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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday comes home to Las Vegas with a card that took a hit from which it could not quite recover in time. Even so, about half of the fights on the card feature a favorite with odds of -200 or above; there are still ways to come out ahead. Now to the UFC Fight Night 173 edition of Prime Picks.
Edmen Shahbazyan Wins by TKO/KO (-120)
Shahbazyan finds himself in his first UFC main event as a sizable (-330) favorite over perennial contender Derek Brunson. It is important to note that this new headliner is a three-round fight, not 25 minutes, due to its short-notice upgrade. Neither man has been interested in leaving his matches in the hands of the judges, with the two middleweights combining for 24 finishes in the opening frame across their 31 career victories. We expect a violent ending to the fight within the first five minutes and anticipate Shahbazyan will be the one inking a W and picking up some post-fight bonus money for his efforts.
Shahbazyan has finished 10 of his 11 opponents throughout his career, with none of those stoppages going beyond the 3:16 mark. His lone decision came in his promotional debut against de facto Dana White’s Contender Series gatekeeper Darren Stewart; the fight was closer than all three Sherdog.com judges scored it that night. His three-round performance need not be explained, but Shahbazyan leaned more heavily on forcing his grappling chops than setting it up with his crisp striking. In subsequent matchups, Shahbazyan has continue to dazzle with speedy stoppages over Charles Byrd, Jack Marshman and Brad Tavares. Brunson will undoubtedly be the Glendale Fighting Club prospect’s toughest test to date but one we expect he will soar through with flying colors.
Although Shahbazyan holds one submission victory on his ledger—it came over the aforementioned Marshman when he hit an early single-leg and snatched a rear-naked choke in 72 seconds—he vastly prefers to pound out his adversary from a dominant position. Against Brunson, he may not be able to put the former collegiate wrestler on his back. Brunson’s takedown defense rate in his 20-fight tenure with Strikeforce and the UFC stands tall at a perfect 100 percent. We do not expect Shahbazyan will be the one to sully that mark, nor do we anticipate that he will become the first man to submit the North Carolina native.
Brunson initially developed as a wrestler who thoroughly embraced the grind, then fell into what some see as a trap of getting his first big knockout. When Brunson put out fellow UFC Fight Night 173 competitor Ed Herman in 36 seconds, he transformed into a fighter who swung for the fences to a problematic degree. Roy Nelson is another example of a fighter who held a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and could take someone down with ease, but he scored a knockout and famously said, “Knocking somebody out is definitely a lot easier than submitting them.” As such, Brunson has practically lived and died by the proverbial sword from then on, with nine of his last 12 bouts ending by first-round knockout, win or lose.
The decisions for Brunson in that time came in a loss to Anderson Silva in a bizarre and controversial contest, while the Strikeforce vet has won his last two on the scorecards against Elias Theodorou and Ian Heinisch. While the Silva fight is in a category on its own, neither Heinisch nor Theodorou typically display the kind of one-shot knockout power that gives Brunson pause. Shahbazyan does, whether displayed when he put out Byrd with Travis Browne-like elbows or with a sharp right hand followed by a head kick that shut the lights out on Tavares. Although Brunson has shown the same kind of lethal power, we believe Shahbazyan’s speed will be the difference maker in this middleweight headliner. It is practically a lock that this fight does not go the distance (-285), and we also believe that Fight Won’t Start Round 2 at +130 is quite appealing. The even more narrow prop bet of Shahbazyan wins by TKO/KO in the first round is a decent +220, which could be worthwhile as part of an accumulator.
Jennifer Maia (+125)
Joanne Calderwood is taking a big risk by taking on Maia on short notice instead of waiting for a title shot against Valentina Shevchenko. When “Jojo” meets the former Invicta Fighting Championships flyweight titleholder, she will be fighting a woman who would like nothing more than to wrap her up or test the Scot’s takedown defense. In this high-stakes flyweight matchup, Maia presents the kind of style to nullify Calderwood’s volume striking, and she will more than likely be able to implement that game for at least two rounds.
With no crowd in the arena to voice its displeasure at Maia’s grueling fight style, it will be up to the referee to separate the two when the action inevitably stalls. Maia works best when she is the bully, and while she is not particularly quick, she is strong. Maia cuts a great deal of weight to get down to 125 pounds, and she has not had success in reaching her proper marks of late. Maia became one of the few fighters in promotional history to miss weight for consecutive bouts—along with names like John Lineker and Yoel Romero—after coming in heavy for her last two appearances. Even though Calderwood competed in the first women’s flyweight match in promotional history, she will give up size to an opponent who would be well-suited at bantamweight.
In what may not be a visually appealing fight, we can see Maia outmuscling and outworking Calderwood across three rounds, singularly focused on closing the distance to halt the Scot’s kicking game. Calderwood likes to chop away at her opponent’s lower half, so it would behoove Maia to cut off “Jojo” and not chase her around like she did with Katlyn Chookagian. On the other hand, Calderwood’s best chance of success is to follow the Chookagian playbook, with jabs and long pushing kicks to keep the Brazilian at bay. If you are looking for another line in this fight on which to bet or add to a parlay, Fight Goes to Decision at -365 is fairly concrete. Maia has gone the distance in her last eight, while Calderwood has involved the judges in four of five dating back to 2017.
Vicente Luque (-185)
This welterweight scrap is essential for both men in determining their future in the division, and we believe Luque will rise above. Luque saw a crushing six-fight winning streak snapped when Stephen Thompson turned him away and busted up the Brazilian en route to a tough decision. On the other side, Randy Brown rebounded from an embarrassing defeat—he was knocked out by Niko Price while Price was on his back throwing up hammerfists—with a pair of drubbings over tough fighters in Bryan Barberena and Warlley Alves. Strength of schedule and past performances should be firmly on Luque’s side, and if MMAth is any indication, he has twice defeated the last man to beat Brown.
Perhaps not true to his nickname, “The Silent Assassin” fares best in loud, torrid affairs, where both he and his opponent throw caution to the wind and brawl. The three fighters to beat Luque in the last five years did not fall into this trap and instead either took him down (Michael Graves), grinded him out (Leon Edwards) or busted him up from a distance (“Wonderboy”). The other 11 men in his path have fallen before him, with 10 finishes across these destructive performances. Most recently, Price tried to go power for power with Luque, and he ended the match looking as if he had headbutted a belt sander, forcing the doctor to intervene after an accumulation of damage.
Brown cannot simply charge forward at his opponent with reckless abandon, and if he wants to have success, he should play the matador to Luque’s bull. Should he stay more patient, try to catch Luque coming in and circle away out of danger while using his taller, longer frame, he could find success. It seems unlikely that Brown will be the first fighter to truly crack the Brazilian’s chin and put him away. Instead, we believe the opposite will happen: Luque will do some damage and secure a finish before the closing bell. A line on this narrower prop bet is currently +130, and Luque Wins Inside Distance is a fair choice.
Timur Valiev (-165)
Much has been said about Russia’s Valiev, who ideally should have been added to the roster long ago. Like some top fighters who compete outside the UFC, Valiev sometimes struggled to find opponents, even though he was willing to compete at 135 or 145 pounds. Although Valiev became a relative mainstay with the World Series of Fighting and later the rebranded Professional Fighters League, he never managed to make a run at gold in that organization. Other than his unsuccessful pro debut, Valiev has seen a single blemish on his record in the last decade. It was by contentious decision, and he avenged the loss in one-sided fashion less than eight months later. Since the defeat, Valiev has won six in a row, with those results rarely in doubt.
Welcoming “Lucky” to the Octagon will be the well-rounded Jamall Emmers, who dropped his promotional debut in March to Giga Chikadze. Emmers struggled with finding his range against the kickboxer in that matchup, but against Valiev, he will face a man who will be on top of him in an instant. Although Emmers will step in the cage as the far larger man, his path to victory will likely remain with his keeping the fight standing. Valiev tends to throw everything into his strikes, because he is confident that an opponent will struggle to take him down and keep him there. Because of his success in his grappling, Valiev can get away with some wildness in his striking.
Emmers will need to stay composed and not get flustered at the type of attack that can see the Russian transform into a whirling dervish of spinning and flying strikes. Some of these moves are indeed damaging, but others are a way for Valiev to close the distance in an unorthodox fashion so that he can grab hold of his opponent. Valiev can put a pace on opponents that will wear them out, either by grinding them out or making them back away from his high-risk offense that he will be continuously firing. Emmers may be able to power out of bad situations in the early going, but as Valiev wears on him, he will become more of a 5-foot-6 snowball rolling down a mountain and picking up speed as he goes.
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