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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will stage an event at which there will be no fans in the crowd. Will this have an effect on Brazilians who are used to cheers, or will it benefit the foreign fighters looking to spring upsets without hearing “uh vai morrer” shouted down upon them? In this UFC Fight Night 170 edition of Prime Picks, we have our sights set on four Brazilians who should still come out ahead regardless of the audience.
Charles Oliveira (+120)
Oliveira has been on a tear over his last six outings, finishing each of those six fights within two rounds. However, “Do Bronx” will experience a significant leap in competition when he takes on Kevin Lee in the main event. Throughout the Brazilian’s career, he has defeated or finished almost all of the opponents at his level or below, but whenever he has taken a step up, he has lost badly. This can be evidenced by his bouts with Donald Cerrone, Cub Swanson, Max Holloway and several other ranked opponents at the time. In Lee, this will be Oliveira’s first ranked opponent since he lost to Paul Felder in 2017. Will this 30-year-old iteration of Oliveira fall to pieces against a top-flight opponent this time around? We do not believe so, and instead see this as the moment he could truly shine.
Although Lee sports an impressive submission game of his own, it pales in comparison to that of his Brazilian adversary. Instead, what can give Lee the upper hand is his submission defense. The only two fighters to tap him did so when Lee was so exhausted that he could not fight off the attempts any longer. Where “The Motown Phenom” excels is at his pressure game, which features a wrestling-heavy attack that saw him batter Edson Barboza. It is the kind of style that could wear out his opponent, should he put Oliveira on his back and land strikes while avoiding the inevitable submission attempts coming his way. Historically speaking, a fighter who can push the pace on Oliveira can beat him, and Lee can be just the man for the job. Otherwise, if he gets his heavy kicking attack going and Oliveira is content to stay at range, he could get pieced up.
There is a question mark regarding Oliveira’s cardio, as well, as he has never competed beyond the third round and last went a full 15 minutes against Jeremy Stephens in 2014. Meanwhile, Lee has gone beyond the third round in three of his last four outings. The lone fight that ended quickly? Lee’s posterizing Gregor Gillespie with a devastating head kick that would have been a sure-fire “Knockout of the Year” winner if not for Jorge Masvidal flatlining Ben Askren in five seconds. Even so, Lee lost the last two that went that far, as he gassed against a larger Rafael dos Anjos in an ill-fated trip to welterweight and was beaten to the punch by a sprawl-and-brawler in Al Iaquinta. Oliveira is neither of these, and as an incredibly talented grappler, he has pulled off the most submissions in promotional history.
With a stoppage, Oliveira would tie Cerrone for the most finishes in UFC history. Although our March 6 prediction that the unfortunate main event of UFC 248 would end inside the distance fell apart, we expect that this fight will almost certainly stay away from the judges. Accordingly, Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision is a significant -375, which has value as part of a parlay and seems reasonable to think one man will stop the other in dramatic fashion. In this performance, one in which we expect Oliveira to eventually find his way to pick up a win, he will likely meet and pass Chris Lytle (31) for the second-most submission attempts in organizational history. If you feel the Brazilian will force Lee to tap—Oliveira has finished his last two opponents not by submission but with strikes—a safer line of Oliveira Wins Inside Distance (+180) is better than a narrow option of Submission (+220) or TKO/KO (+745).
Gilbert Burns (-170)
As we have encountered in the past, when two skilled grapplers meet, the bout could play out two ways. First, it could show itself as a grappling battle in which one exerts dominance over the other. The other alternative is that it transforms into a kickboxing affair. We predict that of the two possibilities, this match will turn out like the latter. If it does, the heavy-handed Burns will have a serious advantage over the former middleweight in Maia. While Burns may not have the same pop in his punches compared to Kamaru Usman, Jorge Masvidal or any other top-tier opponents Maia has faced over the years, he has the kind of striking that can give him pause.
It should be noted that while Maia sports three victories by technical knockout, the first came in his MMA debut 19 years ago, the second occurred by injury and the third from a muscle spasm. At best, Maia can use a jab and other strikes to work his way in and initiate the clinch. To do so, he will need to avoid absorbing the looping punches sure to come from Burns, as the latter tends to load up on one-shot knockout strikes. Should Maia time a heavy strike from the Hard Knocks 365 rep to close the distance and try to take the fight down, there is still an unanswered question about Burns’ takedown defense.
Throughout Burns’ 13-fight UFC career, only Dan Hooker has landed a takedown, although few have even tried. Maia has notably struggled with this aspect of his game against higher-level opposition, as he went a combined 0-49 in takedown attempts against Usman Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington. Burns will likely thwart most of the attempts Maia throws at him, but if the 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist can jump guard, fall to his back and manage to sweep Burns, it could be a different game. With Burns’ nine-year youth advantage against Maia, we believe he can stay out of danger, do some damage at range and outlast his fellow grappling ace.
Johnny Walker (-130)
Walker’s meteoric rise took a major hit when he found himself on the losing end of a surprising first-round knockout from the hands—not the wrestling—of Corey Anderson. The Brazilian’s hype train nearly crashed into the mountains when Anderson tagged him with a right hand he did not see coming. So halted the momentum of the high-flying light heavyweight who was deemed the Next Big Thing in the division. However, all hope is not lost. In his return to form, Walker has been booked against a fellow Top 15 fighter in Nikita Krylov, who has the firepower to match his offense.
It was notably difficult to glean exactly how Walker could perform in a tougher fight where his adversary could survive his assault. Prior to Anderson, his longest bout inside the Octagon lasted 117 seconds. A pair of sub-40-second knockouts later, he met Anderson. Whether tentative to defend against Anderson’s wrestling or for some other reason, Walker did not act like his normal self and had his chin checked. Krylov, meanwhile, will be going furiously towards him until the wheels come off.
The Ukrainian has gone through the majority of his fighting career as a glass cannon, meaning that he throws an almost overwhelming amount of offense at his opponent but can be susceptible to those who do not wilt from his attack. Understandably, the line of Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision currently sits at -490, while it is a pick-’em on whether the match even reaches the second frame. Should these two hit the ground, Krylov would appear to hold the advantage. However, if it gets there, it could very well be because Walker landed a strike that put him down. As long as Walker does not get put on his back early, he can come out victorious and put himself right back on the map.
Jussier Formiga (-150)
Before dropping his last bout by knockout to Joseph Benavidez, the only times Formiga had ever seen defeat came when he could not land a single takedown. If Brandon Moreno wants to spoil this Brazilian’s time in his home country, albeit in front of no local fans, he has to stuff the takedown and get his boxing going. Should the fight go down to the canvas, Moreno is an able scrambler but will find himself out of his depth against a superior grappler.
Formiga saw his impressive winning streak halted by Benavidez in June, when a win would have almost certainly earned the Brazilian a long-awaited title shot. Many of the fighters to beat him have done so with striking, and while Moreno has improved his standup significantly over the last few years, it is not his strongest suit. Instead, he, too, would like to try to tap out his opponent. If he employs this game plan and tries as a brown belt to submit a highly skilled black belt, he may find himself in a bad place. While Formiga may not be able to elicit the tap in the span of 15 minutes, he will likely put Moreno in bad situations where the Mexican has to play defense rather than implementing his own game.