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The Ultimate Fighting Championship starts off its 2021 campaign in style with its first foray on the ABC network this Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Returning to “Fight Island,” the promotion has stacked the year-opening show with a main card full of prospective “Fight of the Night” candidates and close matches. UFC on ABC 1, which sees no favorite at -300 or above, features a litany of solid betting options should one play his or her cards right. Check out a trio of options on the main card for this edition of Prime Picks.
Max Holloway (-150)
The UFC is not messing around with this main event, as it attempts to welcome new fans who stumble upon its ABC programming on Saturday afternoon. A striker’s delight will greet them in the headliner, as the volume and pace of Holloway matches the power and quick hands of Calvin Kattar. This bout could look a lot like Holloway’s clash with Dustin Poirier in 2019. While Holloway is on a rare losing streak—he still has an argument to be featherweight champion—and has dropped three of four, the two men to defeat him are pound-for-pound talents Alexander Volkanovski and the aforementioned Poirier. In getting back to his overwhelming ways where he takes opponents into the proverbial deep waters and drowns them, Holloway can overtake Kattar by forcing the Boston native to fight off his back foot for long stretches.
What makes this matchup especially interesting is that these two fighters display excellent fight IQs, and they actively learn and improve as their fights progress. Look to Holloway’s systematic destruction of Brian Ortega or Kattar’s third-round performance against Zabit Magomedsharipov for examples of how the two have previously figured out their opponents in the middle of a fight. This type of fight intelligence should allow for several changes in tide during this contest, which could prove to be competitive throughout. What will not change is Holloway’s pace, as he looks to make it eight consecutive bouts in which he has reached the century mark in significant strikes landed.
Holloway’s progression through a fight, not only as he learns and adapts to his opponent but as he picks up the pace, is a double-edged sword. “Blessed” can start slow and gain steam, and by the third round, he becomes a terrifying force of fists and feet. Holloway, who gives up three inches of reach against his Boston-based opponent, typically fights long and utilizes the jab better than most. The only men to beat Holloway have done so by matching or exceeding the Hawaiian’s volume, and Kattar has exceeded the 100 significant strike margin just once through his UFC tenure. He will have to rise to the occasion, or he will need to stun Holloway with his strikes on a regular basis.
In a bout likely contested exclusively on the feet for up to 25 minutes, Holloway could be the one to mix up things and change levels on a whim. This is a fighter who has landed just five takedowns in his UFC career—on six attempts—but it does not seem like a strategy on which Holloway will capitalize. On the other hand, Kattar has secured a single takedown since his promotional debut, and he managed to keep Dan Ige grounded for a few seconds before abandoning that strategy altogether. Neither has particularly struggled with staying grounded for long in the event an adversary brings them to the canvas. Unless a fighter scores a knockdown, neither fighter will likely have his back planted on the canvas for too long.
A suitable line to pair with a Holloway victory—or Kattar, if you believe “The Boston Finisher” can get the job done—is that the bout will go the full five rounds (-175). Holloway’s chin has stood up to mighty challenges in the past, and although he has absorbed a concerning amount of punishment from the other direction along the way, it should stay intact against Kattar. Similarly, while Holloway could theoretically notch a late stoppage towards the end of the third round or later as he gets in his groove, Kattar has displayed throughout his career that he can take a punch with the best of them.
Carlos Condit-Matt Brown Goes to Decision (+105)
A dream matchup many hardcore fans wished to see for years, this meeting of high-intensity welterweights may be considered “too little, too late” but still comes when both men have something to offer. Their styles match up well, and neither man backs down from a striker coming head-long into battle. Instead of selecting a winner—Condit may be the fresher of the two, even though he has won just once since 2016—the more suitable line is that this fight goes to the scorecards. This allows for a variety of strategies from these elite all-action athletes, while including the very real possibility that Brown implements a wrestling-first game plan to secure the victory.
It may be surprising that a vaunted ex-World Extreme Cagefighting 170-pound champ like Condit has fallen on such hard times since meeting Georges St. Pierre in 2012. He has won three times in his subsequent 11 appearances. When Condit has prevailed, it has been through his striking, not from his sneakily effective ground game. Condit, much like his opponent, can mix up strikes and chain together a combination that starts with a knee up the middle and somehow ends with a head kick at close range. Getting back in the win column in October, Condit outlanded Court McGee and even scored a knockdown in the waning seconds of the opening round, as he picked apart his fellow venerable colleague.
Against Brown, Condit will not likely find his opponent as willing to stay on the outside and allow him to snipe. Instead, Brown will look to close the distance, try to get off vicious knees and elbows and do some serious damage. Condit has never been knocked out in the traditional sense—Tyron Woodley chopped down his leg with kicks—and Brown would vastly prefer to play the headhunter role that has served him well over the years. While Condit could easily get the job done with a well-placed body kick to Brown’s historically damageable liver (Condit Wins by TKO/KO sits at +210), these two strikers should battle it out for three full rounds, and fans may very well be left wanting more when the dust clears.
Jingliang Li (+245)
The Santiago Ponzinibbio of old would win this fight and probably do so in devastating fashion, all while becoming the first fighter to ever stop the durable Li with strikes. This 2021 version of Ponzinibbio has a litany of questions to answer in his return to the sport, most of which involve his health following a seemingly never-ending layoff. With injuries, a potentially life-threatening staph infection and contracting COVID-19 along the way, it is anyone’s guess as to how his first appearance since 2018 will go. Unless completely depleted and having lost a step, “Gente Boa” should still win this fight given the style matchup Li provides. With the betting line as it stands, however, Ponzinibbio appears overvalued as the biggest favorite on the card at -290.
The promotion has developed a habit of feeding Li to opponents on lengthy winning streaks, only for him to turn the tide. Like Ponzinibbio, Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos rode a seven-fight winning streak into his 2019 bout with the Chinese fighter. A back-and-forth battle that developed into a late “Performance of the Night”-winning finish for Li resulted from the matchup. The chin of “The Leech” has withstood tremendous punishment over the years, but it has always held up when tested by stern strikers like Jake Matthews and the aforementioned Zaleski dos Santos. This could turn into a trap fight, although Li has transformed himself from a gritty grinder worthy of his nickname into a heavy-handed brawler who does not shy away from a slugfest. A fresh Ponzinibbio would feast on such an opponent.
Originally slated to take on Muslim Salikhov, Ponzinibbio saw an opponent change: COVID-19 knocked Salikhov out of the matchup and allowed Li to step in on short notice. While the Argentinian has not competed since November 2018, Li has competed on a trio of occasions, last losing to Neil Magny in March; his late 2020 pairing with Dwight Grant also fell through due to COVID-19. Even so, the “cage corrosion” for Ponzinibbio may be evident in the early going. These two will not likely disappoint as they stand in the pocket and trade, and Ponzinibbio may yet get his hand raised at the end. Even so, Li’s fair chance of victory, based on his power, durability—of the two welterweights, Ponzinibbio is the one who has had his chin checked on multiple occasions—and relative activity compared to his opponent, could be worth pursuing. Should you disagree, Ponzinibbio Wins by TKO/KO (+155) or Ponzinibbio Wins by Decision (+195) are worth checking out, depending on if you think he can stop “The Leech.”