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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday keeps the train rolling with UFC Fight Night 168 in Auckland, New Zealand. The main card sees five of the six favorites at -150 or less, and many close matchups spark our interest, including a few potential upsets in marquee bouts. Welcome to the UFC Fight Night “Felder vs. Hooker” edition of Prime Picks.
Paul Felder (+130)
Outside of a split decision loss up a weight class, on short notice and in a fight where he broke his arm throwing a spinning backfist, Felder has generally enjoyed smashing success dating back to 2017. His most recent performance could show some cracks in the armor, as he took a closely contested split verdict over Edson Barboza in September. In his rematch with the feared striker, Felder came out with the surprising decision and poised for a future rubber match. The low kicks caused a problem for Felder, but the power shots thrown by “The Irish Dragon” were enough to sway two judges in his favor. Although MMA Math is not a subject comfortably discussed—the adage of “styles make fights” rings true most of the time—two close fights against Barboza look better on paper than the merciless beating Dan Hooker suffered at the hands of the same Brazilian.
Arguably the strongest element of Felder’s game is his clinch, where he ties up his opponents and works them over with elbows and short strikes. Fully comfortable using the art of eight limbs, his elbows are lethal, with three UFC victories stemming from those specific strikes—a UFC record he shares with several fighters including Curtis Blaydes and Amanda Nunes. Should he hit an inside trip and drag the fight away from the cage and to the canvas, he can unleash damage and even possibly force a stoppage. The last fighter to take down Hooker was Jim Miller in 2018, although few fighters have tested the Aussie’s nearly 80 percent takedown defense lately. Once Felder gets on top, he can string together elbows that would make Jon Jones blush, as he proved against the likes of Charles Oliveira and Steven Ray.
“The Hangman” would likely prefer to stay at distance and pick apart Felder from the outside while taking full advantage of his five-inch reach discrepancy. In his last outing against Al Iaquinta, Hooker tuned up the former interim title challenger with a plethora of nasty kicks. His most effective strikes were perhaps his low calf kicks, which knocked the legs out from beneath “Raging Al” multiple times. If Hooker keeps this same strategy in mind, assuming he has studied tape on Felder’s recent encounter with vicious leg kicks, he can hamper the movement and confidence of the former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder.
This could be a tale of two fights, depending on which fighter manages to get his offense going first and forces the other to take a step back. The UFC built this card around this matchup because it almost certainly guarantees fireworks, with both fighters displaying incredible chins and each of them sporting a sole knockout defeat on their ledgers. We expect that Felder has a somewhat more comfortable path to victory, as long as he does not opt to stay at kickboxing range with a technical striker like Hooker. This fight could very well reach the scorecards and go down to the wire—a possible option to parlay is Fight Goes to Decision at +110—especially when factoring in their abilities to take serious damage and keep fighting. If you feel the fight will end in a finish, the opposite line is currently -140 and is also backed by their careers: In their 48 combined bouts, neither Felder nor Hooker has ever fought beyond the third round.
Jim Crute (+100)
If Crute expects to spring a minor upset and bounce back from his career setback, he will almost certainly have to outlast the barrage that is all-but assured to come his way in the opening frame. Most recently, Michal Oleksiejczuk gave Ovince St. Preux all he could handle, battering the former title challenger in the first round in a borderline 10-8 effort. Unfortunately for the Pole, his adrenaline may have gotten the best of him, as he fell victim to several powerful shots and a takedown that sealed his fate. Likewise, an overzealous Crute was put in jeopardy often by Misha Cirkunov in their quick encounter, and a takedown from the Aussie spelled his undoing when he fell into a Peruvian necktie. Both men have a lot to prove, and both men will likely come out with guns blazing in this light heavyweight tussle.
A power puncher by trade, over 70 percent of Oleksiejczuk’s victories have come by knockout, including both of his UFC wins. Though he recorded a win in his UFC debut, as well, it was changed to a no-contest after he tested positive for a banned substance. Each of the Polish fighter’s last five victories has come by first-round knockout, and it would not be out of line to consider an Oleksiejczuk Wins by TKO/KO alternative at +165 if you believe he comes out on top instead.
A well-rounded 23-year-old, Crute burst on the scene after a bevy of wins under the Hex Fighting Series banner and a first-round drubbing of Chris Birchler on Dana White’s Contender Series. He proved in his UFC debut that he could roll with a submission artist like Paul Craig, then stood and traded with a rangy counterstriker in Sam Alvey. Provided Crute does not get cracked in the early going by one of the southpaw’s “Mortal Kombat”-esque uppercuts or other ferocious left hands, he should be able to ride out the storm and get the fight to the ground, where he will almost certainly have a massive advantage. All of Oleksiejczuk’s career losses have come by stoppage, so if you feel “The Brute” can get back on track with a finish, Crute Wins Inside the Distance is a healthy +240.
Kevin Aguilar (-115)
Aguilar in his most recent outing saw an impressive nine-fight winning streak come to a screeching halt when Dan Ige gave him all he could handle over three hard rounds. In an ideal world for Aguilar, he can hope to right the ship against Russian grappler-turned-striker Zubaira Tukhugov, as he attempts to counter the incoming looping strikes for three rounds. If there is a clear knock on Tukhugov to date, it is that he often throws single, winging strikes. In his only UFC finish, Tukhugov relied on isolated power shots to do damage and put away Ernest Chavez inside of one round. Since then, opponents have been wiser to his tactics, forcing him to mix in takedowns. Across his last three appearances, Tukhugov won a split verdict, dropped a split decision and then fought to a split draw.
A key to Aguilar’s winning her is to not get complacent on the outside and instead force Tukhugov to fight off his heels. A far less seasoned striker than Ige, Tukhugov would be at a disadvantage if he were backed against the cage, where his spinning back kicks and other one-hitter quitters are not nearly as effective. Should “The Angel of Death” overextend himself while pushing the pace, he could quickly find that he needs to stuff a series of takedown attempts from Tukhugov. In three UFC bouts, the only fighter to get Aguilar to the ground was Ige, who landed a takedown in the second frame and treated the crowd to some exciting ground exchanges through which Aguilar earned his only round of the fight. Barring a big strike that hurts Aguilar, this should be his bout to win, as he can fight off his back almost as well as he can on his feet. If you are more confident about Aguilar’s ability to win than simply selecting his line, Aguilar Wins by Decision is a decent +165.
Angela Hill (-175)
Riding high from a win less than a month ago, this will be Hill’s sixth outing in less than a 12-month window. The activity has proven more successful than not for Hill, who has strung together her first winning streak since she held the Invicta Fighting Championships strawweight throne in 2016. In this short-notice opportunity, “Overkill” will be taking on a talented muay Thai practitioner in Konklak Suphisara. While Suphisara is still new to the sport—she made her pro debut in 2018—Hill may be finally experiencing the “level-up” she always sought in her fighting career.
This bout could result in pure chaos, as both women vastly prefer striking over all other disciplines. Hill consistently puts on high volume—at least 70 significant strikes in seven of her last eight outings. In her sole Octagon appearance, Suphisara did the same, racking up just under 100 significant strikes as she took an unexpected split decision from Aleksandra Albu in October. Should the two clinch, one would think Suphisara would hold the advantage, as she spams knees and elbows indiscriminately. Hill, a savvy veteran with almost four times the MMA experience as her opponent, should have the cage wherewithal and overall skills to stave off the Thai and emerge as a potential contender in the division. As a final note, if there were one virtual betting lock on the card, it would be that this strawweight tilt goes to a decision (-280).
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