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The Ultimate Fighting Championship lost momentum heading into its big heavyweight-headed pay-per-view for a variety of reasons. From lackluster recent headliners to noteworthy bouts falling off this card, the lean UFC 260 lineup on Saturday does not have many options left. Two fights currently billed for the card—Shane Young-Omar Morales and Gillian Robertson-Miranda Maverick have unanswered COVID-19 questions looming, as both Young and Robertson train with afflicted personnel. With 10 fights hanging in the balance, multiple solid options remain, including an underappreciated well-rounded champ, a flier on a major underdog, a hastily made fight that should end violently and a slight underdog who deserves recognition.
Stipe Miocic (+110)
The champ gets no respect. Since his rise to the top began in 2015, Miocic’s lone blemish came against Daniel Cormier, and the Euclid, Ohio, native avenged the loss twice as he wrested his belt back. Although some call him the greatest heavyweight in MMA history—an accolade others dispute, raising Fedor Emelianenko as the obvious alternative—he enters the rematch against the uber-dangerous Francis Ngannou as a betting underdog. This makes sense if looking exclusively at Ngannou’s body of work since dropping a rough decision to Miocic in 2018, as “The Predator” demolished four top-tier opponents while averaging just over 40 seconds for each victory. Ngannou is a threat for as long as he is on the feet, with otherworldly power at his disposal. However, Miocic possesses the kind of skillset that can defuse the bomb and get his hand raised a second time.
The Sherdog staff was derided after the play-by-play coverage of Ngannou’s last bout, where he windmilled through Jairzinho Rozenstruik in 20 seconds. “We’ve never seen a heavyweight quite like ‘The Predator’” was the statement, and some considered that big men in the past have possessed this kind of power and displayed it often. Shane Carwin notched all four of his wins inside the Octagon in under four minutes each, and all by ruthless knockout. Junior dos Santos began his UFC run with five consecutive strike stoppages, and only the legendary Mirko Filipovic survived beyond the opening frame. Where Ngannou has all of them beaten is how quickly the Frenchman dismantles his opponents.
Ngannou is tied with former opponents Cain Velasquez and Andrei Arlovski for the most first-round knockouts in UFC heavyweight history with seven each. When accounting for those that take place within the first two minutes, the records change significantly. Each of Ngannou’s seven UFC knockouts has come within 120 seconds of the fight. In comparison, Arlovski has done this three times while Velasquez achieved this feat just once. His fight-changing power is so terrifying that he can beat opponents before the cage door closes. Rozenstruik backed straight into the fence, where Ngannou’s left hook separated him from his senses in an instant. This reputation for a so-called “destroyer of worlds,” plus the level of competition he has put away in his time in the Octagon, makes him truly a one-of-a-kind talent.
“The Predator” is far from an unbeatable force, as evidenced by Miocic’s excellent strategy against him three years ago. Ngannou had brief moments, namely when he would land flush on his opponent, but Miocic largely held the challenger at bay while avoiding the most lethal blows. He did so by aiming for takedowns almost right out of the gate, forcing the MMA Factory export to spend his gas tank defending the shots and fighting out of positions he is not nearly as comfortable handling. Ngannou and his camp claim they have shored up his deficiencies, but there is no evidence to support these claims, thanks to his lightning-quick stoppages. Can he fight off the takedown? Can his cardio hold up if he is forced to play defense against the cage or on his back for prolonged periods of time? These unanswered questions make the champ a very interesting option.
To quote the wise words of colleague Todd Martin, “Miocic is a generalist rather than a specialist, and he can take advantage of the weaknesses of his opponents because he’s strong in all components of the sport.” It is this adaptable skillset, one that he can change on the fly and rapidly rack up half a dozen takedowns on the likes of Mark Hunt or Ngannou, that gives him a serious advantage. In this sport, the one-trick ponies can be overcome by fighters with fewer holes in their overall game, and grapplers often are known for the ability to control where the fight takes place. Forcing Ngannou to retreat, even for a short period of time, will work to his benefit immensely.
The obvious alternative pick, which is a narrow but realistic prop bet, is Ngannou Wins in Round 1 at +225. It should be noted that this play currently features superior odds to that of Ngannou winning by first-round knockout at +210, although the line may shift as the fight gets closer. Conventional wisdom and historical precedent dictate that if Ngannou gets it done, it will be early thanks to his mighty fists. Cormier did just that to the champ in 2018, six months after Ngannou could not. Using a similar approach to his first fight, while staying lighter and never once backing up directly into the wire, Miocic can win and shut down Ngannou once more. As long as he keeps his head on his shoulders and makes it to the second round—Miocic’s power should not to be forgotten, as the champ posts six first-round knockouts of his own—Cleveland will have one more thing to cheer about on Sunday morning.
Thomas Almeida (+260)
The confidence in this pick lies with the perceived ability or potential weakness seen on Sean O'Malley in his last outing. “Sugar Sean” lost thanks to deadly-effective kicks that shut down his leg in the early going, with Marlon Vera’s accuracy the reason for the damage. This is O’Malley’s opportunity to get his proverbial mojo back, as he looks to rebound from his first career setback against the skidding Almeida. The sky was the limit for Almeida until he ran into a quicker, more agile striker who could find the spot before he could. O’Malley has the ability to shut the lights out and get back on track in a big way here— and this could unquestionably happen, with the O’Malley Wins by TKO/KO line a comfortable +135. However, the Brazilian poses some issues, and O’Malley may have kinks to work out. This places Almeida as the sizeable underdog option for some value, although there is risk knowing O’Malley’s track record.
Much was made about Almeida’s rise through the ranks from 2014 to 2016, as he was unbeaten with a gaudy record and a sky-high finish rate until meeting future champ Cody Garbrandt in high-stakes headliner. The first loss was a brutal one for “Thominhas,” who did bounce back six months later by laying waste to Albert Morales. He has not won since, dropping three in a row to Jimmie Rivera, Rob Font and Jonathan Martinez over the last few years. Inactivity has plagued the once-lauded contender, and questions loom over whether his chin has the ability to take heavy shots. Where he does excel is his offense-heavy approach, blitzing opponents and letting loose with a blazing torrent of strikes until they have no choice but to retreat. Chaining combinations and ending them with leg kicks is something at which he excels, and given O’Malley’s disinclination for these strikes, it could give him pause.
There is always the distinct possibility that Almeida gets clipped charging in, as he is wont to do with a headlong rush that puts him in harm’s way before he can close the distance. O’Malley may only have two inches longer in the reach, but he fights long, with lunging strikes and reaching shots that can catch opponents coming in. A smart, tactical O’Malley can pick away at Almeida until the Brazilian leaves himself open. Despite the imaginable ways for O’Malley to get his hand raised, there is something to a famous fighter suffering his first loss and surrendering the gravitas that came with it. Almeida did not quite look as devastating in his return after his ejection from the ranks of the unbeaten, and O’Malley might find himself second-guessing himself as “Thominhas” bears down on him. The danger that Almeida presents, still only 29 years of age with a ferocious 95 percent stoppage rate, makes him a possible upset pick if your confidence with the “Sugar Show” is shaken.
Alonzo Menifield-Fabio Cherant Doesn’t Go to Decision (-215)
COVID-19 took what was likely to be a barnburner between Menifield and William Knight and transformed it into a completely different stylistic matchup that may be no less violent. Stepping in on a few days’ notice is Cherant, the recently crowned Legacy Fighting Alliance light heavyweight king. To wit, the last two bouts for the newcomer have both gone the distance, but the previous six appearances all ended within two frames. In a similar but more substantial nature, 10 of Menifield’s 11 career bouts have not reached the 10-minute mark. As this is a fresh matchup, the variety of prop bets will develop closer to the bout, but a play of this plus Menifield Wins by TKO/KO may be in a savvy bettor’s best interest.
Menifield charged into the UFC with a brutal eight-second knockout of Dashawn Boatwright on the second season of Dana White’s Contender Series, and laying waste to Vinicius Moreira and Paul Craig showed he might have what it takes to climb the 205-pound ladder. Disheartening setbacks to Devin Clark and, most recently, Ovince St. Preux, have dulled the immediate championship aspirations of the Texan. His pace proved to be his greatest enemy, as he threw hard early and often until his cardio fell apart against both fighters. While Clark tired him out with takedowns and was ultimately unable to secure a stoppage, St. Preux outlasted a slowing Menifield before short-circuiting “Atomic Alonzo” with an explosive check hook. Both of these outcomes, plus all of Menifield’s past victories, lean towards this one ending early.
Cherant’s last performance came a month ago against a durable but outmatched Myron Dennis in an exhausting five-round affair. Mixing in grappling with an improving kicking arsenal, he did enough to sway the judges in his favor, even as his own gas tank began to betray him in the later rounds. The fabled “Octagon jitters,” a recent grueling bout, the short-notice nature of this replacement opportunity and high finish rates on each side paints a picture of looming carnage. Striking and power are firmly strengths for Menifield, while Cherant brings effective grappling and unorthodox maneuvers to surprise opponents. Menifield could find himself grounded if he throws everything he has into his strikes, and if so, “The Water Buffalo” could line himself up for any number of chokes. On the other hand, a bullrush from Menifield could just as easily turn off the debutant’s lights in a hurry. The danger both light heavyweights present should lead to the judges feeling safe in taking this fight off.
Abu Azaitar (+105)
It has been nearly three years since Azaitar set foot inside the Octagon, thanks to injury and issues with the United States Anti-Doping Agency. It is difficult to display confidence in a fighter that is facing an opponent whose entire UFC run has taken place after that 2018 outing against Vitor Miranda. Azaitar, the elder brother of much-maligned lightweight Ottman Azaitar, holds an impressive 10-fight unbeaten streak dating back to 2012, when his left eyebrow was gashed open against Marcin Naruszczka. That and a disqualification in his MMA debut for eye gouges—a serious offense under any metric—are the lone blemishes on his record other than a draw with Piotr Strus in KSW. Even though the Moroccan is now 35 and despite his lengthy layoff, he should still have what it takes to overcome Marc-Andre Barriault.
Like his opponent, Barriault also ran afoul of USADA, with ostarine being the culprit for his last win changing to a no contest. Against Oskar Piechota in 2020, the Canadian notched what was then his first victory under the UFC banner, as he clobbered Piechota to earn a much-needed victory. It was to be a turning point following a trio of decision losses to Andrew Sanchez, Krzysztof Jotko and Jun Yong Park. That was not meant to be, and he draws a matchup with the powerful Azaitar once again in search of his first UFC triumph. His power and pressure can make the difference, but he has struggled against stronger opponents that employ a takedown and clinch-heavy game. Azaitar can exploit this.
Azaitar will welcome a brawl, and his speed is an advantage if Barriault holds the edge in power. Like others that caused issues for “Power Bar” in the past, the Moroccan can switch things up in an instant, going toe-to-toe in an exchange before suddenly changing levels for a takedown. If he finds himself in danger or on his back, Azaitar’s scrambling abilities are also solid enough to keep in his back pocket. Barriault will not likely possess a gameplan of taking the fight into deep waters, grinding it out and otherwise racking up enough points to win. Instead, the Canadian will try to knock Azaitar’s block off, especially as Barriault finds himself in a precarious position with four UFC appearances without an official win. The possibility for “Power Bar” to drain his power bar and go for high-risk strikes and furious frenzied striking combinations may leave him defensively open to either be countered or dragged to the mat. Unless he gets clipped, Azaitar has the chops to win this fight and record the minor upset.