Prime Picks: UFC 258 ‘Usman vs. Burns’

By: Jay Pettry
Feb 12, 2021

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday in Las Vegas rolls along with a pay-per-view hoping to capitalize on a win from an emergent star. The 12-fight offering for UFC 258 gives bettors some suitable choices amidst a sea of massive betting favorites. One substantial favorite still presents value, while a betting underdog on the main card also appears intriguing. Coupled with two prop bets—with one expecting a fight will go the distance and the other expecting it will stay out of the hands of the judges—there are still some possible options for this edition of Prime Picks.

Kamaru Usman (-275)

It might seem a little suspect to pick a champion as nearly a 3-to-1 favorite over a fast-rising challenger, but there is still some value in Usman at these odds. Without burying the lede, Gilbert Burns may have the proverbial puncher’s and grappler’s chance to win this fight, but that may be all he has going for him. The champion is almost otherworldly strong when he gets hold of an opponent, and outside of an early loss to Jose Caceres in which the lankier Floridian snatched a standing rear-naked choke, his submission defense has held up against major tests through his UFC tenure. Likewise, his chin has been tested, from power strikers and those who prefer volume, and it has held up without leading to so much as a single knockdown. Even as this substantial of a favorite, the smart play is still with “The Nigerian Nightmare.”

In Burns’ five welterweight bouts—he made his UFC debut in 2014 against Andreas Stahl at 170 pounds—he has taken home four decision victories and notched a knockout over Demian Maia. His smattering of opponents in this run has seen him take on a heavy-handed wrestler in Tyron Woodley, lethal grapplers in Maia and Gunnar Nelson and a wrestle-boxer in the then-unbeaten Alexey Kunchenko. An accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with Abu Dhabi Combat Club and International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation medals in his time, Burns can threaten off his back if the fight ends up on the ground. On the other hand, if Burns manages to put Usman on his back, he will be the first man to do so. Better grapplers have tried, and they all have failed. Unless Burns sets up his shots by stinging Usman on the way in, the Brazilian may find himself pulling guard to try to catch the champion in something.

While Usman may also fit into the archetype of a wrestler with powerful hands, his 50-44 drubbing of Woodley showed there are indeed levels to this game. Usman not only shut down Woodley’s grappling while avoiding the power strikes, but he outgrinded the grinder. The Nigeria native could easily replicate this path to victory, pressuring the powerful Burns to take some sting out of his punches and occasionally take the fight down in an advantageous position. As Burns typically relies on explosive movement, Usman could sap some of that intensity in the early going by embracing the grind.

When two skilled grapplers lock horns, the oft-repeated expression that the match transforms into one entirely on the feet could ring true again. If this is the case, Usman should have the decided advantage, as he prefers quantity to home run shots. Usman has proven he can put up big numbers and do some damage in his bouts, reaching or crossing the 90-significant-strike threshold five times; Burns has never before put that many shots on his opponent, win or lose. Adding to this ability to pile up the numbers is that Usman does not fatigue in these kinds of exchanges and even picks up the pace as rounds progress. Burns could keep Usman honest with his power, but the smart money is on the champ. If -275 is too steep, Usman winning by decision is a cool -105, which appears to be the most likely course of events.

Ian Heinisch (+190)

It may be hard to believe that Kelvin Gastelum’s last convincing win came over a short-notice replacement in Michael Bisping in late 2017. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner has gone through several changes since moving to middleweight, but following a contentious split decision win over Ronaldo Souza in 2018, Gastelum has lost three in a row. Even at the age of only 29, this is a make-or-break battle with Heinisch. A wrestler by trade, Heinisch’s sprawl-and-brawl style could be his undoing if Gastelum cannot secure takedowns and keep the former Legacy Fighting Alliance champion in defense mode for the majority of the fight.

Although Gastelum is often lauded as a wrestler, he has never landed more than three takedowns in a UFC fight, and this came in promotional debut against Uriah Hall. His striking has developed, although he can frequently find himself standing and staring at his opponent, only to get clocked with a shot. His reluctance to always commit to his strikes can make him struggle against a fighter in Heinisch who wants to take off his head. The Arizonan has plenty of pop on his punches—he may have been the first man in MMA to have Israel Adesanya hurt—but he will have to become the first to crack Heinisch’s chin along the way.

Heinisch would be much better suited keeping this fight standing for as long as possible, staving off takedown attempts and keeping his back away from the fence. Both men have seen their gas tank betray them in the past, with Heinisch coming out like he was shot out of a cannon against Derek Brunson, only to fatigue and fade into a defeat. His unspirited losses to Brunson and Omari Akhmedov— the latter did see a brief comeback, as Heinisch took the final round—did not set him back for long, as he walked down Gerald Meerschaert and punched the lights out on “GM3” in 74 seconds in 2020. Heinisch’s power striking, his ability to pop back up after taking the fight down and his propensity to mix in advantageous takedowns when he spots an opportunity will all work to his advantage here. Although Heinisch may not be able to get a finish, options to pair with or to use as an alternate for the upset include Fight Goes the Distance (-225) or Heinisch Wins by Decision at a solid +330.

Jim Miller-Bobby Green Goes to Decision (-185)

For many of the reasons discussed in the Michael Johnson-Clay Guida bout from UFC Fight Night 184, this lightweight scrap was surprisingly placed on the main card and checks several boxes for one that goes 15 full minutes. While two of the last three fights for Miller went the distance, Green dwarfs that tally, with each of his last nine appearances ending in the hands of the judges. Miller’s kill-or-be-killed mentality, which has won the hearts and minds of fans, will likely be on hold, as the longtime veteran looks to get back to his winning ways against an opponent who has not been finished since 2016.

Before Miller found himself on a stretch where Vinc Pichel and Scott Holtzman outworked him for three rounds, he had five consecutive fights end inside the three-minute mark. He did not always come out the worst, as he won more than he lost in that time, with losses to Dan Hooker and Charles Oliveira looking far better in hindsight. Vastly preferring to wrap up an opponent, snag a choke or even cinch an opportunistic armbar, Miller’s submission skills will be on full display if this fight ever gets to the ground. Miller’s effective takedown game can slow down Green’s boxing and pace, but this will also be beneficial to pushing the fight to the later rounds and its conclusion. If this option is broken up, it will be because Miller has secured a submission (+510).

Green, a fighter one Sherdog colleague has often remarked was high on his “scream at the TV” list due to his frustrating ability to not pull the trigger when needed, appears to finally have turned the corner. Although technically losing his last fight to Thiago Moises, the majority of media scorers, including every Sherdog judge, awarded the win to Green. He did this with his striking, mixing his game by targeting Moises to the head, body and legs indiscriminately; he even doubled up on Moises’ significant strike tally before the final bell sounded. While Green is a skilled technical boxer, his finishing ability has not been on display since his UFC transfer in 2013. Barring a submission from Miller or a fight-ceasing accumulation of damage on the New Jersey native’s face from absorbing strikes (Green Wins by TKO/KO is +375), this fight should reach the scorecards.

Rodolfo Vieira Wins by Submission (-165)

Calling a shot so narrow can bite us when it does not hit, especially if the other fighter ends up pulling off the upset and smashes the play to ribbons. In this option, an undefeated grappling sensation in Vieira, whose credentials make Burns look like a rank amateur, will face Anthony Hernandez, who fell into a standing anaconda choke just over two years ago. Hernandez may pose some danger on the feet, but “Fluffy” will be completely out of his depth the moment the fight hits the canvas. With Vieira’s prime directive to seek and destroy using any submission he can find, this is the most likely and actionable outcome.

There are Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts and there are Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and “The Black Belt Hunter” is the latter. He carries the moniker for a reason. When it comes to jiu-jitsu, a smaller skilled man can overcome a much larger unskilled opponent. The early UFC events are proof positive of this, and it has played out accordingly over the years as MMA has developed. However, when two opponents of similar grappling expertise cross swords, size does matter. There is a reason that the 120-pound Mackenzie Dern only eked out a single win against the far larger Gabi Garcia; even though Dern is lauded for this victory, Garcia tapped her in each of their previous several meetings. Much in the same regard, the only opponent to overtake Vieira is Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida—a man with a near 30-pound advantage—in their repeated absolute weight category matches.

Not a great deal can be taken from Hernandez’s last performance and his only fight in 2020, as Kevin Holland walked him down and put him out with a few devastating knees. His lone UFC victory came quite some time ago in a match against Jun Yong Park that he was losing until he snagged an anaconda choke. While the comeback was admirable, the more important note was that “Fluffy” became the first UFC fighter to ever win and lose back-to-back bouts by this type of choke. Hernandez’s biggest issue coming into this matchup is that his opportunistic submission game may be his best attribute. Other than a powerful strike to hurt “The Black Belt Hunter” early, Hernandez will not likely be able to do much damage or gain the respect of his adversary before he gets put on the canvas and tapped out. Should the unlikeliest of scenarios happen—it would be in line with Jack Hermansson succeeding on his early guillotine choke of the aforementioned “Jacare” Souza—Hernandez Wins by Submission is an incredible +2500.

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