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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday at the UFC Apex puts on its last show in Las Vegas before another month-long sojourn to Fight Island, and it does so with an overstuffed UFC Fight Night 178. Thanks to several late replacements and typical COVID-19 card chaos, odds are predictably all over the map. In this edition of Prime Picks, we break down four underdogs who have a chance to spring an upset.
Donald Cerrone (+130)
There are two reasons why the main event will not be included in this breakdown. First, the betting line is in a veritable no-man’s land where Colby Covington hovers around -350 and Tyron Woodley is the substantial but understandable underdog at +285. Second, and this may require a new fitting for a tin foil hat, there are concerns across media and fans alike that the headline may be snakebitten by the coronavirus. With that, we turn to another top-billed welterweight fight in the form of what should be an all-action battle pitting Cerrone against Niko Price. While both men have the power and ability to secure the finish in dramatic fashion, we expect that this is the right fight for “Cowboy” to right the ship.
One does not have to look far to see all the accolades the 37-year-old Colorado native has garnered over the years, from the most wins and the most knockdowns to the most post-fight bonuses and beyond. Although some could argue that Cerrone has slowed, 16 months ago, he battered a Top 10-ranked Al Iaquinta around the cage for 25 minutes. Stoppage losses to divisional greats like Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje bring no shame, although a quick knockout from shoulder checks and a Conor McGregor head kick showed some cause for concern. In Cerrone’s rematch against Anthony Pettis in May, scoring media members were split as to who won the bout. Price is not a former UFC champion like the other four men have been, but he still poses serious danger.
Price has not gone the distance since the bout before his promotional debut in 2016. Since then, he has fought back and forth with several tough outs like Vicente Luque, Geoff Neal and Abdul Razak Alhassan. Those three men have finished him four times, with Luque doing the honors twice. Price’s knockout of James Vick in October was the upkick heard ’round the world, as he cracked “The Ultimate Fighter 15” graduate’s jaw and earned just the second upkick knockout in UFC history. Price is the kind of fighter who will stay in your face until you put him down or he puts you down, and this kill-or-be-killed mentality can play right into Cerrone’s hands.
Cerrone has historically struggled with fighters who apply heavy pressure and make him fight off of his back foot, but Price has displayed some questionable fight IQ over the years by doing things like standing and trading with superior strikers. Although Cerrone’s chin may be in the twilight of its career, he has the accuracy and speed necessary to throw his opponent off-guard with switch kicks. His head kick remains as lethal as ever, as he very nearly became one of a small number of fighters to finish Pettis with strikes when he booted “Showtime” in the head towards the end of their match.
In what is a virtual no-brainer based on the style of these two men, Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision at -315 seems almost like free money. Should Cerrone hurt Price, unless he is completely shot, he should still have his finishing instinct. On the other hand, Price hits shockingly hard as a 170-pounder, and he hurt Luque badly in their rematch in May. Even though Cerrone’s durability is not what it once was, this is the kind of showcase match against an action fighter where he can pull out a win, just like when he faced Mike Perry or Yancy Medeiros. Cerrone Wins Inside Distance is a palatable +190, but since “Cowboy” is already an underdog, the line on him may be enough of a risk for some by itself.
Gerald Meerschaert (+320)
As one of the biggest underdogs on the card, crafty veteran Meerschaert will be taking on a young up-and-comer in Khamzat Chimaev, with a clear direction on the promotional push. Far from the elder statesman of the division at 32 years of age, the grappling-friendly “GM3” already is tied for the most submissions in UFC middleweight history with five. A brutal grinder who seeks out the takedown early and attacks with a fury while on top, Chimaev has never before needed to fight beyond the second round. Meerschaert’s durability, when compared to the other men Chimaev has faced, may be one of the biggest chasms over which the prospect will need to leap, and we believe this is a test the upstart may fail.
Looking past an opponent towards the next opportunity rarely bodes well for a fighter, and history is littered with examples of champions who looked past their challenger for another test, only to be thwarted by the one they should have focused on entirely. The UFC has done what has become increasingly more common in booking a competitor for multiple bouts, although the ones for John Allan Arte and possibly Julia Avila will not come to fruition. Chimaev, with his sights also set on Demian Maia, still has to tangle with a highly skilled grappler with nearly three-quarters of his wins coming by submission. Looking past a big middleweight who recently abandoned a trip to light heavyweight could be his undoing.
In addition to a mentality that can sometimes be described as “live by the sword, die by the sword” for Meerschaert, the Roufusport fighter can get complacent and allow an opponent to lead the dance or take him down. This confidence in his defensive ability has worked against him in the past, although the five men to beat him inside the Octagon are either top-ranked fighters or are in contention for a Top 15 spot with another win. While Chimaev could indeed be one of those fighters, this has all the makings of a highly touted prospect running into a wall too early into his career. For all of Chimaev’s bluster, he has hardly taken any time to improve as a fighter, making his promotional debut just over two months ago. “Borz” could make this play look bad if Meerschaert surrenders a takedown early and gets bludgeoned. Even so, the unbeaten fighter with odds above a 3-to-1 favorite gives some serious upside to “GM3,” who made his UFC debut almost two years before Chimaev’s first pro bout.
Ryan Spann (+105)
Former sparkling prospect Johnny Walker has quickly become a cautionary tale after rocketing up the light heavyweight ranks. A trio of sensational quick knockouts have since given way to a shocking knockout from ex-UFC fighter Corey Anderson and a disappointing loss to Nikita Krylov. On the other hand, Spann is currently riding the longest winning streak of his career, racking up six finishes across eight wins in the UFC and the Legacy Fighting Alliance. While Walker may come out firing and fly through the air with the greatest of ease, we expect that a composed Spann can shrug off the bluster and get the job done.
In a very un-Joe Silvaesque bit of matchmaking, a rising prospect against a falling one does not have a huge upside and appears to be more of a lose-lose for both men. Should Walker lose, his title aspirations will be well and thoroughly dashed, while Spann will not gain a great deal due to the fact that the shine from the Brazilian has been wiped out after two unsuccessful performances. Even with a five-fight win streak in a division desperate for challengers, Spann will likely need to go through a few more opponents to be in contention. One of the highest-ranking members of currently struggling Fortis MMA camp, Spann will likely need to wade through the fire and get in on Walker to do some damage.
All but two of Walker’s 16 career stoppage wins have come in the first round, so it stands to reason that the greatest risk to Spann is in first five-minute span. Although “Superman” has developed surprising punching power in the last three years—three of his four knockout wins have come in that timeframe—he would be better suited not trying to slug it out with a man who has knocked out 14 opponents over the last five years. A smart, composed Spann who puts on pressure and even mixes in takedowns, can emerge as the victor. Should you disagree and believe the grinning Brazilian can get his hand raised, Walker Wins Inside Distance is a sleek +110.
Randa Markos (+145)
Although Markos has unquestionably spotty performances under the UFC banner, she has never once lost consecutive bouts. On the other hand, she started her career by winning her first three fights, Markos has yet to put together a winning streak. Markos has not earned a stoppage with strikes and has gone the distance in most of her career bouts, but she has only been submitted one time. This came in 2016 against a slick Cortney Casey, who caught her with an armbar in a transition when the two scrambled on the ground. Although Mackenzie Dern is an outstanding grappler, Markos has faced off against most of the best names in her division and even beaten some of them. As long as she does not make a silly mistake, she can escape with her limbs intact.
There is little secret what Dern will plan to do in this strawweight clash: get the fight to the ground any way possible. In her four UFC bouts, the Arizona native has displayed an unusually low takedown accuracy rate of seven percent, while she has never managed to stuff a takedown coming at her. The latter may be more due to her willingness to rely on her offensive guard and utilize sweeps or threaten from her back, but it may be something Markos can exploit. Against Amanda Ribas, Dern met a grappler who could not only attack from on top but defend against counters. Ribas was also comfortable enough to get strikes of standing and not worry about the ground game. Markos could fit some of that bill, as long as she does not get caught dry early in their match.
Markos has landed takedowns in 11 of her 14 UFC bouts, and if she hits one in this match, what she does with it in the immediate aftermath will be very telling. If Dern manages to sweep her with ease or set up a submission from her back, Markos may be better suited keeping this fight standing. Dern’s rudimentary striking remains more a means to an end, as she seems content to wing overhand rights to close the distance and take the fight where she wants it. “Quiet Storm” can succeed by blitzing her opponent, getting into striking range to land a few strikes and backing off before Dern tries to grab hold of her. The Canadian’s movement and a tactical approach can help her spring the upset, so long as she does not get complacent and allow Dern to charge in and tie her up. Staying on the outside and using her jab can work wonders for her. For a supplemental line, Fight Goes to Decision at -105 is a safe bet as this fight will likely only end by stoppage if Dern gets the tap. We expect that she will not and that Markos can do enough to get her hand raised and stay out of danger across 15 minutes.
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