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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday kicks in the door with an overstuffed pay-per-view card capped by a trio of big title fights. Odds vary wildly throughout this 15-fight marathon event, with a favorite pushing -1000 all the way to a straight pick’em. In this UFC 259 edition of Prime Picks, we weigh in on key ways to navigate each title tilt, plus an eagerly anticipated preliminary match that offers one line that seems to be a sure thing.
Israel Adesanya (-235)
Adesanya has never once closed as a betting underdog in his nine-fight UFC career, coming in for instance in a -115 pick’em against Brad Tavares as a slightly less favored -105 in 2018 or as a -130 favorite against then-champion Robert Whittaker in 2019. That trend will continue as he moves up to the light heavyweight division for the first time in quite some time. Although Adesanya did compete against heavyweights in kickboxing, he frequently remained in the 84-kilogram (185 pounds) range and still retained his stopping power. Where he will excel in this particular matchup against 205-pound champ Jan Blachowicz is not necessarily in his power. Adesanya has famously explained that he will not pack on an extra 20 pounds of muscle to make this trip, but rather that he will likely just not cut weight. Therefore, his speed should be a major advantage, doubly so against a fighter not known for quick footwork or striking.
Unlike his opponent, Blachowicz has been almost exclusively an underdog throughout his tenure inside the Octagon. While Adesanya may be cruising around an ultra-close pick-‘em in a hypothetical battle with Jon Jones on BetOnline’s series of theoretical “future events,” Blachowicz is not even listed as a possibility for any number of superfight mentioned. It is almost understood at this point that Blachowicz is criminally underrated, perhaps because of his rocky tenure where he lost four of six including a tough but close decision against Patrick Cummins—he was -115 in that pairing compared to Cummins at -105. Blachowicz was narrowly favored at -120 against Jimi Manuwa in their first meeting and lost; the Polish fighter came in as a sizeable -340 favorite and beat Igor Pokrajac; his bout with Ronaldo Souza saw him close as a slight -120 favorite. That is the extent of the current champ being the odds-on favorite across all 15 of his UFC matches.
Pushing past the storied betting histories of both champs, the Xs and Os should largely favor the younger, faster kickboxer. Although heavier fighters have historically carried on their careers into their 40s and beyond, the ex-KSW kingpin has a lot of miles on his 38-year-old frame. Before even sniffing a callup to the Las Vegas-based league, Blachowicz set records at the time with KSW, including most wins, most appearances and most title defenses. Those numbers were only eclipsed after Blachowicz signed with the UFC in 2014, but 18 fights in a premier European league is not insignificant. Even though Adesanya sports about 80 kickboxing bouts and another half dozen in boxing, his style allows him to not take a great deal of damage often. To wit, Blachowicz has been knocked out as many times in the UFC (one) as Adesanya has suffered in his entire 100-plus-fight combat sports career.
Blachowicz has made a habit of defying expectations in difficult situations, including his recent collision against Dominick Reyes where Adesanya headlined in the next bout. The man vaunted for his “Polish power” got Reyes’ respect early in their vacant championship showdown, and he put damage on his opponent in a way no one had ever done to “The Devastator.” His approach may have been overaggressive and at times reckless, charging headlong into a combination that a counterstriker could capitalize on. It got the job done when he needed it most, and it would not be shocking if he managed to catch Adesanya unaware and clean the kickboxer’s clock.
Should Blachowicz find himself playing the tit-for-tat game with his opponent, the more active, accurate and harder to hit fighter in Adesanya will shine. Blachowicz has been known to give one to land one, and against a sharp foe like “The Last Stylebender,” he may find himself styled on with a blazing quick combination before his looping hooks reach their target. If you feel that Blachowicz is once more being overlooked, and that he holds a different kind of power to which Adesanya is not accustomed, an upset play at +195 or the bolder Blachowicz Wins by TKO/KO of +385 are both suitable options.
Amanda Nunes-Megan Anderson Goes Over 1.5 Rounds (-125)
Unlike the other two championship affairs of the night, the end result seems by most pundits to be a foregone conclusion. Nunes, now a happy mother and remaining in her 145-pound division where there is little concern of a weight cut, is on a path to steamroll the long, lanky Aussie with porous takedown defense. What has shown in Nunes’ game in her last two outings is her willingness to wrestle when even remotely concerned about her opponent’s striking game. Germaine de Randamie showed signs of success standing up, but Nunes put the Dutchwoman on her back and it was smooth sailing. Anderson’s long legs threaten Nunes from the opening bell, with head kick that come in a hurry or step-in knees that can cause some serious damage. Properly schooled at American Top Team, the “Lioness” should take the path of least resistance and take the fight down. This is where time will elapse, passing the 7:30 mark to hit this line.
Nunes is ferocious on top, battering Felicia Spencer to a near-unrecognizable state for 25 minutes that had many calling for the fight to be stopped. In the Spencer defense in particular, Nunes racked up multiple 10-8 rounds in the eyes of the Sherdog.com official scorers, even if the actual scores reflected simply one 10-8 round in two judges’ eyes. Once Spencer grew tired, Nunes could do whatever she wanted, and she did just that. Anderson’s defense off her back is not futile, however, as her long legs have allowed her to secure a recent triangle choke win. So long as Nunes does not get completely careless and fall victim to a surprising submission attack, her control time will add up as she does damage from on top.
In her last eight bouts dating back to her time with Invicta Fighting Championships, the under has only hit once for Anderson, when Holly Holm employed a takedown-heavy approach to win a decision. Otherwise, it has basically been first-round stoppage for or against the Australian. Likewise, Nunes has a penchant for sparking women in the first round, holding the UFC’s record (eight) for the most among any female fighter. Her last six bouts have seen the fight either end in the opening frame or make it to Round 5, making this a question of whether one can walk down the other and put them away quickly. The alternative line that the fight ends within the first round and a half sits at a palatable +105, but styles make fights. In this occasion, Nunes’ anticipated gameplan of grounding Anderson, thereby taking her foe’s reach completely out of the equation, should provide for an elongated match.
Aljamain Sterling (-110)
It is an unusual situation when the UFC champion does not take the top spot in a division’s rankings. Petr Yan is currently the #4 ranked bantamweight on Sherdog despite winning the belt, and that largely comes from a lack of strength of schedule compared to his opponents. As is customary for questionable or unexpected fighter retirements, Henry Cejudo will remain ranked until inactivity removes him. The other men above him include Sterling and Cory Sandhagen. The criminally underheralded Sterling will finally get his crack at gold, and unless he succumbs to a strike that puts him out like the knee that Marlon Moraes landed, he should become champion at the end of the night.
Sterling’s earlier struggles came from his one-dimensional approach, where he came into the sport as a Division III wrestling champion, and his biggest weakness was when he could not get the other man down. In all three of his career setbacks, he either landed fewer takedowns than his foe or none at all. As “Aljo” has progressed as a contender, his striking under the tutelage of the Serra-Longo Fight Team has improved from a means to an end into something he can rely upon should his grappling not get going. Although he tried and failed often, Sterling outlanded vaunted striker Pedro Munhoz by a significant degree on the feet, proving not only more accurate but far more able to put a pace that could not be matched. A well-rounded Sterling is dangerous, even as he takes on fellow well-rounded Yan.
Yan’s biggest asset at his division is his power. The Russian has scored more knockdowns (eight) than he holds in total UFC appearances (seven), and he has done so from a variety of strikes. If Sterling has transformed into an effective volume striker, Yan can figuratively drown foes with the pressure he puts on them. When he lands, it matters; not only does Yan hold the greatest significant strike differential of those landed compared to ones absorbed, but he also sits in the top 5 in strikes landed per minute among all 135-pounders to ever grace the Octagon. Mixing in takedowns to his striking arsenal has worked wonders so far, but this matchup appears to be the wall that he may not overcome. Even John Dodson was able to take him down more than once, and “The Magician” is hardly known for his takedown game. Sterling will likely come out of the gate hot, like he did when facing Sandhagen, and his kind of pressure should surmount the type that Yan presents.
Dominick Cruz-Casey Kenney Goes to Decision (-245)
Two bantamweights who often go the distance square off in the current preliminary headliner. In both Cruz and Kenney’s cases, seven of their last nine bouts have each reached the scorecards. Some Prime Picks can act as fliers, where we select massive underdogs and discuss their values. Others are in an effort to parse through a close matchup and speak to why one should hold the competitive advantage over the other. We rarely like to break down massive favorites unless the line should even more stacked in one direction. In this situation, this matchup appears to be one destined to go the distance no matter who gets their hand raised.
At the ripe age of 35 and climbing, Cruz is entering that threshold of where lighter-weight fighters start to fall off and lose some of their speed and maneuverability. Couple this natural progression with the number of injuries, setbacks and surgeries that Cruz has endured over the years, and we have a man who has been through more than most. His footwork mastery did not fluster either of his last two opponents dating back to 2016, when Cody Garbrandt danced around him and Cejudo put him down with strikes. Kenney, who should be his first-ever unranked opponent in Cruz’s UFC career, may find himself able to match Cruz’s formerly dazzling movement. At any rate, Cruz’s stopping power was never his best attribute, and it is no accident that he posts just a 36% career finish rate, with one stoppage victory in the last decade.
Kenney, who has some momentum behind him with impressive wins over Louis Smolka, Heili Alateng and Nathaniel Wood in 2020, still reached the judges in two of those three appearances. Kenney stung Smolka, forced the Hawaiian into a desperation takedown and cinched up a mounted guillotine to get his second finish since 2017. Both men can take a punch, and even with Cruz’s recent knockout loss, his chin should not be in question yet. Likewise, although “The Dominator” is not a submission threat in any regard, he also has the chops to free himself from most danger. This bout could indeed be a passing-of-the-torch moment, and Kenney (-130) finds himself slightly favored over the former champ. Should you pick one fighter over the other, couple this play of the fight going 15 minutes and you should find success.