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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday begins an eight-week stretch of events with a blockbuster pay-per-view topped by a trio of title fights. All three of those championship affairs present opportunities to make some bank, and we round out things with a high-stakes preliminary matchup. Let us get the ball rolling with the UFC 251 edition of Prime Picks.
Kamaru Usman (-230)
If Jorge Masvidal had a full, official training camp for his bout with Usman, it likely would not make much of a difference in a suggestion to pick the champion. Instead, Masvidal is coming off the proverbial couch, where he was chowing down on pizza and relaxing during the pandemic, and takes this fight on a week’s notice. Although Nate Diaz once proved he could roll out of bed and submit Conor McGregor, Usman does not have the same kind of weaknesses that can be exploited by “Gamebred.” Many analysts expect that Usman will rely on his powerful wrestling to shut down Masvidal’s striking, and perhaps the only question involves whether or not he will be able to secure a finish instead of allowing it to go the distance.
Masvidal’s power has the ability to make this pick look silly, but Usman should not be concerned about catching a knee to the chin in the early going. Usman does not traditionally use long setups to pursue takedowns, and he can do a whole lot in a small distance. If he gets his hands on Masvidal, who posts an impressive takedown defense rate of almost 80 percent, “Gamebred” will still go for a ride. Usman is the taller fighter with a greater range; he can close the distance effectively and will ragdoll some of the best fighters on the roster. On five separate occasions throughout his UFC tenure, Usman has grounded his opponent at least five times in a bout.
It is no secret that Masvidal’s best path to victory is through his boxing. If he wants to get his hand raised, he has to stay away from “The Nigerian Nightmare” at all costs and establish his jab. Usman decided to slug it out with Covington, but the reason for that strategy could have been twofold. Either Usman wanted to make a point against a bitter rival, or the fighters realized their grappling canceled out so they did not even bother to attempt a single takedown. Should he stand and bang with a technical boxer like Masvidal, he could be on the receiving end of a “three piece and soda.” We do not expect Usman’s fight IQ will allow for that to happen for long.
A key moment in the fight to look for is if Usman gets tagged, how does he respond to taking damage? Will he bite down on his mouthpiece and try to engage in a slugfest, or do his Nebraska wrestling chops come out? We expect the latter, and by using takedowns or even the threat of the takedown, he can keep Masvidal on his back foot and unable to set up the strikes he wants to land. Usman is not enough of a prohibitive favorite to require a decisive prop bet for him to win by decision (+165) or by stoppage (+215), but we would gravitate towards the former if need be.
Alexander Volkanovski (-200)
In our first breakdown of a Volkanovski-Max Holloway meeting, Holloway was the champion and a sizeable favorite for a reason. In December, we fully expected that Holloway’s volume and pressure would make the difference and the champ would defend his belt with relative ease. We were wrong. Instead, Volkanovski matched Holloway’s offense and blunted it with a steady diet of leg kicks. With these two competing against one another a mere eight months after their first affair, it is now the Aussie who should have the firm advantage.
There is a constant debate as to whether a fighter’s appearance in front of media and his public statements should be a factor in analyzing his upcoming performance. In the previous event, we expected that Mike Perry would be fully compromised by his nontraditional training camp and lack of coaches or a legitimate corner. Perry pulled out a win, but it did not assuage any concerns about his appearance days before—this says nothing about recent events involving the controversial Floridian. Like Perry, Holloway raised eyebrows across the community when he told ESPN that his training camp was entirely virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Much like Perry, Holloway responded to questions about that by explaining he already knows how to punch and kick, so a physical coaching presence may not be as essential as most expect. One major issue Holloway encountered against the surging Australian was that he absorbed a tremendous amount of leg kicks—75 to be exact—and Volkanovski landed those strikes at over an 80 percent clip. Conventional wisdom has always dictated that in order to prepare for a certain style of offense, a fighter needs to physically train for it while studying the movement and attack as it comes at him. If Holloway’s repeated claims of only training via video networking services with zero sparring are accurate, he could be in for a rude awakening.
Volkanovski, who is riding an outstanding 18-fight winning streak that includes victories prior to Holloway over Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes and Darren Elkins, put together a perfect game plan to beat the Hawaiian. Although Holloway also stated he thought he won that fight, one judge gave Volkanovski every round. A rematch this soon after a fight many felt the champion decisively lost may not show a myriad of differences from their approaches. Although Holloway’s camp was nontraditional due to the pandemic, Volkanovski at least got some training done at the outstanding City Kickboxing gym in New Zealand. Count on Volkanovski being substantially more prepared for this matchup.
Should you wish to pick the likely outcome in a narrower prop bet, Volkanovski Wins by Decision is +120. Holloway’s granite chin was not cracked by heavy strikes from Dustin Poirier, two outings with all-time great Aldo and 25 hard minutes with Volkanovski. Unless Holloway is especially hampered by this hard weight cut and his chin suffers as a result, he will not go down by strikes and will not likely be in submission danger, either. Following his prior path to victory is exactly how the Aussie will get the job done, but this time, if Holloway’s depiction of his training regimen is accurate, it will be more of a one-sided victory.
Jose Aldo (+175)
Of the three championship affairs to go down, Aldo may have the greatest chance to spring an upset. Only one time inside the Octagon has Aldo been this big of an underdog. That was in his rematch with Holloway at UFC 218 (+220), and Aldo lost in resounding fashion. Petr Yan is not Holloway, and although he unquestionably has the ability to get his hand raised, we believe that the 33-year-old Brazilian can turn back the clock in this bout.
Some of the value of this pick lies with how big of an underdog the Brazilian is at the moment, and an aggressive Aldo could make things difficult for his counterpart. Yan particularly enjoys pushing the pace on his opponents, forcing them into defense mode, like when he battered Urijah Faber in his most recent win. Tough decision wins over Jimmie Rivera and John Dodson boosted Yan into title contention, but it is inarguable that Aldo is his toughest test to date.
It might be a fool’s errand to hearken back to the days of Aldo spamming legs kick with murderous intent or the kind of wild aggression he put on display during his World Extreme Cagefighting run. Against Marlon Moraes, Aldo revived some of his fan-favored style but still came up short by a razor-thin margin. With looming questions of his pending weight cut and a younger, faster opponent ahead of him, Aldo may very well be staring down the barrel of an 0-3 streak.
Should the Russian inspire Aldo to start throwing kicks, the game could be wide open in what could turn into a battle reminiscent of Frank Dux vs. Paco in “Bloodsport.” Aldo smashed Renato Carneiro and Jeremy Stephens less than a year ago. If he can carry that same power down to 135 pounds and should his weight cut go according to plan to provide us with a healthy Aldo in the cage, he is worth a bet. Should you wish to double-down and think that Aldo can not only win but knock out Yan, that line sits at +435 currently. If you strongly disagree with everything about this selection, might we suggest Yan winning by decision at +330?
Jiri Prochazka (+125)
Outside of fighters like Joe Soto and Eddie Alvarez, Prochazka draws one of the toughest debut opponents he could have envisioned when he takes on Volkan Oezdemir. On a gaudy 10-fight winning streak with nine finishes that led to his signing, Prochazka shifted divisions between light heavyweight and heavyweight to smash every man he has faced for almost five years running. His loss prior to those 10 wins came to Muhammad Lawal, and the Czech striker avenged the loss to “King Mo” several years later by knockout.
A finisher of the highest order, Prochazka has gone the distance twice in his career. “Denisa” fought to a draw against future Professional Fighters League competitor Mikhail Mokhnatkin and prevailed by decision against Mark Tanios inside the Rizin Fighting Federation. Despite this overwhelming desire to stop his opponents, Prochazka takes damage in many of his fights before getting those finishes. This could prove to be to his disadvantage against an accurate and damaging striker like Oezdemir, who holds two UFC wins in less than one minute.
This light heavyweight scrap could be wild for as long as it lasts, and the first round in particular should be the marquee stanza. When Oezdemir’s cardio starts to fade, Prochazka can do some serious damage. Both men have the power to shut out the lights, but we believe that Prochazka, who might come out as if he is shot out of a cannon, can spring the upset and put himself on the map. We do not expect this bout will go the distance—that line is a very appealing -195—and predict that one man will get the knockout. While we favor the slight underdog, it would not at all be surprising if Oezdemir (-145) unleashes a “boop” of epic proportions.