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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, trucks along with a card that appears on paper to be a serious uptick from its predecessor. The lines for UFC Fight Night 179 are not particularly close, with only one fighter currently favored below -150. With these somewhat lopsided odds, let us navigate the treacherous waters in the latest edition of Prime Picks.
Marlon Moraes (+120)
Moraes was a few leg kicks away from becoming the UFC bantamweight champion in June 2019. The damaged he inflicted on Henry Cejudo would have felled lesser men, and it can be argued that “The Messenger” survived thanks to his Olympic-level wrestling chops. When suffering damage in the third round, Cejudo put the Brazilian against the cage and on the canvas, where he managed to tire out the fading contender. This kind of strategy is completely out of Cory Sandhagen’s repertoire, and although he can land a takedown if needed, he would vastly prefer to stand and bang with his smaller-framed counterpart. Moraes can make him pay for that approach with powerful strikes high and low, and we expect he can do enough to get a win and possibly become the first man to knock out the durable Sandhagen.
The striking styles of these two men are significantly different, with Moraes’ power opposing Sandhagen’s volume and pace. There is a risk for Moraes should this fight go into deeper waters, as Sandhagen has shown an ability to maintain a consistent output for 15 hard minutes. Of the two, Moraes is the fighter with championship experience competing into the later rounds, but Sandhagen is a far cry from the Brazilian’s suspect competition in the World Series of Fighting. Even though Moraes has gone 25 minutes twice as a pro, he has recently fatigued when he cannot get his opponent out of there in a hurry. A durable Sandhagen who slips shots and does not fall for high-flying offense can weather the storm and prevail.
Moraes’ offense is often based on exploding, whether with a check knee that separates Aljamain Sterling from his consciousness or through dropping Raphael Assuncao with a few overhand rights before leaping on top to snatch a guillotine choke. This kind of high-intensity offense can be stalled out by a fighter who stalks you down and constantly puts hands on you. Inside the Octagon, “Magic Marlon” has not come to blows with a fighter who sports this much of a height advantage—five inches—but he has taken on two opponents, Sterling and Jose Aldo, with similar wingspans. As a result, his head kick might not get all the way up to meet Sandhagen’s temple. What he can land with success are his leg kicks, which can change the complexion of the fight almost immediately. Chopping down the advancing Sandhagen’s lead leg at the end of combinations—and not throwing single kicks that can be countered—can work wonders for the Brazilian.
Sandhagen’s pace and chin could be an issue for a fighter who has fatigued in bouts when the finish does not come early. Thirteen first-round finishes among Moraes’ 23 career victories stand as a testament to his offense-first style and shocking power for a bantamweight. Sandhagen has been more than willing to go toe-to-toe with a brawler, outstriking John Lineker in 2019 to take a split decision after a thrilling scrap. If he can take everything Lineker doled out, he should have a good chance against Moraes, but his defense can leave something to be desired.
In the early going, we believe that Moraes can do some damage and set Sandhagen on his heels. His killer instinct can take over from there, putting Sandhagen in a place he has never been before. For as long as this fight lasts, it should be a blast. As an additional prop suggestion, Fight Doesn’t go to Decision at -190 or Under 3.5 Rounds at -125 are both possible options. Should you strongly disagree and believe that Sandhagen’s pressure will make Moraes wilt, look no further than Sandhagen Wins by TKO/KO at +350.
Edson Barboza-Makwan Amirkhani Goes to Decision (+140)
This matchup is not particularly close on the feet. Amirkhani makes no bones about wanting the fight to end up on the ground, and his lone stoppage win due to strikes came in eight seconds with a flying knee on Andy Ogle in 2015. It will not take long for “Mr. Finland” to close the distance and try to take the fight down, at which he can attempt to pierce Barboza’s exceptional 80 percent takedown defense rate. One single attempt may not get the job done, but several consecutive looks to ground the Brazilian can work to his advantage. All the while, Amirkhani will be forcing Barboza to defend himself and sprawl, nullifying the former Ring of Combat champion’s terrifying kicking game. As long as Amirkhani does not completely fall apart when his gas tank runs dry, the fight should go the distance.
Amirkhani’s grappling lies not in his ability to take the fight down at will but rather to chain several takedown attempts together as he threatens with submissions. It seems unlikely that Amirkhani will earn his 12th submission victory against the crafty veteran, as he attempts to join a club with a membership body that includes only Donald Cerrone and Tony Ferguson. Attacking with submissions, whether in the form of a standing back take or if he gets Barboza to the ground, will make the Brazilian play defense. The energetic Barboza, who still persists on his ill-advised cut to 145 pounds, can run out of steam trying to fight out of bad positions.
Barboza will not likely be the only fighter to get tired from the grappling exchanges, as Amirkhani wore himself out against Shane Burgos in November. Amirkhani took the first round against Burgos by taking the fight down almost as soon as it began. Unfortunately for the Finnish fighter, he could not maintain that work rate and wound up losing by late stoppage. Like Burgos, Barboza is more than willing to attack the body, and the third round could be the danger zone for Amirkhani. Above all, Round 2 may be the most telling, as it will show whether Amirkhani can keep on the offense or expose if it has taken its toll on him. Should you find yourself fully expecting a finish, the two prop bets most appealing about this featherweight matchup are Barboza Wins by TKO/KO at +135 or Amirkhani Wins by Submission at +495, depending on who you think will get his hand raised.
Ben Rothwell (-150)
In a heavyweight rumble that could turn into a bit of a slog, we see Rothwell having more ways to win than his grappling-heavy opponent. Marcin Tybura held a high finish rate until he entered the Octagon in 2016, and although he recorded two stoppage wins early in his tenure, each of his last four victories has come on the scorecards. His method of victory has almost exclusively relied on his wrestling attack: He either presses his opponents against the cage or yanks them to the ground, where he effectively uses his full body weight to keep them down. Against “Big Ben,” Tybura will not have that size and strength advantage, and even an aging Rothwell still has the striking acumen to make this interesting.
“Tybur” will likely look to embrace the grind over the full-framed Rothwell for 15 minutes, but no fighter has put the former International Fight League standout on his back since Gabriel Gonzaga did so three times in 2013. This may be partially from lack of trying, as he has stuffed all five attempts—only one from each opponent who tried–in that stretch. With his deadly guillotine chokes, “Big Ben” can threaten all the way until he goes down and beyond. The greatest feather in his cap is tapping out Josh Barnett, as he is the only man to do so in the onetime UFC heavyweight champion’s 43-fight MMA career.
Tybura may be disinterested in trying to grapple with a larger opponent out of the concern that he will be put on his back for the remainder of the match. If that is the case, this could turn into a lumbering kickboxing match that does not see either man holding much of an advantage. Even with Rothwell holding the power advantage, he has slowed with age and in in the wake of failed drug tests. Rothwell managed to finish Stefan Struve with strikes but only after multiple devastating groin shots that should have resulted in a stoppage. Unless Rothwell can catch Tybura’s exposed neck while the Polish fighter changes levels for a takedown, this fight will likely go the distance (-135). With that said, Rothwell should get his hand raised at the end.
Markus Perez (+140)
South African newcomer and former KSW champion Dricus Du Plessis is about as all-action as it gets on the lower circuits. The Extreme Fighting Championship and one-time KSW titleholder has never before gone to the scorecards, though he has reached the third round on four separate occasions; and both of his losses came in Round 3. The biggest feather in his cap is unquestionably a knockout of Roberto Soldic, even though “Robocop” returned the favor less than six months later. On the other hand, a submission loss to Garreth McLellan—a man who went 1-4 in the UFC—does not look great. South African fighters have historically fared poorly inside the Octagon, and this debut might be a rough one for “Stillknocks.”
Perez has cast himself as a submission-or-bust fighter of late, with impressive tapouts of Ian Heinisch and Anthony Hernandez mixed in with disappointing decision defeats to Eryk Anders and Wellington Turman. The flashy strikes have sapped his gas tank more than they have landed effectively, but “Maluko” still continues to throw moves like cartwheel kicks recklessly. More than anything, Perez can be nullified with an effective clinch game, as Sanchez and Turman shut him down against the cage until he did not have anything left to offer. Du Plessis is not that kind of fighter. Instead, he will pursue a finish until the wheels fall off.
Du Plessis has shown some decent wrestling skills, and they will almost certainly be tested should the Brazilian grab hold of him. Although the approach has not been hugely successful, Perez will try hard in the first round to secure an early finish on the ground. The value in picking Perez as a UFC vet over the debutant as an underdog comes from Du Plessis being a still-unknown quantity. His hard-charging style may be enough to hand Perez his first stoppage loss, but it is perhaps just as likely that he gets outgrappled after an adrenaline dump and finds himself forced to say “matte.” One could consider coupling Under 2.5 Rounds at -130 to a pick for either fighter, as this does not seem like the kind of match that even will reach Round 3.