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Fight fans took a much-needed breather over Thanksgiving and come back a week later for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s return to the ESPN airwaves. The first ESPN card since August is positively stuffed to the gills—15 bouts are on the billing—but the lines are generally close, with only one tilt showing a favorite above -300. With a litany of solid options on the board not even including those like Clay Guida-Leonardo Santos going to a decision (-155) or Jake Matthews (-167), the potential is sky-high in this UFC on ESPN 31 edition of Prime Picks.
Rob Font (-140)
“You should never underestimate greatness on the level of Jose Aldo.” Attributed to Sherdog contributor Lev Pisarsky, that quote certainly rings true when it comes to the former featherweight king and one of the greatest fighters of all-time. In his famed division of 145 pounds, Aldo held on to the throne longer than any other man, doing so against an array of vastly different opponents. At bantamweight, Aldo surprised by arguably beating Marlon Moraes in his 135-pound debut. Even with the loss, Aldo fought for the bantamweight belt next and kept Petr Yan honest until the late rounds, where damage mounted and his gas tank betrayed him. Aldo’s struggles over the years have largely come when foes push an exhausting pace on him while landing at a high volume, and that is exactly what Font brings to the table. It might be a close matchup for the first few rounds—and the ex-champ can definitely find success—but Font’s stellar boxing should turn the tide in his favor.
Fans and media alike have been attempting to write off Aldo for years, with “this is the end”-type pronouncements following an uninspired effort. Whether his setbacks to Max Holloway, his quick knockout loss to Conor McGregor or his deflating defeat at the hands of Alexander Volkanovski, the narrative continues to follow that Aldo’s best days are behind him. When facing Pedro Munhoz over the course of three rounds his last time out, Aldo landed more significant strikes (114) than he had in any bout of his entire tenure with World Extreme Cagefighting or the UFC. His ability to inflict damage and, more importantly, easily deflect the seemingly unstoppable low calf kick showed him in a prime form that caught many off-guard. An Aldo that gives back more than he receives could cause problems for the surging Font.
For Font to get his hand raised as a moderate favorite, he should approach this battle the same way he encountered Moraes a year ago: Show no fear. History is littered with examples of competitors who fell victim to their opponent’s reputation before ever setting foot in the cage or ring, and Aldo is one such man who bestowed that feeling on those who encountered him. Moraes unexpectedly brought forth a grappling-based attack, and Font recovered to stagger “Magic Marlon” with his most effective weapon: the jab. The Massachusetts native picked his shots to level Moraes a few times, battering the Brazilian with ground-and-pound until referee Marc Goddard finally stepped in. While Aldo’s chin might not be as battle-weary as that of Moraes, Font’s piston-like jab could work wonders to set up other strikes and bust up the ex-champ.
As is customary for most pre-fight analysis for Aldo, his formerly great attack involving vicious leg kicks would be his best way to slow down a forward-marching, granite-nosed, Boston-based boxer. Throwing them naked would be to his detriment, as a right hand down the pipe from the orthodox American could easily serve as a deterrent. Setting up those kicks with clever combinations and mixing in devastating body shots shows how Aldo could keep the clock turned back and deliver a statement performance at 135 pounds. The paths are there, but his greatest concern is when Font sticks his hands in his face and does not let up. By constantly forcing Aldo to fight off his back foot and not giving him any room to breathe or wind up on his brutal kicks is how Font gets the job done. He might have to wade through the fire to get there, but considering Aldo has not hit a takedown since 2014, this should largely be a standup affair in which Font can take over as the match progresses.
Brendan Allen Wins Inside Distance (+150)
The Cinderella story actually materialized for Chris Curtis. He not only debuted inside the Octagon in November after years on the outside looking in but survived and recorded a spectacular knockout of Phil Hawes. A short-notice opportunity for “The Action Man” while he remained in the Las Vegas area affords him a chance to vault into the Top 15 at middleweight against Allen. While Curtis improved his stock immensely by dispatching Hawes, a turnaround of less than a month against the talented Allen will spell serious problems for him. Over the years, only two of Curtis’ adversaries have managed to finish him, but the dangers Allen presents on the feet and on the ground will be too much to bear for the longtime welterweight.
Curtis came into his bout with Hawes looking like the much smaller man, and the size discrepancy in the cage will be even more substantial against Allen. Curtis competed at light heavyweight as recently as this year and he unquestionably has activity in his favor, with five victories so far in 2021, including four knockouts. Punching power, sometimes from unusual angles, has allowed Curtis to shock opponents and put them away over the years. Allen could find himself in danger if he walks forward with his hands down and his chin up, but his avenue to get his hand raised is clear-cut and direct: Put Curtis on the ground, where that power goes away. Once he plants Curtis on his backside in some fashion, he will be in the driver’s seat, and he can either slash down with vicious elbows or follow an attempted scramble to take the back and snag the neck. Whether by tapout or from strikes, Allen should be able to put a speed bump in Curtis’ path.
Bryan Barberena (-125)
This fight shifted from Barberena-Matt Brown to short-notice newcomer Darian Weeks, with the UFC debutant stepping up with a clean 5-0 record. The level of competition skyrockets from Craig Fairley (3-4) to even a shopworn Barberena, and the intangibles weigh so heavily in the favor of “Bam Bam” that it comes as quite a surprise that the line is this close. The 32-year-old Barberena has struggled of late against UFC-caliber competition, with a win over Anthony Ivy standing as his lone victory in the last three years. His status as an “action” welterweight may be in question, but he should still have more than enough in the tank to stave off an opponent who has never fought to the third round as a pro.
Coming out of the Kansas City scene in the last couple years, Weeks makes his way to the promotion with five finishes inside the distance. His quick hands and decent killer instinct impressed the matchmakers enough to get a callup that may yet prove premature. Barberena’s chin has stood up to mighty punishment over the years, only cracking against Vicente Luque—after nearly 15 minutes of ferocity—and then a few months later to Randy Brown after about 13 minutes of hard-nosed action transpired. In his last two outings, his takedown defense has failed him, but he still managed to hang on and even secure a win on the way. Barring Weeks walking out of his corner, cold-cocking the veteran and putting him out early, Barberena has displayed more skills throughout a far longer career to frustrate the UFC neophyte. Even if “Bam Bam” does take damage in the opening minutes, he should have the wherewithal to survive, fight to his own advantages and outwork Weeks once the newcomer’s gas tank diminishes.
William Knight-Alonzo Menifield Goes Under 1.5 Rounds (+140)
This collision course of a pick dates all the way back to February, as this light heavyweight rumble was once booked for UFC Fight Night 186 and then again for UFC 260. The third time appears to be the charm for these two explosive finishers who score stoppages in the blink of an eye. The line on this matchup not going the distance is -170, far lower than its February leaning of -260; and it still presents itself as a solid parlay option should you pick one burly slugger over the other. Finish rates of 90% or higher for both men speak to this fight ending before the final bell, and this 205-pound iteration of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots will most likely end quickly.
With finishing power present in spades and a propensity for both men to charge headlong into battle, this one should not last long. All but one of Menifield’s victories have hit the under. His lone win on the scorecards came over wily veteran Ed Herman, with “Short Fuse” getting hurt badly and barely surviving. Knight would prefer to brawl with anyone he encounters, and Menifield will welcome that approach— even though he has a direct path to victory through powering “Knightmare” to the ground and clobbering him. With questionable fight IQ displayed by both gentlemen during their UFC tenures, the potential to meet in the middle and throw down leads to a good chance that the slugfest ends within a round and a half.
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