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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday in Las Vegas moves right along to another event affected by withdrawals and short-notice matchups. UFC Fight Night 175 will be topped by a three-round main event, and although seven of the 11 bouts feature a favorite at -250 or higher, there is still some value to be had on the card. Now to the UFC Fight Night “Smith vs. Rakic” edition of Prime Picks.
Anthony Smith-Aleksandar Rakic Doesn’t Go to Decision (-180)
The headliner slotted into the top billing on short notice, and so it was deemed a three-round affair, like Derek Brunson-Edmen Shahbazyan and Zabit Magomedsharipov-Calvin Kattar before it. With only 15 minutes to settle things instead of the standard 25 for a main event, the 10 fewer minutes allow for these two light heavyweight finishers to sprint out of the gate. Neither man likes to get the judges involved, with seven decisions across their combined 62-fight careers.
Smith has finished his opponent in each of his last seven victories, while five of the most recent seven triumphs—and 10 of 12 overall—for Rakic came by stoppage. Eight first-round stoppages bolster the resume for the relatively inexperienced Austrian, and Smith has at least double that on his own impressive ledger. Smith, who does have 15 career defeats across his 12-year career, has taken a lot of damage for a 32-year-old. Rakic, the prohibitive favorite coming in anywhere from -250 to -300, can take advantage of that with his powerful striking punctuated by his deadly kicks.
At times, “Lionheart” employs an ill-advised strategy of allowing himself to get hit so he can deliver a return shot with greater impact. With twice as many knockout wins compared to losses (18 to nine), Smith lives by the sword far too often at times. His toughness and aggressiveness spelled his undoing against Glover Teixeira in May, when the aging Brazilian put a beating on him and knocked out a few teeth in the process. Unfortunately for Smith, with two one-sided losses in his last three outings, he might find himself going a little too hard in an effort to remain at the top echelon of the division and make a statement. This could cost him against an accurate, active striker like Rakic, who is not afraid to mix in an unexpected takedown.
It is possible that Rakic exploits Smith’s historically mediocre takedown defense and rides out the fight, even though the Factory X rep is a dangerous man off of his back. The triangle choke is Smith’s preferred submission, and should Rakic get careless on top, he could get swept or find himself in the danger zone quickly. With two fighters looking to get into title contention in a post-Jon Jones landscape, this should be violent for as long as it lasts. A common expectation is that Rakic gets the stoppage (-105), but Smith does not yet appear to be a spent force. As he has done on multiple occasions throughout his UFC tenure, he could outlast Rakic and capitalize on a fatiguing opponent. Either way this fight plays out, it is one in which judges will not likely play a part.
Robbie Lawler (+210)
There is a fair amount of risk in this co-main event upset pick, as Lawler has not won a fight in over three years. It was not for lack of trying, as controversy struck in his March 2019 meeting with Ben Askren. Since then, Lawler’s issues with volume strikers was exposed, as Colby Covington got the best of him a year ago by dwarfing his significant strike total by over 100. Prior to that bout and the Askren affair, Rafael dos Anjos lumped him up and hobbled his leg by putting nearly as many strikes on Lawler as Covington did. Against Neil Magny, Lawler will not be meeting that kind of striker.
Magny has surpassed the 100-significant-strike threshold once in his UFC career, thanks to a crushing second round in which he clobbered Hector Lombard and picked up a stoppage shortly into the third. Otherwise, the rangy Magny can be content to either keep his distance in a kickboxing match or grind his opponent into dust against the fence. Lawler, one of the progenitors of the sprawl-and-brawl style, can find success as long as he does not find his back trapped against the cage as time ticks away.
Father Time is practically undefeated in the sport—a recent upset win for Frankie Edgar serves as an exception—and at 38, Lawler’s best days are likely well behind him. Although Magny may not be in his prime, either, there exists a chasm between a 33-year-old veteran and an old lion on his way to his 20th anniversary as a professional, all while being part of several all-time great battles along the way. Lawler may not be able to turn back the clock with a performance like the days of old, but he can do enough to stave off Magny, his lowest-ranked opponent in years. Closing the distance, a Lawler specialty, will help him break down the taller man with a six-inch reach advantage.
Magomed Ankalaev Wins by TKO/KO (-115)
This rematch six months in the making should deliver just like the first battle, and it may look quite similar. In a mere 38 seconds, the two light heavyweights hurled 23 strikes at one another and did some serious damage. Ankalaev was the more accurate man, as he got off a few partially blocked head kicks to wobble Ion Cutelaba’s legs. A poor referee stoppage aside, Ankalaev did not appear that he was going to let up or fall into the obvious traps that “The Hulk” was setting for him. At the rate the two men were throwing, someone was going to end up facedown before too long, and the rebooking of this fight will almost certainly deliver on that promise.
Cutelaba, who prefers not to involve the judges in his affairs, is the kind of reckless berserker fans adore, but he can sometimes overexert himself and put himself in danger. Fewer nicknames in the sport are quite as accurate as the Moldovan’s, as Cutelaba has shown that he gets more and more fired up the more he trades with someone, a la “The Hulk” from Marvel Comics. He does have other skills and even hit an omoplata on Vitaliy Onishchenko in 2015, but this iteration of Cutelaba has evolved—or devolved—into a bomb-chucking brawler.
Ankalaev can throw caution to the wind, as well, but he is the more accurate striker and can take advantage of such a bold strategy. The Akhmat Fight Team representative out of Dagestan, Russia, would be unbeaten were it not for a literal last-second triangle choke at the legs of Paul Craig in 2018. Likely way up on the scorecards in that match, he fell into a precarious position because of his desire to finish the fight no matter the time. He has learned his lesson since, preferring to stay at a distance to boot his opponent in the head. Each of his last three stoppage wins came about after kicking his adversary in the face, and Cutelaba has an appetite for those strikes.
We expect that the exchanges will be just as wild as they were in their first encounter, and unless he walks face-first into a lethal hook from Cutelaba, Ankalaev will leave no doubt about who is the better man at the end of the night. As a bonus, one of the easiest locks on the card is Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision at -275, as even though Ankalaev only sports a knockout rate of 62 percent, Cutelaba is the kind of aggressive attacker who will play right into his hands. The only other foreseeable option is that Cutelaba springs the upset by knocking out Ankalaev (+354), which would bode well for bettors that think the latter’s previous victory was a fluke.
Impa Kasanganay (-125)
The unbeaten newcomer has the perfect style to frustrate a man whose style goes well with the nickname “Coconut Bombz,” as Maki Pitolo would vastly prefer to stay on the outside and wing hooks until the other man falls down. Kasanganay will not likely allow this to happen in their short-notice middleweight affair, as he has imposed a grind-heavy game to stifle every man he has faced to date. Pitolo has shown to have some submission vulnerabilities, which threaten a potential line of Kasanganay Wins by Decision at +159, although it remains a suitable option.
Pitolo made his UFC debut in October when he took on Callan Potter. He was outgunned and outplanned and found himself on his back repeatedly, as he lost for the first time by decision in his career. A triumphant return against former UFC fighter Charles Byrd lifted his confidence, only to have that rug ripped out from beneath him when de facto Dana White’s Contender Series gatekeeper Darren Stewart slapped on a guillotine choke to elicit a tap in the first round in early August. With his roster spot potentially on the line, Pitolo may come out a little too aggressively to earn a devastating knockout and preserve his place with the company. This type of overzealous attack could see him planted on the mat, where Kasanganay prefers to fight.
In three bouts, Pitolo’s takedown defense is a porous 42 percent, which will play right in the hands of “Tshilobo.” If there is a danger in the matchup, it is that Kasanganay can get complacent and try to wing power shots, and going power-for-power with a guy with “Bombz” in his nickname is a risky endeavor. As long as Kasanganay takes the path of least resistance, he should be able to grind out a win to lift his record to 8-0.