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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday takes itself from jolly old London to the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, with the coronavirus pandemic still flexing its muscle across much of the globe. UFC Fight Night 191—by Europeans, for Europeans and full of Europeans—brings an early start time and a truncated show altogether, with just 10 fights on the current booking. West coasters may be rubbing the sleep out of their eyes for the prelims, but hardcore fans and smart bettors have their eyes on a few important matchups. We look at four lines, including a separating-wheat-from-chaff middleweight contest, a 170-pounder who will step up for any challenge, a potentially spoiled debut and an opponent change that should end favorably for a Welshman.
Derek Brunson (+150)
Bettors are constantly sleeping on Brunson, who comes into this headliner on a lofty four-fight winning streak over several legitimate talents. Perhaps because of past failures against the likes of Robert Whittaker, Ronaldo Souza and Israel Adesanya, the 37-year-old Strikeforce vet is still trying to flip the script of being written off by fans. As such, Brunson will not enter this headliner as the favorite, the fifth consecutive bout that has not seen him favored. The fight IQ for the Sanford MMA stalwart has risen greatly in recent years, no longer recklessly charging into the fray with his hands down and his chin up. If Darren Till expects that version of Brunson, he will be in for a rude awakening.
A three-time NCAA All-American wrestler at the Division II level, Brunson seems to have remembered this skill set since relocating to Sanford MMA. On this winning streak, Brunson has averaged four takedowns a fight, with significant control time in each. Till’s takedown defense is not nearly as porous as Brunson’s last opponent, Kevin Holland, but he is not flawless about staying on his feet. Even Donald Cerrone and Jorge Masvidal—neither known for prolific takedown prowess—were able to ground Till in their meetings with him. A focused Brunson who forces “The Gorilla” to take a back step, fight off takedowns and survive grueling exchanges in the clinch is someone that will ruin Till’s night.
Till has often relied on a size advantage against his adversaries. A former welterweight who once clocked in at 176 pounds, he moved back to middleweight after starting his career at 9-0 against subpar competition at 185 pounds. Those nine opponents combined for a trifling record of 6-8, so little can be gleaned from that initial run. His split decision over Kelvin Gastelum has not aged particularly well in lieu of Gastelum’s slide, and Robert Whittaker was a step ahead of him the whole bout. Neither Gastelum nor Whittaker are particularly large middleweights, and Till was able to shove Gastelum around for a good part of their match. Against Brunson, he will be staring across the cage from a man his size for the first time possibly in his career; he will be shorter, hold a lesser reach and likely weigh a similar amount on fight night.
The line on this tilt reaching the scorecards is a palatable +160, especially given the recent track records of these two men. Pairing that with who you expect to win this matchup—Till is favored at -165 in case you see this main event as his coming-out party—is a solid play to maximize value. It might be a slow, grinding affair as the two try to outmuscle each other, but Brunson simply has more tools in his arsenal than his opponent. The Scouser maintains a fairly low-volume approach, relying on his chin and heavy hands to get him through the worst of situations. It might not be the first, second or even third attempt, but once Brunson gets the fight to the mat, Till is going to wish he were someplace else. Had this clash taken place in London in front of partisan fans, Till may have siphoned off their energy and added an intangible to the mix, but in a straight strength-for-strength contest, Brunson should win.
Alex Morono (-130)
In the UFC welterweight division, several tiers of competitor range on the vast roster. The bottom consists of those who may have fought several times but have failed to break out from the pack: Jared Gooden, Jason Witt or Matthew Semelsberger, for example. Next is a crop of reliable action fighters who may be hovering around .500 inside the Octagon. They consistently put on action performances against one another—the Niko Prices, Randy Browns and Alex Oliveiras of the world. Moving up the ladder, fringe contenders emerge, with athletes like Muslim Salikhov or Daniel Rodriguez trying to separate themselves from their peers. Above them, top-ranked fighters reside, and then the elite of the division sit atop the 170-pound pantheon. It is arguably more difficult at welterweight than most other categories to move up the pecking order, and it usually takes a win against one in the crop above to advance. Morono has successfully risen to the reliable battler spot thanks to bouts against fellow action fighters like Cerrone, Kalinn Williams and Anthony Pettis. Against David Zawada, he steps in on short notice but fights down a grouping; and he will be looking to hold that action fighter line.
Zawada came over from KSW with momentum behind him, but he quickly dropped to 0-2 with defeats to Danny Roberts and Jingliang Li. Although he snared Abubakar Nurmagomedov with an early triangle choke, he fell short to Ramazan Emeev and lost most of his momentum. The German would like nothing more than to stand in the center of the cage and bang while using his muay Thai skills, and Morono will gladly oblige him. Should things get choppy, Morono’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt represents a fallback plan to get the fight to the ground and run game there. Unless Morono gets caught early—Zawada by TKO/KO is +535—he should be able to take over quickly and drag his counterpart to deep water.
Luigi Vendramini (+135)
It remains to be seen where Brazil’s Vendramini will stand in the lightweight division, as he exists somewhere above Jessin Ayari and barely below Fares Ziam in its order. A one-off appearance up a division against the eternally underrated Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos does not factor nearly as much into this lightweight affair, especially since Paddy Pimblett would be more likely to fly at him with a submission attempt than a strike. One way or another, the Brit will want to get this fight down to the mat—a place that he should not go lightly. Vendramini’s ground skills are not to be slept on, and he can slap on an anaconda choke in an instant.
Pimblett comes into his first UFC appearance with a solid amount of momentum and a voracious fanbase that views him as a future champion. His skills have been on display under the Cage Warriors Fighting Championship banner for some time now, with finishes in each of his three wins at 155 pounds. “The Baddy” started his career at bantamweight, while Vendramini drifted up to the 170-pound window not long ago, which should indicate the latter presents a strength advantage. Attacking right out of the gate, pressuring Pimblett with takedown tries and pushing through the Brit’s inevitable adrenaline dump will work wonders for him. “The Italian Stallion” celebrates a 100% finish rate, and he could maintain that should he win with style points. However, as an underdog already, his upset on the moneyline is worthwhile as it stands.
Jack Shore Wins Inside Distance (+110)
Originally booked against Said Nurmagomedov and then Zviad Lazishvili, Shore now takes on Liudvik Sholinian on just over a week’s notice. The Ukrainian comes in following his appearance on “The Ultimate Fighter 29,” where he fell short in the semifinals to eventual tournament winner Ricky Turcios. His wrestling got the job done against Mitch Raposo, but he was unable to match Turcios’ volume and lost on the scorecards as a result. In this bantamweight prelim, Shore will not only be able to match Sholinian on the ground, but he will overcome him and finish the fight before the final bell.
A proud Welshman, Shore holds an undefeated record of 14-0 for a reason. It includes an 86% finish rate against some solid competition on the Cage Warriors circuit before being tapped to the UFC in 2019. Rattling off a pair of chokeouts did nothing but increase his stock, although a tough decision over Hunter Azure slowed his meteoric rise for the time being. Shore has the striking ability to put away his opponent standing and can just as easily reverse a position to secure a speedy back take before he goes hunting for the neck. He might need the good part of three rounds to do so, but before the judges get involved, Shore will put a stamp on this fight as Sholinian fades.