Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC on ESPN+ live on your computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday holds its first-ever event on Leap Day with UFC Fight Night 169—a show headlined by a vacant flyweight title bout. In honor of Leap Day, we will provide savvy bettors with two options: Leap towards opportunities or stay put, do not risk it. Let us get down to business with the UFC Fight Night “Benavidez vs. Figueiredo” edition of Prime Picks.
Joseph Benavidez (-140)
Barring an unexpected and spectacular mishap in which the former World Extreme Cagefighting and UFC title challenger gets caught early, this should be Benavidez’ fight to lose. In a fight featuring two quick strikers who have surprising pop on their punches, this might all boil down to who forces the other to take a back step. When adding in the elements that have made them so successful in their respective careers, Benavidez simply has more in the toolbox to take the upper hand in this vacant 125-pound championship matchup.
Other than Demetrious Johnson, the only man to defeat Benavidez during his lengthy UFC tenure has been Sergio Pettis, and he did so by a narrow margin. Additionally, Benavidez went three hard rounds with former champion Henry Cejudo in a bout that saw the ex-Team Alpha Male staple emerge victorious when Cejudo lost a point for repeated low blows. Much has been said about Benavidez’s career and how he would have been the champion had Johnson not competed in the same division. Should he mix in a steady diet of takedowns while avoiding the big right hand coming his way, Benavidez can finally take home the gold.
Figueiredo can tend to bite down on his mouthpiece and throw some ferocious punches, as the Brazilian has already amassed five knockdowns in his seven-fight UFC career. Some of his best work has come when he throws caution the wind, stringing together dangerous combinations that consist of elbows, kicks and whatever else he feels like throwing at the time. However, in his most recent bout, reminded unfamiliar fans that his grappling game was top-notch, as well. Perhaps unexpectedly, “Deus da Guerra” tapped Tim Elliott when the American left his neck exposed while diving in for a takedown. It was his first submission on the major stage, as Figueiredo’s previous desired method of stoppage came via late second-round technical knockout. Should Figueiredo land early and gain Benavidez’s respect right out of the gate, it might be a long night for the favorite.
Simply playing MMA math and looking at the notion that Benavidez twice knocked out the only man to defeat Figueiredo—Jussier Formiga—is not enough justification to pick him, but it certainly does help in this instance. The true key to success for Benavidez will be his takedown game and, perhaps more importantly, his ability to threaten with it. In doing so, he may make Figueiredo reticent to commit to his heavier punches out of concern that he will find himself on his back should he throw too hard. Should Benavidez implement a wrestling-heavy game plan as he has in previous appearances against opponents like Dustin Ortiz and John Moraga, he can find great success.
After the dust settles in what could be a thrilling bout— although Benavidez has not picked up a “Fight of the Night” bonus since WEC 42 in 2009—we anticipate that the American will get his hand raised. If you wish to call your shot even further, a reasonable option is Benavidez Wins by Decision at +174. We do not expect him to score a finish, but if anyone does, Benavidez Wins by TKO/KO at +450 is perhaps the most direct and risky option.
Felicia Spencer Wins Inside Distance (-240)
A high betting favorite is usually a risky proposition, even in the case of fighters who are expected to be overwhelming favorites. Spencer currently resides north of -800 on the betting lines, and the narrower prop bet of her finishing the fight is still a substantial -240. In this instance, judging the careers of these two women and especially regarding their recent performances, we feel confident that Spencer will get her hand raised before the final bell. Spencer, who would much prefer to take this fight to the ground, will look to emulate the success she enjoyed against Megan Anderson by securing a takedown quickly and getting the tap.
In Zarah Fairn dos Santos’ debut performance, her aggression led to her getting dragged down to the canvas in short order. Although she did break free from being mounted by the aforementioned Anderson, she fell directly into a triangle choke. Other than getting off five significant strikes off and landing two, there is little that showed the Frenchwoman will be able to stave off an opponent her size and keep the fight where she prefers. Should she manage to keep the bout at kickboxing range, there is always a chance, but seeing how Spencer outlasted 122 of Cristiane Justino’s best shots, we do not anticipate that Fairn dos Santos will hold her off for three rounds.
If one were especially interested in maximizing value on this co-headlining featherweight affair, Spencer Wins in Round 1 (+100) or Spencer Wins by Submission (-170) are potential avenues. However, we do not recommend taking this wide a leap, as the opportunity for Spencer to posture up while on top and finish the fight with strikes is also foreseeable (+675), as is Fairn dos Santos surviving to the second frame.
Magomed Ankalaev (-220)
A substantial favorite and for good reason, Ankalaev’s lone career blemish came in a literal last-second submission defeat to Paul Craig in a bout the Dagestani fighter was dominating for roughly 14:50. While Ankalaev clearly shows the power needed to dispatch opponents—he has done so in two of his three UFC wins, first against Marcin Prachnio and later becoming the first fighter to knock out Dalcha Lungiambula—Cutelaba should prove a substantially greater test than any of Ankalaev’s previous counterparts not named Maxim Grishin. This light heavyweight battle has the potential for instant mayhem as soon as they start swinging.
With his 93 percent finish rate and each of his last three victories coming in the opening frame, Cutelaba has repeatedly displayed the aptitude to finish a fight quickly and violently. If “The Hulk” had one glaring Achilles heel, it is that his style does not lend itself to three full rounds. In practically every bout in which he has appeared, he started the first round by embodying his nickname, charging at his opponent and swinging with reckless abandon. This first stretch of the fight is always the most dangerous for someone facing the Moldovan, and if Ankalaev does not watch out, he could find himself in the danger zone.
There is a strong possibility that Ankalaev slugs it out with Cutelaba and then changes gears to test his wrestling. An unexpected tool in his arsenal: He owns an impressive takedown defense rate of 80 percent, even after facing fighters like Glover Teixeira and Misha Cirkunov. Cutelaba’s wild aggressiveness could spell his undoing, but a -220 bet on Ankalaev may not be worth the risk in this potential light heavyweight slobberknocker.
Brendan Allen (+115)
The 11-1 Tom Breese—he of the 91 percent finish rate and a man who has only dropped a razor-close split verdict to Sean Strickland—seems like a daunting adversary on paper. When factoring in Breese’s recent combat sports history, the Allen’s appeal draws greater. Breese was set to face Ian Heinisch at UFC Fight Night 147 in March 2019, but withdrew from the contest on fight day. It was later posited that he pulled out due to an anxiety attack, and the Brit spent the remainder of the year in grappling matches. In his return from a 21-month layoff, Breese will take on an ex-Legacy Fighting Alliance middleweight champion in Allen.
Since June 2016, Breese has competed once in MMA, while his opponent has conducted most of his career—12 of 16 bouts—in that same stretch. A finisher in his own right, Allen won his first decision in an LFA title defense that earned him a shot on Dana White’s Contender Series. His last two wins and three of four have come by rear-naked choke, and both he and his opponent have prevailed by submission in a majority of their victories. A career welterweight, Breese moved up to 185 pounds and knocked out Daniel Kelly in his last outing, while Allen has spent the lion’s share of his fight career at this weight class.
Allen’s hyper-aggressive style may surprise Breese, as none of his previous opponents in the Octagon presented such a threat to him. It is entirely possible that the biggest threat to Breese may be himself and not his opponent, if he gets in his own head and doubts his abilities. Still below the 30-year-old mark, Breese has potential to be great, but standing in front of him will be a violent man who matches his moniker of “All In” well. Look for Allen to come out with a win in a bit of an upset, and bettors should take the leap on this preliminary matchup.
Sergey Spivak (-120)
This last pick to avoid is not so much to explain that Spivak will not win this fight in dramatic fashion, but rather a recommendation to avoid this heavyweight rumble at all costs from a betting perspective. As such, the reverse option of +100 for Marcin Tybura is equally unappetizing, as this bout could unfold in many different ways. The questions make this match simply too daunting to reasonably pursue. Is Spivak is a legitimate contender in the division? Will Tybura’s largely unsuccessful stretch dating back to late 2017 continue?
Win or lose, Spivak has never seen a third round and only ventured beyond the first on two separate occasions—he won both by submission. In his promotional debut, “The Polar Bear” got decked by Walt Harris, a man who sports a 100 percent finish rate, so questions still remain regarding his ceiling. A dominating win using his grappling lifted the Moldovan into the Top 15, if only for a moment before he was surpassed. Can he slice through a 81 percent takedown defense rate from Tybura, who has survived most attempts to drag him down from Fabricio Werdum and Shamil Abdurakhimov?
If the fight ends by stoppage, it could either be because Spivak ended the fight on his own terms or because he was similarly leveled by the Polish fighter. The questions are too great to put money on either fighter, and absent a prop bet targeting Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision, an option of Under 2.5 Rounds at -128 is a safer choice. Even so, a heavyweight matchup such as this one does not inspire betting confidence in either direction, so best bets are likely made on some other intriguing fights on the card.