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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, with a pay-per-view card capped by a pair of important title tilts. The previous unsuccessful installment of Prime Picks suggested a series of underdogs hitting it big and went up in smoke. In a return to form, this UFC 253 edition of Prime Picks will comb through a few savvy prop bets in order to maximize value and minimize risk.
Israel Adesanya (-170)
In an incredibly rare dual-unbeaten championship affair, Adesanya defends his throne against the hard-charging Paulo Henrique Costa. While an on-paper difference of six fights—the champion has fought 19 times to Costa’s 13—may not seem overly significant, the gap becomes more of a chasm when weighing Adesanya’s kickboxing experience and the time he has spent with the title. Until Costa went the distance with Yoel Romero in August 2019, “The Eraser” had never fought beyond the second round. His offense-first style and incredible muscle mass will not do him any favors unless he finishes the fight early, and Adesanya is not the kind of fighter who stands still to let you pound on him.
The five-round experience for Adesanya will speak volumes, as he has already proven he can not only survive a few tough rounds but turn on the gas in the last few minutes. His Round 5 performance against Kelvin Gastelum, where he floored “The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner three times and nearly earned a stoppage, was a perfectly executed plan against a fatiguing opponent. Gastelum cracked him a few times and held his own for 25 minutes, and Costa almost certainly hits harder than Gastelum—for a few rounds.
Adesanya, who is coming off an indescribable letdown against Romero in March, may be looking to redeem himself and chalk up his most recent outing to a bad stylistic matchup or an off night. Against Costa, he will be facing a man that practically knows no speed but full speed, and it creates a scenario where a technical kickboxer like Adesanya can flourish. “The Last Stylebender” is far and away superior to any striker Costa has ever faced and leaps and bounds more accurate and effective than the Brazilian’s past opponents, like Romero or Uriah Hall. With an eight-inch reach advantage, Adesanya can get off strikes and be well out of the way when Costa tries to sling leather his direction.
This bout could very well look like a 2020 version of Holly Holm-Ronda Rousey, which saw Rousey attack so furiously that Holm managed to evade the offense and pick her shots. Even though Adesanya is a fairly solid favorite, any line that he comes in under 2-to-1 is a decent prospect given that Costa may have what boils down to a “puncher’s chance.” Neither man has ever landed a takedown in their UFC careers, while their respective takedown defense rates both hover around 80 percent. Other than a move to keep the adversary on his toes, this fight should primarily take place on the feet.
Against conventional wisdom and the storied histories of both strikers, we expect this fight will go late and may even reach the scorecards (+165). While Adesanya has the power to end the fight in an instant and Costa can easily shut out anyone’s lights, these two men may respect one another’s power too much. “The Eraser” could come out of his corner like his hair is on fire and charge head-long into his opponent, but what Adesanya did to Derek Brunson proved that would not play to his strengths. Instead, Costa needs to force brawls and cut off the longer, rangier man. Should he let Adesanya keep the fight at his own distance, where the Nigerian-born champ can let off kicks and chop down the muscle-bound Costa, the Brazilian can easily lose a clear-cut decision. If you disagree and believe that Costa sparks a hittable Adesanya, look no further than Costa Wins by TKO/KO at +275.
Dominick Reyes Wins Inside Distance (-105)
The matchup for the vacant light heavyweight throne has all the makings of one favorable to the man who would be king: Reyes. A whisker away from being the first man to legitimately defeat Jon Jones, Reyes showed he has what it takes to be a UFC champion. The power of “The Devastator” flustered Jones for a good period of the fight, especially when he landed heavy body kicks and flicked up high kicks with little-to-no telegraph. While Jan Blachowicz arguably hits harder than Jones, he does not have the same evasiveness and ability to roll with shots like “Bones” has displayed over the years. The Polish vet also does not have the same takedown game to give Reyes pause. As such, Reyes finds himself in a matchup he can win with style points.
Reyes’ approach to the Jones fight, where he surged out and arguably captured the first three rounds, will work wonders against a man who is less durable historically. When Reyes pushed Jones to the limit, he became the first man to ever outstrike one of the consensus greatest fighters of all-time. Although managing his energy in such a fashion to go with an all-out blitz worked out in terms of winning the early rounds, this strategy led to his volume tapering off as cardio waned and the rounds progressed. Blachowicz, a seasoned veteran who has seen his fair share of ups and downs throughout his long career, may not be able to keep up with the same pace Jones did.
The win that earned Blachowicz a title shot was a quick knockout against Corey Anderson, as he defeated an opponent who had dominated him on the ground when they met five years prior. Anderson’s chin had always been in question, and although it was far from his first knockout loss, it may have been the nastiest. Blachowicz has shown throughout his career that he has a willingness to sit down on his strikes; and absorbing a leg kick so he could blast Anderson with a single right hand that put him out was a prime example of this style. Mixing in with the power strikes is an effective jab that he can throw out to stifle his opponent’s pressure, but Reyes’ kicks can circumvent that jab.
Even though Reyes does not have a signature win on which to hang his hat on—his most memorable performance could still be his head kick knockout of a taunting Jordan Powell at an early Legacy Fighting Alliance show—he appears to have more to offer in this fight. A quick knockout of Chris Weidman does not on paper appear to be as impressive as some of Blachowicz’ other performances, but a close loss to Jones lifted the California native’s stock to all-time highs. With the use of his devastating kicks, “The Devastator” can shut out the lights by working the body until Blachowicz drops his guard and gets kicked in the head. Whether by head kick or by some other powerful strikes, Reyes should be able to get his hand raised before the final bell.
Kai Kara France Wins by Decision (-115)
This flyweight affair is a smaller version of the fight that follows it, as City Kickboxing’s France will try to stave off Brandon Royval’s frenetic pace. For the good part of a round, Royval will throw everything and the kitchen sink at his opponent. The strikes will come wildly and with flash—either spinning or something equally high-risk—before Royval attempts to take the fight to the ground. That is where Royval will want to keep the fight, as a majority of his wins have come via submission, including his UFC debut over Tim Elliott. We do not believe Royval will be able to get the finish he seeks, and when his gas tank empties early on, France will pick up the pace and take home a hard-fought decision.
France has reached the scorecards in each of his last five bouts and seven of eight dating back the last three years. The only man to beat him since his 2016 trip to Rizin Fighting Federation was Brandon Moreno by thrilling decision. Although France nearly matched Moreno’s output, the power advantage for Moreno won the day. France’s leg kicks were no match for the piston-like jab that Moreno put on display throughout their match. Other than the loss to Moreno, France has looked sharp in the Octagon.
An all-action flyweight who typically wins by finish or loses by decision, every one of Royval’s stoppage wins have come in under the nine-minute mark. A savvy volume striker like the appropriately nicknamed “Don’t Blink”—France sports nine knockout wins across his 21 victories—can feast on a tiring Royval who puts everything he has into the first round. Whether from a steady diet of calf kicks or by simply outlasting the charging American, France can survive the worst of it to win the later rounds. The New Zealander has the skill set to stuff most takedowns, and he is difficult to keep grounded when an opponent finally gets him down. France can win this fight on the feet by staying composed and out of the way of Royval’s rampages, outpointing the man known as “Raw Dawg” while chipping away at him from a distance. Should you expect the opposite, Royval’s comeback is +200, while Royval Wins by Submission is a proper +425.
Diego Sanchez-Jake Matthews Goes to Decision (-150)
With Matthews being a massive -750 favorite against Sanchez, many feel he will run through “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner. What “The Celtic Kid” might not be expected to do is finish the durable Sanchez, even with alleged “snake oil salesman” Joshua Fabia at his back. Sanchez’s chin has been tested mightily over the years, and a few men have cracked it, but Matthews does not appear to have the striking power to join that illustrious group. Instead, we believe this fight will end up in the hands of the judges. While Matthews Wins by Decision is a fair -110, giving up a little to allow for Sanchez to win in likely the only way he can provides an escape route.
Outside of a doctor stoppage in 2015, each of Matthews finishes inside the Octagon have come by submission. Sanchez has never been submitted despite facing many outstanding grapplers over the years. Although some argue there has been substantial devolution in Sanchez’s skills of late, his submission defense cannot be questioned. His performance in a losing effort against Michael Chiesa 15 months ago showed that the former Jackson-Wink mainstay can still protect his neck with the best of them.
On the other side of the equation, over the last decade, Sanchez has recorded a single win by stoppage—against Mickey Gall in 2018. While he has been stopped a few times since 2010, “The Nightmare” will not likely be in danger, no matter where the fight goes. As Sanchez comes in as a huge +525 underdog, a flier on the 38-year-old now that he has a legitimate cornerman in Stephan Bonnar could prove worthwhile. While he may be more self-aware than ever thanks to his new trainer, Sanchez has been less willing to throw and allows opponents to dictate the fight. On the unexpected happening that Sanchez returns to his old form, the prop bet that this bout goes 15 minutes is a safer option.