Prime Picks: UFC on ESPN 14 ‘Whittaker vs. Till’

By Jay Pettry Jul 24, 2020

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship says farewell for now to “Fight Island” with a card jam-packed with a record number of contests. With this quantity of scraps, there are lines worth pursuing but several that may be better off avoiding. Let us make one final splash with the UFC on ESPN 14 edition of Prime Picks!

Robert Whittaker (-130)

Whittaker’s somewhat unexpected run through the middleweight landscape saw him take on challengers of all shapes and sizes, and the only man to hand him a defeat at 185 pounds is the unique Israel Adesanya. The loss snapped a nine-fight win streak where “Bobby Knuckles” put on stellar performances against many top fighters in the division. A forthcoming Whittaker explained that he needed to pull out of a recent fight due to being “completely burned out.” A refreshed, recharged Whittaker will be a scary sight, and Darren Till will have his hands full in this five-round headliner.

Till excels at being a bully in his fights. Many of his victories have started when the massive Brit -- who still cuts a great deal of weight to make the middleweight limit -- rolls downhill and wears out his opponent by sheer size and physical presence. His win over Donald Cerrone, one of his biggest before meeting Kelvin Gastelum, came when he overwhelmed “Cowboy” and hurt him with a few stiff left hands as he was moving forward while walking through Cerrone’s strikes. This same approach worked in Till’s favor for the first round against Jorge Masvidal, but faltered when Masvidal stopped giving up ground. The pressure from “The Gorilla” can have an effect on fighters that do not like fighting off their back foot, but when taking on a powerful kickboxer like Whittaker who can fight moving forward or backwards, it will not have nearly as significant of an effect.

Against Whittaker, Till’s size will not be as much of an advantage as it would other fighters. Whittaker has beaten larger fighters on his way to the top, including Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson, Ronaldo Souza and the ageless wonder Yoel Romero twice. Till’s striking, while powerful, is not nearly as diverse as his opponent’s. Till tends to throw single strikes or relatively simple combinations, while Whittaker mixes up his attack with diverse options. When Whittaker was out of that element, Adesanya took advantage of it. Should Whittaker be back to his former self, his striking can get the job done.

The line of -130 appears close given Whittaker’s body of work in the division compared to Till’s. Although Till was able to nullify Gastelum’s gameplan while chipping away with leg kicks, Whittaker is not as likely to stand in front of his opponent or allow those kinds of strikes to add up. Additionally, Whittaker’s leg kick game is an improved one, who realized that after taking damage from Romero, he would implement that new wrinkle. We expect that Whittaker can do the kind of damage and serve as the proverbial boulder picking up steam as it travels down a mountain. Till may have his moments as Whittaker does take some unnecessary damage in fights, but Whittaker can ride out the early storm and take Till out. While he might record a finish, the line as it stands now allows any method of victory.

Mauricio Rua (-185)

It is rare when a fighter gets a third crack again an opponent after losing the first two fights. Although the first two tilts between “Shogun” Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira were entertaining, this third matchup 15 years after their first meeting feels ill-advised. It was not long ago when Rua was still considered one of the Top 15 light heavyweights in the world, while Nogueira has not held that honor for quite some time. With this bout combining for 82 years of age, this co-headliner between two Brazilian legends may come down to what the winner has left in the tank. We do not expect that it will be Nogueira.

“Minotouro” still has some pop left in his punches, with the 44-year-old putting Sam Alvey away in late 2018. His inactivity has been one of his key flaws in his UFC run, taking a mere 12 fights since joining the roster in late 2009. Three fights ago, he lost to Ryan Bader, who has been with Bellator for over three years now. Their meeting five years ago was closer than most expected, with two of the three scorers giving Nogueira the nod at the end of their UFC 190 tilt. For a fighter exceeding 40, five years is an eternity; their six-year age gap looks more like a chasm in 2020.

Rua still showed he has enough sense to avoid the reckless assault of a much younger opponent, taking Paul Craig to a draw in November. Craig’s 100 percent finish rate did not faze “Shogun,” and the Brazilian not only took him down but also fearlessly waded through the dangerous offensive guard of “Bearjew.” This fight should play out on the feet until one hurts the other and pursues a finish. Unlike their first two showdowns, we do not see this fight needing 15 rounds to complete. In the process, we anticipate that “Shogun” will become one of a small number of fighters to go undefeated after thrice facing an opponent.

Paul Craig Wins Inside Distance (+125)

Although Craig did go to a decision in his last fight, it was the first time in his career that he had reached the scorecards. That draw broke up a tumultuous five-fight stretch that saw Craig alternate wins and losses in dramatic fashion. When it comes to level of competition, Craig has upset opponents that most expected would beat him, while Gadzhimurad Antigulov has struggled as of late against talents like Ion Cutelaba and Michal Oleksiejczuk. Three of his last four wins came over unbeaten fighters, handing Kennedy Nzechukwu, Magomed Ankalaev and Henrique da Silva each of their first losses. In each of those fights, Craig tapped them out. While Craig Wins by Submission may be a more tantalizing option at +250, simply betting on Craig to finish the bout allows for Craig to bail on his submission chops and decide to pound out his Dagestani opponent.

On paper, both of these fighters have similar styles, with striking that is more of a means to an end than a method to end the match. The two have suffered more combined knockouts (seven) than they have scored (five), and they would vastly prefer taking the fight to the ground and fighting it out that way. We would not be surprised if one actually manages to hurt the other in an exchange, opening the door for the grappling. The old adage goes that if you punch a black belt in the face, they become a brown belt, and both of these submission-minded men have holes in their game that can be exploited if one causes enough damage to the other.

If one wanted to double up on a prop bet for this clash, in arguably the biggest lock of the night, Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision is -375. This seems low given the history of these two light heavyweights, who track for exactly two judges’ decisions across their combined 43-bout careers. One way or another, someone is getting finished, and we believe that Craig will be the one getting his hand raised in the end.

Rhys McKee (+850)

Although this suggestion could look extremely foolish within 30 seconds of the opening bell, a flier on the debuting McKee against a still inexperienced Khamzat Chimaev may not be a wasteful endeavor. Much of the MMA community is thrilled about the emergence of Chimaev, and for good reason. Stepping up on short notice to make his UFC debut against a gritty brawler in John Phillips, Chimaev decimated the Welshman and mercifully hit a brabo choke early into the second round to end Phillips’ torment. This match happening just over a week ago, Chimaev will be making a record turnaround to face McKee. While we expect like most that Chimaev will win, the odds on this pairing make it worth taking a second glance at.

Very few fighters come in as -1300 favorites, let alone those in their sophomore UFC bout. Should this line remain as it is now, it would be with nearly historic margins. Chimaev would be the first fighter since September 2018 to close as a -1300 favorite or above. Normally, an athlete with such lopsided odds early in their careers would have built a reputation prior to their time in the UFC, like Mirko Filipovic or Cristiane Justino. Instead, “Borz” has just seven wins to his credit, stopping each of those foes before the third round, and he will face an opponent with a similar stoppage rate.

A three-time Cage Warriors Fighting Championship competitor, McKee won all three by stoppage. The questions posed for this bout will be answered very early. Can “Skeletor” catch the overwhelming grappler some claim to be the second coming of Khabib Nurmagomedov bearing down on him, or will he wind up as another brick in the wall during the rise of Chimaev? Although McKee may fail this test in resounding fashion, his quick hand speed displayed recently could help spring an all-time upset in terms of betting lines.

Like the previous bout between Craig and Antigulov, easy money should come in from on Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision, which resides at -565. Although Chimaev could steamroll his second opponent from the U.K. in less than two weeks, we do not know what will happen when Chimaev encounters a foe he cannot ground. This flier comes with a fair amount of risk: Across promotional history, every single fighter that has closed as a betting favorite above -1000 has won their fight. This only accounts for fights in the Octagon, and not results like Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou’s knockout of Nogueira or Steven Siler’s submission over -2000 favorite Magomed Idrisov. Advising a pick that would be akin to a “puncher’s chance” is not always in the best interest of the bettor, but with odds this great and Chimaev still a relative unknown, this may be worth a small risk. Advertisement
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