Prime Picks: UFC on ESPN 36 ‘Blachowicz vs. Rakic’

A trim and proper Ultimate Fighting Championship show will swing back to the UFC Apex after a short trip to Phoenix, and this 11-bout offering brings in several sneaky-solid matchups. Only two of the lines see favorites at -300 or higher on Saturday in Las Vegas, and both of those bring underdogs that also have real paths to victory not discussed below, with Andre Petroski at +280 and Louis Smolka at +240. The UFC on ESPN 36 edition of Prime Picks features a former champion who should have more fight left in him than many bettors predict, a veritable barnburner that will end with one muscular mauler face-down before long and two bouts at 125 pounds that will reach the final bell but not necessarily because they were unexciting.

Jan Blachowicz (+165)

At some point, Father Time wins the battle and turns a fighter into a shell of his former self. At 39 years of age, ex-champ Blachowicz is unquestionably in the twilight of his career, but he is still 15 months removed from handing Israel Adesanya his lone defeat. While replicating that strategy of outpowering Adesanya will not work directly against Aleksandar Rakic, there are elements of his durability and methodical pace that can keep him in not only in the fight but on the giving and not the receiving end. When the only two recent displays of beating Blachowicz of late come either by (a) outgunning him or (b) running game on him on the mat, it gives value in the underdog pick since Rakic does not appear suited to exploit either of those avenues.

Rakic, for all intents and purposes, is riding a stellar 15-fight winning streak, even with the 2019 loss on his record. His split decision defeat in that stretch came against Volkan Oezdemir in a much-derided set of scorecards with which the majority of the scoring community disagreed. In fact, it could be argued by some that a 30-27 score for Rakic was more sensible than Oezdemir somehow pilfering the last two rounds to sneak away with the win. While hardly setting the world on fire in his two wins since the Oezdemir debacle, his topping respectable names of Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos cannot be overlooked. A well-rounded competitor, Rakic owns a tested chin that has stood up against a few of the heaviest punchers in his weight category and will work well for him as he competes in what some expect to be a title eliminator.

The vaunted “Polish Power” has shown itself again in recent years, as Blachowicz lamped Luke Rockhold and Corey Anderson before clobbering Dominick Reyes to capture the title. Whether a sign that he is trading skills in for the power that remains for elder statesmen or a leveling up late in his tenure as a pro, Blachowicz unquestionably possesses equalizing striking prowess. The ability to stun opponents with a strike and make them reconsider their life decisions as a follow-up right hook soars at their face cannot be overstated, especially at the highest levels of the game. Rakic may fight long, but Blachowicz crowds the pocket effectively and blitzes to take otherwise effective tools out of the game. Forcing Rakic into a technical but dangerous boxing match will be crucial, unless Blachowicz turns the tables and decides to test his strength against the Austrian. With five-round experience under his belt, as well, Blachowicz at +165 is a very desirable line for those expecting him to win, since this could be more of a pick-’em given what each man brings to the dance.

Ion Cutelaba-Ryan Spann Goes Under 1.5 Rounds (-165)

In this light heavyweight clash, the overwhelming expectation is that it will not end up in the hands of the judges (-400). Even the selection that the bout ends by knockout, no matter who lands it, is a wild -225. Instead of picking one man—Cutelaba comes in around -225, with the comeback on Spann at +185—the hope for some kind of unbridled violence at -165 is the right call for this match. An escape route in the form of Spann winning the fight by tapout early is one that cannot be ignored, as he can club-and-sub quite well. Fifteen of Spann’s 16 finishes have materialized in under 7:30, while Cutelaba is an equally fast starter, with all 14 of his stoppages coming that quickly. One way or another, someone is likely going down in the first round, and that itself can be snagged for +125.

Matchmakers knew exactly what they were doing when putting this pairing together, with two fringe Top 15 light heavyweights on the outside looking in searching for a marquee victory. Both men are at least 12 years younger than current champion Glover Teixeira, and they sport a decent amount of fight miles while never losing that killer instinct that brought them to the dance. Gameplans might go out the window after a few solid punches land, and torrid exchanges will light up the UFC Apex until the dust settles. If a finish comes at all in this fight, it will almost certainly take place before the midpoint of the bout, making that moderately favored prop bet one to watch.

Katlyn Chookagian Wins by Decision (+100)

Love her fight style or hate it, it is undeniable that Chookagian is good at what she does. A high-volume, low-damage kickboxing approach, along with keeping a safe range while peppering her foes with jabs and reaching kicks, has brought her to the precipice of the mountain in her division. Were it not for a Kyrgyzstani-Peruvian wrecking machine in Valentina Shevchenko lording over the 125-pound weight class, it seems entirely possible that “Blonde Fighter” would consider changing her nickname to “Gold Fighter.” Six inches standing and two inches in reach will play into Chookagian’s favor against Amanda Ribas, as she efficiently keeps opponents at the end of her strikes while slipping or rolling with the most damaging counters that come back in her direction. An 82% decision rate, with no stoppages since 2016 when she was not yet on the UFC roster, makes it a safe bet at even money for Chookagian to not only win but to do so by decision.

It is a far cry from Ribas jumping up to 125 pounds to take on future 0-2 bareknuckle boxer Paige VanZant compared to the likes of the former title challenger. The size difference will be apparent early, and with a tendency to rely on raw muscle and not pure technical prowess to secure takedowns, she will find herself on the wrong end of that equation. The Brazilian’s main goal will be to force tie-ups, look to trip Chookagian to the mat and instantly hunt for submissions. Moving up a weight division, the smaller fighters tend to bring speed with them. Ribas will have to keep up with Chookagian, who may not have impenetrable takedown defense but maintains a solid get-up game and the quick ability to force separations and disengage while landing strikes on the break. It may not be the most scintillating to some viewers, but the constant striking activity mixed with a great deal of slick lateral movement will force Ribas to charge—only for Chookagian to be a foot away and kiaiing with a front kick as she escapes out the side.

Tatsuro Taira-Carlos Candelario Goes to Decision (+110)

Sometimes re-imagining a line is important for a pick analysis, when variables change or a substantial amount of time passes since its first announcement. In this particular case of early preliminary fighters who are meeting a few weeks after intended, the line is exactly the same as before and it should not vary. It is still not a slight to look at the lightest men’s weight category and expect the fight will end up going to the scorecards. Over half of all UFC men’s flyweight fights have gone to decision—a bit above 58%, to be more precise—and at +110, there is juice in this squeeze. On paper, the two Octagon newcomers present high stoppage rates, but traditionally, that is the case of two competitors who had not yet surpassed a feeder league onto a major stage. In the case of Taira, his advantageous grappling style, threatening with chokes or delivering rapid ground-and-pound strikes, may not translate up to a UFC-ready fighter. As for Candelario, this has already been evidenced, as his last three outings against legitimate competition have gone the distance. It is one thing to knock out 1-2 Timothy Wheeler and another to go three hard rounds with Victor Altamirano.

This Shooto vs. CES MMA affair has excitement written all over it, even if Candelario did lose his last fight and earned a UFC contract in the same vein that Stephan Bonnar was signed to the promotion. There is much to like about Taira’s fast style, but his gaudy record will be put to the test when he finds he cannot simply take Candelario’s back in a hurry and get the choke in the first three minutes. Of the two, “The Cannon” has displayed more recent, relevant success going the distance, while every fight to go to the judges has been victorious for Taira. The bet is not about who wins but rather how long the fight lasts. In this case, the plus option for it going the distance is more appetizing than -110 for the over of 2.5 rounds. Neither man has ever netted a stoppage after 7:11 into a fight, so it does not seem a late finish is in the cards.
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