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It’s American Thanksgiving weekend and regardless of what part of the globe you were born and raised in, surely you know that it’s a holiday with an extra, over-the-top emphasis on the concept of “tradition.” With that in mind, it makes our forthcoming fight weekend just a tad strange and ironic, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the biggest MMA company in the world, born and bred in America, is headed off to mainland China for the second time and staging UFC Fight Night 141 in the wee hours of the morning in North America. While the UFC makes its debut in Beijing, its conceding the Saturday night fight mantle to Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, staging an ill-advised third bout between faded legends Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.
We live in strange times, ladies and gentlemen. Might as well ratchet up the weird factor, because nothing eases the conscience like putting down your hard-earned money on the highly variable outcomes of a cage fight when you’re watching fights at 3 a.m. with no sleep, right?
To be honest, UFC Fight Night 141 is a unique matchmaking mishmash. We’ve got two majorly intriguing heavyweight contests with our main event rematch between surging Curtis Blaydes and suddenly stagnating Francis Ngannou and the debut of a fantastic, unbeaten prospect Sergey Pavlovich making a daunting debut against the ever-dangerous Alistair Overeem. Elsewhere, we’ve got some legit upstarts sandwiched in around ho-hum veterans and in some cases, absolute nobodies.
Truthfully, this is the kind of card I would typically try to avoid betting on, given the volatile nature of matchups with fighters we have deep information on and so many of its Chinese homelanders being largely untested. However, this column is just as much about figuring out the bets we should avoid as the lines we should take, so let’s figure out how to make some money -- or perhaps just not lose our money -- on UFC Fight Night 141:
Straight Up CashCurtis Blaydes (-230)
As always, the usual caveat: for reasons I’ll describe, I’ve got some quandaries about this line, but I know when people read these column inches, they’re not just looking for strict betting advice but some general big-fight picks as well, and I want to give the people what they want. My major misgiving here though is simply the lack of timeliness; I genuinely like Blaydes to win the fight outright, but at the same time, he opened at essentially even money in late September, and sharp gamblers instantly hammered the line mercilessly, driving him into the solid favorite position he’s held since.
As mentioned, this is rematch from Ngannou and Blaydes’ April 2016 fight; for Ngannou, it was his second UFC bout and for Blaydes, his debut. To say that a lot has changed since then would be an understatement. Ngannou clobbered his first six UFC opponents, all via stoppage, and was put on the fast track to superstardom by the company and was installed as the face of the UFC Performance Institute. This year has been a disaster for “The Predator,” however, as he was completely tooled by Stipe Miocic in his heavyweight title challenge in January and turned in one of the most baffling, inert performances in UFC history -- even by heavyweight standards -- in his miserable loss to Derrick Lewis in July, leading to both his former coaches and UFC boss Dana White suggesting fame and fortune had let him down the path of overconfidence and laziness. Meanwhile, Blaydes, who got pummeled into near blindness by Ngannou in their first encounter, hasn’t lost since then and has shown real dedication to his craft and training. The 27-year-old moving his training to Colorado and working with Elevation Fight Team and Easton Training Center has paid obvious, steady dividends and has led him to victories over a pair of K-1 World Grand Prix champs in his last two outings in Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem, who incidentally, he’s spent time training with in this camp.
Here’s the deal: -230 is not the best line in the world for a heavyweight MMA fight where the underdog, even if he’s recently presented as a bit of a head case, still has enormous power. That said, given how things have progressed over the two and a half years since their first encounter, I don’t think it’s an awful line, either. Blaydes’ biggest problem, reflected most obviously in the first Ngannou fight, is that often there’s an awkward tension as he transitions from striking to shooting for takedowns. Against Ngannou in the first bout, Blaydes looked like he’d never even trained with a southpaw let alone fought one, which is why “The Predator” drilled him with a repeated diet of counter lefts every time “Razor” ended up barreling at him to close the distance, hence why his right eye turned into a softball over 10 minutes. Though it still is an issue for him, Blaydes has vastly improved this area of his game, as he’s become a more assertive, confident boxer and is very clever at using feints, level changes and jabs to move his opponents backwards and get them worried about when exactly he’s going to hit a freight train double-leg takedown. There’s also a silver lining in the whooping Ngannou gave him: Blaydes got rocked with some heavy shots from a devastating hitter, yet looked more than ready to go the full 15 minutes if he wasn’t stopped on account of his busted eye. This man has a a head like a cinderblock and seems more than physiologically equipped to be able to deal with heavyweight striking power.
The tricky thing with Ngannou is that he’s such an explosive athlete that keeping him down is often the harder issue than actually getting him on the mat. Even Miocic, in a complete domination, was sucking wind after five rounds because it took so much effort to take Ngannou down and keep him there. However, Blaydes is also equipped here: for a massive man, he’s got a hell of a motor, completing a whopping 6.82 takedowns per 15 minutes and more than that, Blaydes is not just a mean ground-and-pounder, he punishes his opponents when they do scramble and escape, staying glued to them and going right back to grinding. In a general sense, yes, Ngannou is a tougher style match for Blaydes than most heavyweights, but the American has expanded his game in ways that should highlight his improvements over the last two years and let him even the score against the only man to ever defeat him.
Straight Up PassAlistair Overeem (+115)
I was highly conflicted here. Initially, I toyed with the idea of leading this column advocating a little bet on “The Demolition Man,” or “Ubereem,” or whatever he’s calling himself these days. But, it’s Alistair Overeem; for better or worse, he’s one of the most boom-or-bust fighters in the history of MMA. Like I said off the top, this column is just as much about what you shouldn’t bet on as it is what you should. When I came to my senses, I realized that if I had to hem and haw about it, it probably wasn’t a good idea to suggest anyone plunk their money down here.
On top of Overeem’s general volatility over his 19-year MMA career, this is just a plain weird, unnerving matchup. That’s not to say it’s bad; I actually am incredibly intrigued by the fight and it’s easily the fight I’m most excited about on this entire card. However, Overeem is probably one of the 10 best heavyweights in modern MMA history and possesses an offensive arsenal that, to this day, I don’t think people fully appreciate for its devastating diversity. On the other hand, Sergey Pavlovich is the real deal and one of the best signings the UFC has made in recent memory.
Going back to the idea of dissuading people out of a bet, this cuts two ways. I think some squares would simply see Overeem as a +115 underdog to some guy they’ve never heard of and think it’s worth a flier. I also think a lot of diehard combat sports fans do appreciate how truly deadly Overeem’s offensive oeuvre can be and recognize that Pavlovich’s best career win is over Fedor Emelianenko’s increasingly obese understudy Kirill Sidelnikov, who just got lit up in Bellator MMA by a dude with two pro fights. Both of those are powerful incentives to drive you to plunk down some cash. But again, this isn’t about whether or not Overeem will win or lose, it’s that he simply can win or lose. This is a fight rife with uncertainty and for those reasons, I give it a hard pass.
Pavlovich is a complete hoss. He’s usually tagged as 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, but when you actually see him, he looks like he’s the size of a house and has about seven-percent body fat. He fights like an absolute savage, but he’s not reckless; he tags his opponents from distance and the minute he smells blood in the water, he swarms them, effortlessly throwing punching combos that look like pure haymakers, but are actually incredibly accurate, moving in and out of close punching distance and clinching, where he’s also got devastating knees. Now, there’s no doubt that Overeem is the better heeled, classically trained striker, however, we also know that it doesn’t necessarily take a technical master to simply blast Overeem’s Achilles’ heel, which happens to be in his chin rather than his foot.
As I said, I don’t think a lot of people appreciate how well-rounded and terrifying Overeem’s offensive game is; since he transformed into “Ubereem” with his vaunted horse meat in 2010, people have come to respect the technical ability and pure power in his striking game, but often overlook his underrated clinch techniques and takedowns, as well as him being a vicious ground-and-pounder. I can imagine him hurting Pavlovich, getting him on his back and pummeling him into drowning in the deep waters he’s never fathomed. But at 38 years old, being brutally knocked out in his last two fights and even rocked late by Fabricio Werdum in their awkward rubber match, I think it’s just better to save that money for a rainy day and simply enjoy whatever high-octane heavyweight slugging we get in the cage.
A Prop-ular BetCurtis Blaydes Wins By Decision (+420)
Now, I normally like to diversify these columns and really hit different fights all over a given card, but there’s just too sexy of a price here to pass up. The line is just too rich here, so I’d rather squeeze the fruit and see how much juice we can get out of it.
Let me quickly say that elsewhere, I like Xiaonan Yan to win by decision over Syuri Kondo at -180 given that she’s an outright -450 favorite and for the same reasons, I like Weili Zhang to top Jessica Aguilar on points at -160 as opposed to her straight-up -500 moneyline. I think both of those lines hit on what is usually the crux of my prop-ular and unprop-ular bet suggestions: when is the straight moneyline out of touch with what’s being offered on prop? Yan is a much more technical and diverse striker than Kondo, who is a quality kickboxer, but very hittable and throws much less output, while Zhang is facing a 36-year-old, oft-injured Aguilar, who not only will she have a size and considerable striking advantage over, but has based her entire career on getting meaningless takedowns and trying to stick her opponent to the mat. Less than 10 percent of women’s strawweight fights in the UFC finish by knockout and given that both of the Chinese favorites will try to avoid direct body contact while striking from distance, we’re likely heading three rounds. Both of these are quality prop bets if you’re sheepish about what I’m suggesting in Ngannou-Blaydes 2.
For reasons previously detailed, I think it’s entirely possible that Blaydes takes Ngannou down repeatedly, avoids his vicious left-handed counters and pounds the bejesus out of him. As I stated, Blaydes is a natural ground-and-pounder and more than that, he’s got an almost old-school, throwback willingness to throw damage from full guard. Nowadays, even good wrestlers look to get to at least half guard if not a more dominant position before opening up with real punches and elbows. Blaydes? Well, look at the end of the Overeem fight. He bounced Overeem’s skull off the mat a half dozen times with straight, clean elbows from full guard, generating massive power with his massive frame. However, even if his cardio is likely to fail him and he has no real game from his back, Ngannou has a knack for survival.
Blaydes is improving fight over fight, and if he’s able to register a late-round stoppage, I won’t be shocked. But +420 to go 25 minutes, especially given Ngannou’s own mean chin, escapability from his back even while tired and the fact Blaydes is going to have to be on a full-set grind for five rounds in order to subdue his opponent. If Blaydes keeps us with his recent repertoire, I think he definitely wins almost every round and pummels Ngannou for the duration. That said, even with inflated ego and lackadaisical training, I don’t think the Cameroonian is going to be taken out, simply because Blaydes is hammering on him. As said, there’s more potentially appetizing props based around 15-minute kickboxing matchups, but the +420 is as juicy as it gets, given that Blaydes, even with the overdrive motor he’s got, will likely get tired and keeping a listless Ngannou to the floor over 25 minutes.
An Un-Propular BetJingiiang Li Wins Inside the Distance (+255)
It doesn’t matter if it’s Macau or proper mainland China, MMA fans have gotten well-acquainted with Jingliang Li. He’s 7-3 inside the Octagon and has won five of his last six. He’s a hard-throwing brawler and a thrill a minute. No doubt, he is going to stick around on UFC roster, not just on account of his passport, but that he’s a legitimate workout for any fighter that faces him; he’s not just here for strictly geographic regions, he’s a seriously fun fighter. However, because of his hard-battling style, there’s a tendency to overrate who he is and what he does.
Li is essentially a swarming power puncher. Yes, there is a value to this, but he is already a -180 favorite against David Zawada and +255 to win inside the distance. First of all, go back to what we discussed earlier about oddsmakers getting the discrepancy between the moneyline and props all wrong; this is a case where sharps are betting on Li not to finish, and you should do likewise.
Don’t get me wrong. “The Leech” is not just a renewable talent that the UFC can use to drum up some Chinese ticket sales, but he’s a legitimately thrilling fighter who opens up with reckless abandon and throws everything he’s got at his opponents to try to polish them off. Sometimes, it works: he absolutely crumpled Zak Ottow, Anton Zafir and Bobby Nash within his last six outings. It’s not that he doesn’t have power, but rather that Zawada is a clever counter-based striker that is going to make his game more difficult than usual. I definitely like Li to win the fight, but if you’re looking for a sassy prop bet, you might be inclined to favor Li because of what a powerful, brash swinger he is. I just don’t think Zawada is the one.
I think at various stages of this fight, Li is going to tag Zawada and put him on the fence. He’ll unload with everything he has. But the German, if not as naturally athletically inclined, is still well-trained and is going to cover up, dodge and dart, and figure out a way to make it the full 15 minutes. On top of that, “Sagat” has some power of his own to fire back in response. I think the UFC will push Li to the moon, because even if he is never a welterweight title challenger, they can rely on him to go out and put on rousing and scintillating brawls where his nastiness and punching power comes out on top, much to the celebration of a Chinese crowd. However, don’t confuse that willingness to exchange with being a pure power puncher; “The Leech” is a brawler, not a puncher, and the tactical savviness and overall defensive aplomb of Zawada should allow him to last the full 15 minutes, even in defeat.
An Accumulation ContemplationBlaydes (-230)
Louis Smolka (-200) Total Odds: +235
So, as I mentioned, this is not necessarily the best UFC card for betting. Hell, you might be better off putting your bankroll on Tito Ortiz at -250, but that’s not our format. This card has several tense, well-matched fights, but they’re in the heavyweight division at divisive lines. Everything else is essentially strong local talents who are unproven taking on underskilled opponents. For the most part, this is not the sort of card you wanna throw some coin on. But, just in case you’re that kind of sort that wants to roll the dice, lemme offer some options.
Blaydes, even if he was massively bet down by pros the minute the moneyline came out, is still one of the best and most reliable numbers you can tag, so if you are so inclined to a traditional three-team parlay, he’s got to be an anchor in it. Almost every other solid favorite is -400 or above and simply not worth your charge. When it comes to Li, even if I advocated against him actually finishing David Zawada, I still think he’s going to burst into savage mode and swing powerful hooks, uppercuts and all-around nastiness on his opponent, but I think he might have to wait for the judges to tally their scorecards in order to get his sixth win in his last seven fights after 15 minutes of heavy hitting. No harm, no foul -- his bout with Zawada will still probably be considerably entertaining -- even if it takes all three rounds. Still, like “The Leech” to get his hand raised.
Smolka is a tricky one and no doubt, he’s the potential parlay-buster here. Yes, the Hawaiian is a very flawed fighter, and he lost four in a row in the Octagon before earning a second go-around with two victories outside the promotion. However, he’s more well-rounded than he presents and thrives in the scramble, which is exactly where I can see his opponent Sumudaerji Sumudaerji being exploited. In this case, it’s not so much about getting mortal lock bets, but figuring out where linemakers are betting against potential disaster; Smolka is a never going to be a champ, he’s fighting in mainland China and oddsmakers are hedging against him screwing up. Against the vastly untested Sumudaerji Sumudaerji, and at the -200 price, it’s not a bad look at all. At the end of the day, UFC Fight Night 141 is more of a card to enjoy when you wake up when it’s done and start the prelims on Fight Pass with a cup of coffee. But if you’re savvy about it, you might get another couple yuan in your pocket.