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The Ultimate Fighting Championship gets back to the grind after a pair of incredibly memorable shows on back-to-back weekends. This offering, with very limited rankings relevance other than the marquee attraction, presents a lineup that dwindles by the day. Nevertheless, the main event could be spectacular, and there is one line worth pursuing on it. Coupled with a few picks going down the billing—Bellator 271, on the other hand, is practically devoid of value, with four competitors coming in as -1000 favorites or above—there is small but acceptable number of decent choices for this UFC Fight Night 197 edition of Prime Picks.
Max Holloway Wins Inside Distance (+150)
As he has surged through most of his opposition inside the Octagon, smashing records and shattering expectations of what strikes can be in the UFC, Holloway has largely lived up to his potential. The various ways to explain his skill set, from a builder to a boulder rolling downhill, are both appropriate and accurate. The pace that “Blessed” can set is astounding, as he gets more and more dangerous and adds more volume to his approach with each round. Fighting against Yair Rodriguez, a flashy striker who wants to keep space so he can get his spinning or flying offense going, Holloway is an atrocious style matchup for the Mexican contender. Likely due to an accumulation of damage, Holloway can force a stoppage as the rounds progress, with Rodriguez’s face looking like the “Doomguy” character losing health out of the “Doom” video game series.
Inactivity can be a huge issue for returning fighters, ones that take time off and need a few moments to get their sea legs about them in the cage. While it is a good thing that Rodriguez is facing Holloway, a man not typically known for being a fast starter, it is quite a tough ask to come back after over two years away and take on the former champ. Rodriguez will need to dictate the pace and distance of this fight in order to have any kind of success. Keeping Holloway off of him, stinging him with shots to keep him honest, will be of the utmost priorities. This is how Dustin Poirier was able to succeed against Holloway, by hitting him just hard enough to make him stumble every so often and allow Poirier to get off his own offense. If Rodriguez cannot get Holloway’s respect early, it will be tough sledding for “El Pantera.”
Enough cannot be said about Holloway’s career as the self-proclaimed best boxer in the featherweight division—let alone all divisions in the promotion—and his one-way steamrolling of Calvin Kattar in January is about as clean-cut of a triumph as one will ever see. The significant strike totals were off the charts, even relative to Holloway’s standards, and the only thing that might have been more impressive was Kattar’s durability to not go down after taking an unfathomable 274 strikes to the head. Most fighters will not able to absorb that kind of punishment, and Holloway has strung together eight straight performances of 100 sig strikes or more.
It is practically a foregone conclusion that Rodriguez will take damage in this fight, but it is not to say that Holloway does not absorb blows coming back at him from his opponents. Those who performed best against him did so by matching his volume while not quite letting him get into his rhythm. This feat may be best achieved by “El Pantera” from his kicks and not his hands, especially if he works the body to slow Holloway down and invest in leg kicks early and often. One can imagine the possible responses from Holloway, especially if he evades a few leaping knees or spinning wheel kicks and wags a finger. Rodriguez does possess an impressive amount of power, even in the late stages of a bout, so Holloway will need to make sure not to get careless and walk face-first into an elbow that is sure to come. Barring a sudden knockout that will blow away those inside the UFC Apex and those watching around the world, the Hawaiian can muster constant offense and ramp it up until Rodriguez fades. A smart option to add to a possible play from this fight card is also the Over 2.5 rounds, as Holloway does his best work in the third round and later.
Ben Rothwell (-157)
In this head-scratcher of a heavyweight co-headliner, the longtime vet and durable brawler should be a much larger betting favorite against the blown-up middleweight that is Marcos Rogerio de Lima. In any other division, betting on a 40-year-old with 52 career fights might be a daunting option, but heavyweight is the exception that does not prove the rule. Selecting the moneyline on Rothwell as a moderate favorite is a far safer option than attempting to drill down on what kind of method “Big Ben” takes the fight. While he and his opponent both celebrate knockout rates of exactly 72%, Rothwell at 40 years of age does not appear to have the surprisingly decent stamina that he held when he was younger. It could be possible that he runs out of steam searching for a finish and drops the last round to win a decision, or drill the Brazilian with strikes in the clinch, or even snag a submission. The range of options, with Rothwell just at -157, makes more sense than a prop for the method.
Rogerio de Lima holds an unusual pattern of alternating wins and losses—a stretch that has gone on for 11 straight fights. A defeat for him would set the record for the longest span of bouts without a winning or losing streak in the promotion. As it stands, all of his defeats inside the Octagon have come by submission, and he faces a crafty, opportunistic submission threat that can pull a modified guillotine choke out of nowhere. If Rogerio de Lima gets put on his back, or even down to his knees, he will be in the most possible danger imaginable, with a practically nonexistent defensive ground game at his disposal. Rothwell’s chin is not a liability, and striking power is the best that “Pezao” can offer other than simply falling on top of his opponent with smothering yet ineffective top control. Even at 40 years young, Rothwell should be a step ahead of his foe from bell to a possible finish to the final bell if not.
Felicia Spencer Wins Inside Distance (+220)
As a 3-to-1 favorite, Spencer’s line over a woman in Leah Letson that has not competed in three years is a fair one, but the juice may not be quite worth the squeeze for that moneyline. The former UFC title challenger and Invicta Fighting Championships featherweight beltholder Spencer has her back against the wall, and the promotion has thrown her a proverbial bone by giving her an opponent that last fought when Spencer had the title in Invicta. The entirety of Spencer’s UFC career has taken place while Letson has been out, and while it has been a tumultuous one, she has faced everyone the division had to offer. It may seem strange that a win will even Spencer’s UFC record to .500, but she should get it done with style points.
Letson’s body of work is quite limited on the major stage, with a head kick of Elizabeth Phillips in 2017 prompting her entry into Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2018. Letson reached the semifinals thanks to a win over Bea Malecki, but a well-timed takedown and some brutal knees on the way up to her feet from Macy Chiasson ended her run in the tournament. A close decision against Julija Stoliarenko did not urge her back into action, as she instead continued to serve in the Air Force in her home state of Wisconsin. Whatever brought her back to the cage after this time off, she has a mighty test before her in the form of “Feenom.” At all costs, Letson needs to stay away from the cage and out of grappling range of Spencer, while taking advantage of a slight reach advantage to land punches and the occasional leg kick. Although “Leahnidas” could stave off the takedown attempts of Stoliarenko, Spencer may be able to simply body lock and brute force her to the ground, where her game will be in full effect. It might not be the first, second, or even third takedown that keeps Letson down in a bad position, but Spencer’s continued attempts to ground her and search for a neck or get off ground-and-pound will spell the end to the fight before it gets to the final horn.
Liana Jojua (+200)
This final pick of the card is not made with the utmost of confidence, but rather one that points out that there could be value in the underdog line in this flyweight tilt between Jojua and Cortney Casey. At this stage in her career, Casey has stumbled greatly, with a .500 record of 9-9 while losing five of her last seven dating back the last four years. While Jojua’s UFC run has not been sparkling, winning one by armbar while dropping the other two by TKO, she appears to have the kind of skillset that will give Casey problems. Unless she falls into a trap with an armbar setup from Casey early on in the fight when they are both dry, Jojua can fight her way through the occasional tough situation to spring the upset.
Casey is the type of offense-first fighter that struggles when put on her back foot, much less on her back flat on the mat. Throughout her UFC tenure, many of her defeats can be attributed to multiple takedowns surrendered coupled with long stretches of control time in her opponents’ favors. With a height and reach advantage and as a much more active striker than her foe, it would behoove Casey to keep things standing at her preferred range. On the other hand, “She Wolf” would like nothing more than to impose her own will and try to isolate an arm or other exposed limb. While she may not be able to get the submission, as only specialist Gillian Robertson and Pearl Gonzalez a long time ago have submitted Casey, Jojua would favor the ground exchanges and nullify her older adversary. With grappling a clear path to victory, Jojua as an underdog could be worth considering, but she is not a lock of an upset by any means.
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