Prime Picks: UFC on ESPN 9 ‘Woodley vs. Burns’

By Jay Pettry May 29, 2020

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns to Las Vegas for UFC on ESPN 9—the first stop on a five-week stretch of weekend events. This divided card sees multiple coinflip matchups accompanied by massive favorites and sizeable underdogs. Time to make some money in the Fight Capital of the World with this edition of Prime Picks.

Gilbert Burns (+155)

Most of the time, the purpose of the Prime Picks series is not to serve as a straight preview piece—these are done comprehensively by Tom Feely—but rather as a way to assess value based on the betting lines presented. What could this mean? While the conventional wisdom dictates that, for example, Conor McGregor was expected to defeat Donald Cerrone, a seasoned veteran like “Cowboy” showing odds around +300 merited some attention. In this instance, Tyron Woodley has a clear and obvious path to victory, but Burns as a decent underdog deserves some consideration.

After devastating losses, some fighters are never the same. Anderson Silva was a changed fighter after his first knockout defeat to Chris Weidman. Miguel Torres never quite bounced back after his crushing first-round knockout loss to Brian Bowles. The names can go on, and this bout represents the chance for Woodley to show that, even at 38 years of age, he still has another run in him and can bounce back from a humbling setback against Kamaru Usman. A powerful wrestler who does not need to rely on his takedown game, Woodley has only landed five takedowns in his entire UFC career. Instead, Woodley excels at forcing his opponents into a grueling stalemate. Burns, a submission grappler, could be in for a long night.

MMA history is littered with examples of exceptional grapplers who discover they possess talent in their striking game and abandon what brought them to the table. Fedor Emelianenko has not submitted an opponent since 2008, and he has been on the wrong end of several ill-advised slugfests. Five of Roy Nelson’s first six opponents wound up tapping out for various reasons. Burns, a world championship-level submission artist, may need to be careful to not fall into a pattern of over-relying on what he called “my new toys” on Virtual Media Day. The power he has displayed is not new, and Burns has separated multiple opponents from their senses in his career. However, none of his knockouts were as significant as putting down Demian Maia in March.

Woodley has grappled with some elite ground fighters in his day, including the aforementioned Maia, Jake Shields and Kelvin Gastelum. When it comes to beating “The Chosen One,” the game plan has historically been stopping the takedown, avoiding the nasty overhand rights and not allowing yourself to get tied up against the fence. Should Burns wind up on his back, threatening with submissions or sweeps immediately is a way to get Woodley to reassess the situation. Otherwise, gaining Woodley’s respect with a few powerful punches in the early going could cause the ex-champ to come in cautiously.

Although there could be lengthy lulls in the action, Burns’ training with Usman at Hard Knocks 365 should prepare the younger Brazilian for how to overcome his opponent. We do not predict that Burns will become the first fighter to tap Woodley (+550), but we can see a way that “Durinho” can emerge victorious and come out knocking on the door to a title shot. Do not be surprised if Woodley throws all this to ruin by grinding out Burns; and if you believe Woodley will win, his victory by decision is a reasonable alternative at +295.

Augusto Sakai vs. Blagoy Ivanov Goes to Decision (-165)

The main event may not be the only fight on the card that could turn into an exhausting affair, as the heavyweight co-headliner between Sakai and Ivanov has all the makings of a fight that will go 15 minutes. Even though the two stout gentlemen have combined for 23 finishes in their 32 career wins, neither man has been knocked out. The odds currently represent one of the few coinflips of the card, as Sakai resides at -115 and Ivanov sits at -105, but that line could easily shift slightly in the other direction. Instead of picking a victor, the safer option is the prop bet that neither man can secure a finish.

Although picking a heavyweight fight outside of one of Andrei Arlovski’s recent matchups to go the distance may on its face be a risky proposition, the durability of these two has been on display throughout their careers. Even though Sakai sees a knockout rate upwards of 80 percent, rarely has he displayed one-shot stopping power and instead generally wins by attrition and volume. Should Sakai emerge victorious, he could find himself among the top heavyweights, as the three men to defeat Ivanov—Derrick Lewis, Junior dos Santos and Alexander Volkov—are all currently ranked in the UFC’s Top 10.

Both men are young in a division where many elite fighters are upwards of 40 years old or more, their styles can lead to a fight that has ebbs and flows without many dramatic moments. While Ivanov can be patient as a counterstriker, his ability to drag the fight down could be the difference maker and can also slow down the contest dramatically. For Ivanov, each of his last five fights have reached the judges’ scorecards. This is a sharp contrast to the remainder of his career, where only three bouts went the distance across 17 appearances. If Lewis and dos Santos could not put out Ivanov, we do not expect that Sakai will be the one to crack the chin of a who once hailed a cab to the hospital after getting stabbed in the heart.

Mackenzie Dern Wins by Submission (-138)

As an overwhelming -450 favorite—the biggest on the card—Dern is expected to successfully rebound from her first career defeat when she meets Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt Hannah Cifers. Initially booked against one another in April, the coronavirus resulted in the postponement of that event, although the matchup remained intact. At Media Day, Dern explained that, as of Thursday, she was already on weight, but it is entirely possible that her fight against the scale proves to be a more difficult adversary than the significantly smaller Cifers.

Cifers, a volume puncher who has shown decent all-around skills but faces an obvious size disparity next to natural strawweights, would be far better suited to compete in an atomweight division. Throughout her four-fight UFC career, we have either seen Cifers play the bully or get bullied by a larger fighter. As the more diminutive competitor, her best course of action in this bout will be to keep her distance, counter the looping shots sure to come from Dern with tight boxing and stay away from the cage.

Outside of the setback to what turned out to be a grappler with a better skill set in Amanda Ribas, Dern has put most opponents where she wanted when she wanted them to be there. Should the part-time Brazilian get her hands on Cifers, the latter will likely be pressed up against the fence or tossed to the mat. Once Dern gets her down, it is only a matter of time until she wrenches on an arm or the neck and elicits the tapout. As an additional prop bet that could prove interesting to some, Dern Wins in Round 1 is currently +170.

Katlyn Chookagian (+115)

In a slight upset, we predict that the former title challenger can defeat the elder sister of her previous opponent in Antonina Shevchenko. Both women would vastly prefer to keep this fight standing, and neither appears to have any inclination to take it to the ground. Both fighters have recent losses that have exposed their weaknesses, but neither woman appears to hold the edge to capitalize on them. Instead, we should expect a striking battle that could be the noisiest of the event when combining Chookagian’s kiais and Shevchenko’s Thai-style corner.

Shevchenko will not be able to emulate the success that her sister enjoyed against “Blonde Fighter,” as Valentina Shevchenko put Chookagian on her back and squarely in the danger zone. Her game plan is significantly different than her better-known sibling’s, although in her promotional debut she managed to put Ji Yeon Kim on her back twice in their 15-minute tussle. Shevchenko has preferred at times to work inside in the clinch, but she may not have the strength and power that her sister did to control Chookagian.

A volume striker who has bested historically superior strikers like Joanne Calderwood and Irene Aldana by maintaining a steady flow of offense across 15-minute stretches, Chookagian can prevail by being the busier fighter. Allowing herself to get drawn into lengthy staredowns in which one tries to counter the other will prove to be to her disadvantage, and she will need every edge she can to prevail in this closely matched standup battle. Should you wish to follow this chain of thinking to a slightly better line, Chookagian Wins by Decision is +145, which is where she would almost certainly pick up the win should she get her hand raised.

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