Prime Picks: UFC 266 ‘Volkanovski vs. Ortega’

By: Jay Pettry
Sep 24, 2021

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday looks to blow the doors off of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with a pair of title bouts—Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega and Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy—that are surprisingly not rematches. However, the bout that has drawn the most attention, is the second pairing of Nick Diaz and Robbie Lawler. With an eye towards the remade fight that first occurred more than 17 years ago, we look to our past with this throwback UFC 266 edition of Prime Picks.

Straight Up Cash

Alexander Volkanovski (-172)

Throughout his time inside the Octagon, Ortega has never been the round-winner type. His victory over Chan Sung Jung showed he might be willing to adapt, but that could also go to the incredible durability of “The Korean Zombie” that he never came close to finishing the fight. The number of rounds Ortega won on the scorecards of that bout alone easily surpass the total number of full rounds that he had won in eight previous UFC appearances. Ortega possesses the kind of power to stun his opponent and an opportunistic submission game that allowed him to put on a stretch of four straight wins in Round 3, but he typically does not have the style that wins him rounds. Against Volkanovski, a stocky Aussie with a neck like a tree trunk who is so difficult to hit cleanly, Ortega is facing a glaringly problematic style matchup.

Volkanovski will be putting not only his belt but his wild 19-fight winning streak on the line. Ortega is indeed a dangerous challenger, but simply based on reputation and past performances alone, it is difficult to determine that he is more hazardous than past Volkanovski adversaries like Max Holloway and Jose Aldo. Unlike Ortega, Volkanovski excels at banking rounds, doing more than enough while effectively nullifying much of the offense coming at him. The only one to ring Volkanovski’s bell in recent memory was Chad Mendes, but the Aussie shook out any cobwebs, literally smiled at the Californian and hurt him right back before finishing the job a few minutes later. It would not be remotely surprising if Ortega hits Volkanovski with everything he has in the first round and the champion simply smiles back at him in totally demoralizing fashion.

Volkanovski’s ability to win stems from his full confidence in his skills no matter where the fight goes. Should someone take him down, he will fight his way back up. Should someone land cleanly on him, he will make sure to throw twice as much to get that back and surpass the blow. Volume, pace and pressure are all weapons he can use to bully “T-City” around the cage, much like Holloway did to Ortega in 2018. Even though the City Kickboxing standout is the shorter man, he will hold a reach advantage, and sticking a jab into Ortega’s face and constantly disrupting combinations and power punches will work wonders. If the challenger’s best hope to victory is to catch the champion in an exceedingly rare mistake, the safe money is on said champ. As a favorite below 2-to-1 odds, Volkanovski at the moneyline is about as solid of an option as one can get for anyone on the card not named Lawler.

Straight Up Pass

Dan Hooker (-145)

Putting money on Hooker or opponent Nasrat Haqparast is not likely the best of options, and not just because the lines are close. Both men were still in limbo late in the week, waiting in their native countries of New Zealand and Germany for their visa applications to go through. Both lightweights—at least for the time being, the promotion has not given either man a special weight allowance or changed the matchup to a catchweight—will have had to actively cut weight while flying across the world to Las Vegas. This says nothing about how COVID-19 protocols could possibly be followed if the fighters and their teams have to fly on international flights and travel through large airports. There simply is not even enough confidence that the fight will take place as planned.

Should the bout indeed come together and both men miraculously make weight, there can be no certainty of their mental and physical conditions after the trials and tribulations they endured this week alone. Hooker’s visa issues and the fact that his home country of New Zealand implements stark quarantine protocols puts a vice-like pressure on the Kiwi to compete exactly at this event. Haqparast has also gone through a great deal with his own visa, to say nothing of the recent passing of his mother—a feeling of loss that can either work as a boon or a detriment. There are simply too many intangibles interfering in this pairing to make it a worthwhile betting endeavor, and others have more suitable and relatively predictable outcomes.

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A Prop-ular Bet

Merab Dvalishvili Wins by Decision (-135)

Since making his UFC debut in 2017, Dvalishvili has known no other speed than going exactly 15 minutes inside the cage. A decision loss and a literal last-second chokeout to Ricky Simon put him on a losing streak, but six straight unanimous verdicts led him to this contender matchup against Marlon Moraes. Just six wins into his UFC tenure and eight appearances overall, the Georgian already holds the bantamweight record for the most takedowns (46) in company history. Every one of his encounters has seen him take his opponent down more than once, and this trend will likely repeat itself against Moraes. Takedowns and ground control should lead to Dvalishvili winning once more on the scorecards.

Once a terrifying force as he rose through the ranks with highlight-reel finishes, Moraes has more recently been on the receiving end of those shocking losses. At 33 and about to enter into his 33rd career bout, “Magic Marlon” served as the hammer instead of the nail more often than not over the past two years. His sudden explosive power still exists, and it seems more likely that he busts up this play than Dvalishvili putting him away. Unlike John Dodson’s ability to stay in the fight late and threaten Dvalishvili, Moraes can be outworked and fatigue enough that the wild Hail Mary cannot connect. The threat of the takedown could open up strikes for “The Machine,” who has earned a spinning strike knockout in the past, but the smart money sees Dvalishvili using what brought him to the dance and putting the high-flying Moraes on his back for extended periods of time before leaving it in the hands of the judges.

An Unprop-ular Bet

Valentina Shevchenko Wins Inside Distance (-210)

Lately, two different kinds of Shevchenko can take the center of the cage. On the one hand, the destroyer of worlds can emerge in the form of a 125-pound woman who makes rankings panels think twice about her second-banana status in the pound-for-pound placement. On the other is a still dominant force but one that is more cautious, respectful and measured. Beyond Amanda Nunes, few opponents the last few years have enjoyed facing either version of Shevchenko, but “Bullet” has strangely alternated between decisions and stoppage wins for her last 10 bouts. Were one to follow the pattern, Shevchenko winning a decision would be the next in line, and that would spoil the play that some foresee of her forcing a stoppage.

As a professional, Murphy has never been beaten inside the distance. Half of her victories since rejoining the organization off of Season 26 of “The Ultimate Fighter” have come by split verdict, but she has gotten the nod in all three of those matches against Barb Honchak, Andrea Lee and Joanne Calderwood. A lengthy winning streak is difficult to manage and maintain in most women’s divisions, thanks in part to the impressive parity between non-champions. Still, five victories in a row says something, and she has risen through the ranks by beating opponents of all different styles. Whether she can put her skills together to become the first non-Nunes to win over Shevchenko inside the Octagon is another question entirely, but “Lucky Lauren” has durability on her side.

The Shevchenko who smashed through the likes of Jessica Andrade and Katlyn Chookagian is a terrifying force and one that could easily put Murphy away. Murphy has gradually improved her game over the years, and even at 38, she appears to be in the best form of her career. She has fought smart, as well, not often putting herself at risk while fighting to her strengths. Staying close with Shevchenko, forcing her to tie up and taking some of the ruthless stopping power out of her blows could work to her advantage as the rounds roll on. While Shevchenko’s status as an astronomical -1300 or more favorite should not be questioned, Murphy’s ability to stay in the fight can drag this into the later rounds, when a head kick does not shut the lights out anymore.

An Accumulation Contemplation

Lawler (-127)
Cody Brundage (+140)
Matthew Semelsberger (-470)
Total Odds: +420

It is quite appropriate that a trio of picks against Diaz and his team should garner odds at +420. When picking the favored Lawler, short-notice replacement and Dana White's Contender Series alum Brundage and “Semi the Jedi” Semelsberger, the odds look promising that all three turn away the Nick Diaz Academy-affiliated trio. Had Nick Maximov’s original opponent, Karl Roberson, remained on the billing, this would have been a far more confident parlay, but Brundage still presents the kinds of skills that can hand Maximov his first career defeat.

The anchor of this accumulator comes in what metrics have shown to be the far more anticipated matchup, now at middleweight, between Diaz and Lawler. Diaz prevailed by knockout in their initial 2004 encounter, but the world has changed nearly as much as the two combatants since they met some 17 years ago. The most glaring issue, of course, is inactivity: Diaz has not won a fight since 2011 and has not even competed since 2015. In the meantime, Lawler won the welterweight strap, defended it, lost it and has since fallen on a losing streak against excellent opposition. The mere reps, even in losing efforts where Lawler lost mostly one-sided affairs, still favor him when Diaz does not appear to even want to fight anymore. “Ruthless Robbie” as a small favorite is an instant addition to any multi-line play, and picking Lawler alone with the moneyline is straight up cash at this point, as well.

Semelsberger is facing an opponent whose signing in 2021 is questionable at best, as he meets a man in Martin Sano who has not stepped in a cage since 2017. The last time “Spartan” won a fight, Semelsberger was still three years removed from turning pro. Semelsberger smoked Jason Witt with one punch in March, and it should be noted that Witt’s career record stood at 18-6 at the time of their meeting. In comparison, the combined win-loss record of the four opponents Sano has beaten sits at just 12-7. As long as Semelsberger does not make a silly mistake and fall into a submission, it is his fight to win.

Brundage fell short in his first try on Dana White’s Contender Series, but he ran into the gargantuan William Knight, who possesses nothing short of wrecking balls for fists. Maximov, who earned a contract on the same season by overcoming the far larger Oscar Cota, did so at heavyweight, and he will be dropping down two weight categories for this debut. Like Sano, Maximov’s strength of schedule is full of holes, with his only adversary sporting a winning record being the aforementioned Cota; the others went a paltry 2-14 when he challenged them. The short-notice newcomer Brundage was still preparing for camp, albeit against Shonte Barnes in two weeks, so he is not rolling off the couch to compete. Semelsberger, Brundage and Lawler could very well spoil the return of the “Diaz Army” and cash in for some green with +420 odds.

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