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The first major pay-per-view of 2019 is on deck this Saturday night when the Ultimate Fighting Championship heads back to Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia, for UFC 234. The card is full of local Aussie talent. Although it’s not the best PPV card the UFC could have put together, there are still a number of intriguing bouts scheduled that offer solid betting opportunities. The sportsbooks are offering odds on all 12 fights on the card, and my favorite plays are listed below in the UFC 234 edition of “Prime Picks.”
Jim Crute (-135)
One of my favorite plays on the card is Crute, who I believe will defeat Sam Alvey in what is essentially a top prospect vs. gatekeeper matchup. Crute is only 22 and is one of Australia’s future MMA stars. He’s a perfect 9-0 so far in his MMA career, including a submission win over Paul Craig in his UFC debut and TKO win on the Contender Series. The prospect is a very well-rounded fighter who can finish his opponents both on the feet and on the ground and in my eyes, he could be a future title contender at 205, perhaps sooner than expected in a shallow division. This bout against Alvey is a tailor-made matchup for him. “Smile’n” Sam is 10-6 inside the Octagon, including a 2-1 mark as a light heavyweight. He looked great in his knockout win over Marcin Prachnio but struggled in a close split decision win over Gian Villante and suffered a shocking upset KO loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in his last fight. If “Little Nog” can knock out Alvey at this point of his career, then there’s no question Crute can do the same. You also have to remember Alvey took this match on short notice, filling in for the injured Ryan Spann. He has the experience advantage, but with all that experience comes a lot of wear-and-tear, and I believe Crute is catching him at the right time. Give me the younger fighter all day here at -135 odds.
Kelvin Gastelum (+205)
For an underdog pick, I’m taking Gastelum to defeat Robert Whittaker and become the new UFC middleweight champion. On paper, this is a very competitive fight between two of the middleweight division’s youngest and most talented fighters, but I can’t ignore the large underdog odds for Gastelum and believe there’s a value play on him to be made here. Gastelum is only 27 and as a middleweight in the UFC he’s 4-0, 1 NC with wins over Ronaldo Souza, Michael Bisping, Tim Kennedy and Uriah Hall, with his lone loss at 185 coming to Chris Weidman (plus a No-Contest against Vitor Belfort in a bout he originally won via KO). Gastelum is a very well-rounded mixed martial artist with solid grappling skills and excellent boxing with huge knockout power, and he looks better every time he steps into the cage. After an up-and-down run as a welterweight where he missed weight numerous times and lost a couple bouts he should have won, he’s looked amazing at middleweight except against Weidman. I’ve been high on Gastelum ever since I saw him on “The Ultimate Fighter” and have been backing him throughout his UFC career, usually as an underdog, and that won’t be any different here.
Of course, this fight with Whittaker isn’t going to be easy, as the champ is an incredible fighter in his own right. Whittaker is only 28 himself, and he’s gone 8-0 since moving up to middleweight, with two wins over Yoel Romero plus victories over the aforementioned Souza and Hall, among others. Like Gastelum, Whittaker is very well-rounded with a solid grappling base to go along with blazing hand speed and vicious knockout power. He’s a great fighter, and it’s tough to bet against him, but I think this fight is much closer than the odds indicate, as Whittaker is a -245 favorite to beat Gastelum when I see it as closer to even. I agree Whittaker should be slightly favored since he’s the champ, but -245 is too high here especially considering his injury layoff and the damage he’s taken recently. Even with the event taking place in Australia, I think you have to go with the value on Gastelum at +205 odds to pull off the upset.
Devonte Smith (-245)
For the parlay bettors, Smith seems like a reasonable pick to defeat Dong Hyun Ma. Smith is only 25 and he’s 9-1 in MMA, with all nine of his wins coming by stoppage. He looked particularly impressive with a knockout win over Julian Erosa in his UFC debut. He’s fast, athletic and constantly shows improvements every time we see him in the cage. As far as lightweight prospects currently go, Smith is one of the best. The promotion is giving him the chance to shine against Ma, who is known for putting on exciting fights win or lose. Ma is 3-2 inside the Octagon and has won his last three bouts, including a split decision over Damien Brown in his last outing. It’s hard to forget his first two appearances in the Octagon, though, when he was brutally knocked out by both Dominique Steele and Marco Polo Reyes. As dangerous as Ma is (12 of his 16 career wins have come by stoppage), he’s also very beatable, with eight career losses. Smith is going to be too fast and too powerful for Ma, and I think he wins by knockout. At -245 odds, Smith is a guy to think about putting into a parlay.
Ricky Simon (-130)
In a battle between talented bantamweights, I see Simon getting his hand raised over Rani Yahya. Simon is only 26 and he’s picked up two wins in the UFC over Merab Dvalishvili and Montel Jackson. He’s won seven straight and has lost only once in his career back in 2016. The Gracie Barra Portland fighter is very well-rounded and on the verge of breaking into the UFC’s rankings. The promotion has given him a stern, but winnable test here against Yahya, in a fight that could really propel his career.
As for his opponent, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace is 11-3 with 1 NC in the UFC and he has won six of those bouts by submission. In many ways, Yahya is one of the most underrated bantamweights on the UFC roster, but the problem with him is he’s essentially a gatekeeper who beats lower-ranked fighters and loses any time he steps up in competition. He’s also 34, which is old for a bantamweight. Simon should have the wrestling chops to keep this bout with the Brazilian standing, and even if it goes to the ground I believe he can defend the submission attempts. This will look like the Joe Soto vs. Yahya fight from a few years back, which Soto won by a tight decision, and I think Simon can do the same. At -130 odds, this is essentially a pick ‘em and I see some value here on the younger fighter to beat the veteran.
Adam Martin is a mixed martial arts journalist who has been covering the sport since 2011. He is currently the lead odds analyst for Sherdog.com as well as the lead staff writer for MMAOddsbreaker.com. Adam is also the co-host of “The Parting Shot Podcast” on iTunes. His favorite fight of all time is Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio Rua and he wishes Pride never died. Adam is based out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and he is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Centennial College. Get in touch with him on Twitter @MMAdamMartin.