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UFC on Fox 31 on Saturday in Milwaukee marks the end of an era, the last Ultimate Fighting Championship card as part of the Fox family before the promotion makes the transition to ESPN in 2019. For our purposes here, and despite the fact that the UFC’s seven-year relationship with Fox is about to expire, betting on fights springs eternal.
In a circumstance that seems uncomfortably emblematic of where we’re at in MMA, this should be a sentimental if not necessarily outstanding card for the UFC to end its Fox deal with gusto. Instead, the UFC’s third card in the “Brew City” doesn’t even have a firm grip on the attention and passions of fight fans this weekend, with a pair of cards from Bellator MMA on back-to-back nights, a strong offering in Invicta Fighting Championships 33 and, for boxing lovers, the return of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. With that said, a card doesn’t need to be a blockbuster to warrant making some bets. In fact, in some cases, a card like UFC on Fox 31 can often use a little sweat on the line to give you an extra injection of intrigue.
What prospects does UFC on Fox 31 offer us and our wallets? Our main event, a rematch between Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta, features the second-widest odds on the card, with “The Motown Phenom” a -360 favorite to avenge a February 2014 defeat to Iaquinta. Our co-feature between the surging Dan Hooker and a slumping Edson Barboza is just about even money on every sportsbook and, for my money, might be a little too close to call with confidence.
Headliners aren’t always the be-all, end-all in regards to betting on the fights, though. We have a 13-fight card with several bouts offering some interesting odds, so let’s figure out how to exploit them and make money on UFC on Fox 31:
Straight Up CashRob Font (-160)
Swerve! I normally lead this section by emphasizing that while it’s called “Straight Up Cash,” fans tend to be more enticed to bet on the biggest fights, regardless of whether the odds offer value and a definitive return on investment. We break with tradition here, for some of the reasons I hinted at in the intro.
Firstly, I think Lee deserves to be a righteous favorite over Iaquinta, but -360 is hardly a great number, even if Lee’s greatest skill is his dynamite ability to take the back and finish off foes and Iaquinta constantly exposes his back in scrambles -- a trait which nearly got him finished by Lee in their first fight. If we look at the co-main event, I’ve seen many folks concerned about Barboza -- he has lost two consecutive beatdowns to Lee and Khabib Nurmagomedov -- especially with Hooker coming into his own since returning to 155 pounds and racking up impressive knockouts. I love the style matchup and am greatly intrigued by how it’s going to play out; however, Hooker won’t enjoy his usual reach and range advantages and is facing a classier fundamental striker who may not allow “The Hangman” to operate at a typical distance from which he can open up his full arsenal. In an even-money fight that offers so much unpredictability, I’m going to pass in favor of a juicier number. Enter Font.
Font at -160 -- in a fight where opponent Sergio Pettis is returning to the bantamweight division after losing to Jussier da Silva just over two months ago -- seems like a steal. With all reverence for whatever good juju Pettis may inherit by virtue of fighting in his hometown, Font seems like a miserable style matchup for the Roufusport product.
On paper, it wouldn’t necessarily seem like Font is vastly larger than Pettis, with just two inches or so of both height and reach on him. On the other hand, can you possibly imagine Font ever getting down to 125 pounds? Not a chance. Font doesn’t seem vastly more effective or aggressive with his striking, landing 4.38 significant strikes per minute to Pettis’ 3.60, yet when you watch both men fight, their methods of attack are vastly different. Font fights longer and lands much harder punches and kicks from the outside, while Pettis prefers to dart in and out with quick, pitter-patter combos. Font is a ruthless stalker and a far better and versatile fight finisher, while Pettis likes to land what he can, then get on his bicycle and circle away. Font has also demonstrated an awesome chin over his career, even if he has walked into some heaters that have knocked him down in the past. Nonetheless, the Mark DellaGrotte pupil is bigger and stronger, and he is going to march down Pettis with relentless pressure; and if he can trap Pettis in the clinch, Font has vicious elbows and knees. Font may get touched a few times, but in no way do I see Pettis having the stopping power to slow his forward march. As such, I have to advocate for that -160 line.
Straight Up PassHooker (-115)
I just explained part of why I preferred betting Font at -160 to grabbing Hooker -- or Barboza, for that matter -- at basically even money. As always, the goal is to find good value that reduces uncertainty and the threat of highly variable outcomes. Part of what makes Hooker-Barboza so appealing as a fight is that same uncertainty, but it’s also the strongest case for looking elsewhere for a good bet.
There’s a perception of Hooker as shockingly tall and rangy. Though he’s hardly a shrimp, that is largely a holdover from how he towered over foes at 145 pounds. Back at lightweight now and headed into this fight with Barbosa, they both have a 75-inch reach; and the Kiwi only has an inch in height and leg reach on Barbosa.
More than that, while Hooker can crack from distance, his more recent impressive knockouts came when he was stepping forward into the pocket against fighters rushing him, as both Jim Miller and Gilbert Burns did. In fact, Burns was largely the author of his own misfortune, as he actually landed hard and clean on Hooker early, grew overconfident and ended up charging into “The Hangman’s” right hand.
Barboza may uncork some flying knees from time to time, but he’s quite judicious with when he does. The Brazilian has demonstrated over his career a superior use of distance-striking fundamentals, using his jab and crushing low kicks to maintain a comfortable range and drilling opponents with them when they start attacking him in straight lines, as Hooker tends to do. There’s no telling if the beatings Barboza took from Lee and Nurmagomedov really took some tread off of his tires, nor is there much certainty about the full extent to which Hooker has upped his striking fundamentals when he has opponents running face-first into his fists and knees. I love the fight, but I’ll love it more not having to take a wild guess on what we’re going to see in the cage.
A Prop-ular BetJuan Adams Wins by Knockout (-210)
First, an admission: This is a little bit of a lily-livered pick on my end. I toyed with the initial idea of suggesting Gerald Meerschaert to finish Jack Hermansson inside the distance at +280. I think the Roufusport product is being tremendously undervalued at +170 straight up, and given that 26 of his 28 career wins have come via finish, I think there’s a great chance he uses his clean left cross, heavy liver kicks and super-slick submission game to upset and finish “The Joker.” Now, if you are of the same mind as me and backing “GM3” as an underdog, I don’t mean to dissuade you, but given Meerschaert’s tendency to play an aggressive bottom game at times, Hermansson’s ground-and-pound -- easily his best trait -- could do damage and validate him as the favorite.
As a result, I’m playing it conservative here; you can call it cowardice if you want. After all, there’s a reason they call it “gambling,” and +280 is a much sweeter payout than -210. While I may have some wimpy nervousness about whether my underdog special can (a) cash and (b) get a finish, what I’m offering with my recommended prop here is my idea of free money, or as close as you can get to it with an MMA prop bet.
Making his official UFC debut after clobbering Shawn Teed on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in July, Adams is at -440 straight up, yet is somehow out there at -210 to win by KO or TKO when he’s punched out every fighter he has ever faced in his short MMA career? I won’t deny opponent Chris de la Rocha’s toughness, but to say he’s at athletic and stylistic advantage here is a gross understatement.
The only thing that kept de la Rocha in the UFC is that in his last, Rashad Coulter gassed out while busting him bloody and then couldn’t stop takedowns in the second round. Adams is the size of a house, at 6-foot-5 and cutting down from 285 pounds or so. More importantly, he has a strong wrestling background, having competed for the Virginia Military Institute, and knows how to use it in the cage. Adams’ striking is still raw, but he has powerhouse takedowns, shocking riding and scrambling ability for a man his size and a knack for getting to full mount, all while devastating foes with punches. De la Rocha is going to get run into the mat and pounded every which way against “The Kraken,” who, with barely two years of training, already looks like an exciting heavyweight prospect. I’ll take -220 for Adams clubbing a non-UFC talent to a stoppage any day with cocksureness.
An Unprop-ular BetBarboza-Hooker Under 2.5 Rounds (-105)
This section is a little on the trickier side, as typically I single out prop bets for which smart fans and sharp bettors are excited but that I don’t think have nearly the value or likelihood being offered or espoused. Frankly, UFC on Fox 31 doesn’t have too many of those propositions. Take the main event, for instance: After Lee’s performance last time out against Barboza, I could see why a bettor might be enticed into thinking he could pound out Iaquinta in the rematch, especially at +335. However, bookies and bettors alike seem to have the much more realistic and worthwhile take, preferring “The Motown Phenom” by submission at +155. By and large, hearts and brains are aligned with thee props.
With most props being set and bet in a righteous way, there isn’t a ton of analysis to debunk here. I will single out this Barboza-Hooker prop, bearing in mind several points I made previously.
When it comes to Hooker, he is obviously more offensively than defensively gifted, having won 16 of his 17 fights by stoppage. Combined with the New Zealand native’s recent improvements in his standup game since returning to 155 pounds and questions around Barboza’s fitness coming off of his back-to-back blowout losses, those who are backing Hooker have more than a passing belief he can stop Barboza. However, outside of his 2012 upset loss to Jamie Varner, the Brazilian has only ever been stopped by super-elite lightweights, and Hooker figures to struggle with his counterpart’s footwork and fundamentals in range at which he has usually excelled.
If you’re hitching your wagon to Barboza, consider that he has only stopped one opponent in the last four years. More often than ever, he is content to use his jab and low kicks to circle and counter his foes, laying simple traps for encroaching opponents. Given Hooker’s recent success and offensive ability, it seems almost dead certain that even if Barboza gets his hand raised it’s going to be on account of avoiding exchanges with Hooker and simply outlining him for 15 minutes. Remember, this is a pick-’em fight and I can’t fault anyone’s pick in such an uncertain matchup. However, regardless of who winds up the victor, I think it’s far more likely we’re in for three full rounds when Hooker can’t open up fiery exchanges and scrambles with Barboza, who will be content to circle and chop away.
An Accumulation ContemplationFont (-160)
Jared Gordon (-150)
Dwight Grant (-280)
Total Odds: +268
I already made the strong case for Font busting Pettis’ chops, and for all those reasons -- especially the tantalizing low number attached to him against a smaller fighter on a two-month turnaround moving back up to 135 pounds -- I like throwing him in here. For my money, the best way to balance risk and reward with a three-team MMA parlay is always to find strong favorites in that -140 to -200 range who are still having their likelihood to win undervalued. Font fits the bill here.
Similarly, I see little reason for Gordon not to be in the -200 range or above. While both he and opponent Joaquim Silva are coming off of losses in their last Octagon outings, their respective defeats are made of different material.
Gordon got caught cold by a very good fighter in Carlos Diego Ferreira, who despite his janky and wild standup, has the huge natural punching ability. He put it on display all over Gordon’s face. Meanwhile, Silva took the first loss of his career against a distinctly more average fighter in Vinc Pichel in February, but it wasn’t a case of him getting clocked with a big shot but rather Pichel easily punching and especially leg kicking all over the cage. Silva, even with a bit of punching power, is still primarily a jiu-jitsu player that prefers to strike, and he has never faced an opponent with relentless wrestle-boxing pressure. Gordon even has a shot at a stoppage if he can continuously back up the Brazilian or pummel him on the floor, as he did to Hacran Dias. Anyone’s potential parlay should have Gordon’s appetizing -150 line included.
As for the inclusion of Grant, who faces Zak Ottow in a welterweight affair, this is just a safety measure. Again, call me a wiener if you wish, and I wouldn’t critique someone who says to include Dan Ige over Jordan Griffin at -170; however, Grant has an absolutely perfect style to take out “The Barbarian” with aplomb. While Grant is a potent and powerful sprawl-and-brawler, Ottow is a classic jack of all trades and master of none who tends to look solid for the first round or so -- until he starts getting tagged and can’t buy a takedown. This is exactly what figures to happen against the faster, sharper American Kickboxing Academy product, who has quality takedown defense. I see it leading to a mid-round stoppage.