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There is not much to say about the 10-fight Ultimate Fighting Championship offering on Saturday in Las Vegas, with just four ranked fighters among the 20 competitors booked for UFC Fight Night 194. No betting favorite is any lower than -160 at the moment, with wide lines on the display. A surprising underdog in the headliner, a flyweight tilt destined to reach the scorecards and a pair of rightful favorites round out this edition of Prime Picks.
Marina Rodriguez (+147)
It can be argued that Rodriguez has faced the toughest grapplers the strawweight division has to offer during her current run, and she has arguably gotten out unscathed but for two judges siding against her in a matchup with Carla Esparza—one that many scorers, including all three official Sherdog judges, saw for the Brazilian. Her relative inactivity and occasional defensive deficiencies have led to her bouts going down to the wire, resulting in razor-close contests where she should get the edge despite being taken down frequently. Against Mackenzie Dern in this headliner, the 2021 version of Rodriguez should not be an underdog, and as long as she stays off the ground, it should be hers to win.
Dern’s takedown accuracy rate has been absolutely abysmal throughout her career, but she has more submission wins than successful takedowns due to how she fights. Like many of the best grapplers to grace the cage—Demian Maia comes to mind—the offensive wrestling Dern needs to drag the fight to the canvas is sorely lacking. Oftentimes, she will charge face-first into an entry or possibly throw a looping overhand right and change levels, only to tie up with her opponent. This allows her to pull guard or, on occasion, force a scramble and fall into top control or sweep her way there. Above all, Dern has to get the fight down at all costs, because the striking skills are so far in her opponent’s favor that she should not try to test out her hands.
Rodriguez comes in as one of the most accurate strikers in her division, landing a hair under 50% of her significant strikes. Her muay Thai skills were on full display, as she pieced up Michelle Waterson in all but one round in their May headliner. Rodriguez’s volume is also not to be questioned, as she has put up over 100 significant strikes on more than one occasion since debuting with the UFC in 2018. Mixing up her offense, wrecking Dern’s legs with kicks and working the body will pay dividends if she invests early.
Typically, striker-versus-grappler bouts will favor the grapplers, as they can get the fight to any position they like. However, in this context, the submission specialist may be a savant when it comes to snatching a limb, but getting her opponent into that bad spot is one where she can struggle. A prospective submission loss for Rodriguez would be her first, and the 34-year-old has shown she can make opponents pay for trying to grapple with her. Ask Amanda Ribas. Look for Rodriguez to stick and move, marking Dern up on the feet and staying at a safe distance as she cruises to either a one-sided decision or a late knockout as the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace fades. As Rodriguez is already the underdog, any line on her getting the knockout (+300) or winning on the scorecards (+380) may present a little too much risk compared to the plus money she holds for simply prevailing.
Matheus Nicolau-Tim Elliott Goes to Decision (-190)
It remains to be seen if Elliott has put the pieces together at Glory MMA, as the former flyweight title challenger rides his first UFC winning streak since 2013 into this matchup. A wild scrambler who could sometimes put himself in danger only to squirm out of bad spots, his approach has worked against him more often than not; his 6-9 record in the UFC record stands as a testament to that. His cardio can be used as a weapon, as he rarely runs out of gas while trying to impose his self-described awkward game of chain wrestling. While Elliott may or may not be able to ground his opponent, he will certainly try frequently.
During Nicolau’s five-fight UFC career that covers two stints with the organization, only three attempts to get the Brazilian down have occurred, and he has stopped them all. On the other hand, Nicolau has put multiple adversaries on their back for extended periods of time, and some of that has come from remarkable hand speed. Of note, he dropped Louis Smolka three times in their 2017 meeting and also knocked down Bruno Mesquita more than once. Elliott, thanks in part to his herky-jerky movement and in-your-face approach, has never before been put down with strikes, and Nicolau does not appear to be the one to do it. This could be a fast-paced scramble-filled affair as both men seek to claim top position. As it continues, Elliott might need to watch out for the Japanese necktie setups, but he can ride out the roughest patches as the flyweight battle reaches the final bell.
Sabina Mazo (-175)
One single tapout of Hannah Cifers, a woman on a two-fight stoppage skid coming into their fight, installed Mariya Agapova as nearly an incredible 14-to-1 favorite against Shana Dobson in August 2020. Although she battered Dobson in the opening frame, her cardio betrayed her to a shocking level, as she could barely stand under her own power. Dobson sprang the monumental comeback and the biggest betting upset in company history with +900 odds. Whether it put a hard ceiling on her talent—Agapova could beat the likes of Alexa Conners and Marilia Santos on the Invicta Fighting Championships stage—or was simply an all-time blunder remains to be seen. Both women are coming off deflating losses, with Mazo simply getting outfoxed by wily veteran Alexis Davis in February. Less than two weeks the elder of her opponent, Mazo has shown herself out more on the biggest stage, and her betting line as a moderate favorite is fair.
The “Colombian Queen” keeps a wildly high striking pace, outlanding her opponent in terms of significant strikes by a good clip in all of her UFC fights, win or lose. Content to touch her opponent instead of winding up on kill shots, Mazo spams leg kicks and is confident in her abilities to go to the body regularly. Strikes to the lower half of Agapova’s body will work highly to her benefit, as she hopes to catch the rampaging Kazakh coming in while disrupting heavy blows. Mazo can whip a head kick up in the blink of an eye, and she could surprise Agapova with these strikes. Unless Agapova has vastly upgraded her energy gauge during her lengthy layoff, she will absorb enough shots to slow her down, all while Mazo can keep her foot on the gas for 15 minutes. Barring an early finish—Agapova Wins in Round 1 is a sharp +850 as an alternative—Mazo has more tools and technical capabilities to outlast the American Top Team rep and pull out a win.
Alexander Romanov Wins Inside Distance (-230)
Earlier in the analysis for this card, the conventional wisdom of a grappler holding the inherent advantage against a striker came up, but that particular submission artist did not hold the chops to control the fight like a wrestler. In this classic heavyweight battle, Romanov, the Moldovan freestyle wrestling stud, can put the fight anywhere he wants by simply lifting his opponent in the air and placing him down on the mat. The 30-year-old comfortably hits multiple suplexes in major MMA appearances, and he faces a man in Jared Vanderaa who fell victim to a fellow Moldovan due to an overwhelming top game. Even though Romanov is a 6-to-1 favorite with the high odds to get the finish, it is still worth a play.
Vanderaa and his opponent will both tip the scales right near the heavyweight limit, and the cage walls and floor will be tested once Romanov presses the action. The American will have to be on his bike, utilizing his five-inch reach advantage to the fullest by sticking a jab in Romanov’s face to fluster him. Romanov’s chin has yet to truly be tested, and Vanderaa can crack, but undefeated Moldovan’s desperation takedowns are nearly as effective as the ones he sets up normally. If this clash of the titans—“King Kong” vs. “Man Mountain”—hits the ground just once, Romanov has a big-man submission approach, using his full body weight to keep his opponent down while applying that heft to techniques like forearm chokes. Whether due to clubbing strikes or from a tapout—or if a surviving Vanderaa does not realize he is in danger until he goes out—Romanov should move comfortably to 4-0 inside the Octagon as he looks towards the higher echelon of the division.