full length. Namajunas has an outstanding track record for rematches, overcoming Tecia Torres, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade comfortably each time she faced them the second time. Each time, she won the second bout by decision, with sharper striking, crisper fundamentals and the surprisingly ability to not get hit very often. This could very well be one more such instance of the 29-year-old getting even better after the first fight, but it may not be a case where she can run through the ex-Chinese champ as easily.

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Zhang excelled and enjoyed an incredible 21-fight winning streak largely because she served as the hammer and not the nail. The two fights where she experienced the most amount of difficulty came against Jedrzejczyk and Namajunas, two women who stood right in front of her while taking everything she threw at them. Barring an unusual turn of events, Namajunas will give little ground and keep Zhang honest the entire 25-minute span. The pop in Zhang’s punches similarly can allow her to keep “Thug Rose” at bay long enough to get her own offense going. It could be an all-action throwdown that does not appear to be one that will go to the ground for long, and both strawweights—more measured and not expecting a knockout—will fight it out to the final bell. The lightning-quick head kick from Namajunas will be studied enough that Zhang will not be caught with it, and the crafty game of one woman trying to outfox the other will delight fans as the rounds progress.

Justin Gaethje Wins by TKO/KO (+100)

Although no titles will be on the line for the lightweight main card opener, the imaginary violenceweight throne may be up for grabs as Gaethje and Michael Chandler swing until one of them falls down. At this stage of their respective careers, with each coming off humbling losses their last time out, one win might not be enough to punch a ticket to another crack at gold. With a logjam at 155 pounds that is slowly getting sorted out, each man knows he has to do more than simply get his hand raised to stand out in the pack. Luckily for both, their face-first, brawl-second approaches will allow them to meet in the middle and throw for the bleachers. In this test of chins, wills and punching power, the younger Gaethje appears to have superior recoverability, as well as a little more lead in his fists, to get the job done.

Chandler will have to go through the fire if he wants to get the job done, and none have put Gaethje away on the feet very quickly. Instead, two battles of attrition with Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier slowed him down a little and made him approach the situation from a more tactical perspective. This made “The Highlight” an even more dangerous prospect for anyone not named Khabib Nurmagomedov. Chandler is the type of opponent who can put the former World Series of Fighting champion on his heels—something few men have done over the years—but Gaethje’s overwhelming game, including the constant threat of leg kicks, should be more than enough. An accumulation of damage from the Wittman-coached Gaethje can earn the 20th knockout of his career against Chandler at plus money, all while notching one of his most important wins. The parlay of Gaethje, Namajunas and Usman, all under the tutelage of Wittman, is a solid +300 should one believe they all get it done on the main card.

Alex Pereira Wins Inside Distance (-115)

Sliding into the preliminary headliner despite making his debut at only 3-1 in MMA, the former two-division Glory kickboxing champion is stepping inside the cage for the first time in nearly a year and just the second time in over five years. His achievements do not come in the MMA sphere, as the best win for “Poatan” in this sport is a knockout of the .500 Thomas Powell in Legacy Fighting Alliance. Instead, it is his Glory accolades that earn him such high praise, based in part on a nine-fight winning streak from 2017 to 2021 during which he captured belts at 185 and 205 pounds. With one foot out the door after having already signed with the UFC, Pereira did fall short to Artem Vakhitov in September. However, this matchup against Andreas Michailidis seems tailormade for a smashing debut victory.

There is every possibility that the Greek underdog hits an early takedown and, over the course of a round and a half or so, drains the knockout power out of his opponent by keeping him grounded. To do so would be to play to his biggest advantage and perhaps even allow him to set up some sort of a submission. However, dating back to a one-off stint with Bellator MMA in 2014, practically all of Michailidis’ appearances have ended by knockout, win or lose. The best thing that the UFC could do for a kickboxer with sights on Israel Adesanya—a man Pereira defeated in 2016 and knocked out in 2017—would be to place him against a fellow striker with all of his losses by knockout. Michailidis has a clear path to play spoiler, but training with Glover Teixeira will have paid off for “Poatan,” who should be able to fight off any takedown tries and let his hands go to get him a stoppage. A line of Pereira by knockout would be the best value, but not every book allows for such an option, which is why the Brazilian by stoppage is recommended for this preliminary contest.

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