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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday rolls on with an event that has featured a revolving-door headliner. Most of the bouts throughout the night see one favorite at -200 or higher, but there is still room to roam if you play your cards right. Join us for a pair of top-billed underdogs who are worth a look, an underrated grappler on the prelims and a slugfest that has the makings of a quick start to the festivities. This is the UFC on ESPN 19 edition of Prime Picks.
Jack Hermansson (+120)
Hermansson was considered a betting favorite during the brief time lines were open for his match with Darren Till, and he was even more substantially favored against Kevin Holland. Now on his third announced opponent, “The Joker” is perhaps unexpectedly an underdog for this short-notice replacement. Marvin Vettori was initially booked against Ronaldo Souza at UFC 256, but when Holland tested positive for COVID-19, the Ultimate Fighting Championship rejiggered the lineup to pit Hermansson against Vettori and Holland against Souza. This short-notice switch should play to Hermansson’s advantage, even if this is the third substantially different opponent for which he has had to prepare.
Both men officially share exactly six submission attempts in their respective UFC tenures, but the three men Hermansson has tapped are leagues above the two that Vettori submitted. Perhaps the most important submission attempt in Hermansson’s career—one that was ultimately unsuccessful—was the guillotine choke he locked up tight against Souza. The choke would have finished lesser grapplers, and Hermansson went after it with such aplomb that it surprised most watching. The heel hook Hermansson landed on Kelvin Gastelum in July displayed a similar kind of bold confidence, surprising the talented grappler and eliciting a tap in less than 80 seconds. The Swede rides strong momentum into this bout.
Hermansson is not immune to submissions, and his chin could be a liability against power punchers. Cezar Ferreira bullied him to the ground and squeezed an arm-triangle choke; and he landed a takedown on Jason Butcher, only to surrender to a triangle choke years ago. Additionally, Jared Cannonier and Thiago Santos detonated bombs on his chin to scramble his circuits. While his chin could be a liability, it is not one that should put him at a great disadvantage in this bout. Vettori may be an active striker, but he has yet to net a knockdown with his standup, although the same can be said for Hermansson. If this stays on the feet for the majority of the bout, it could be a tossup and hinge on whether or not Hermansson can successfully utilize a three-inch reach and stay at the end of his jab.
Vettori has not shown himself to be that level of concussive striker who gives Hermansson pause, and he has not beaten top-flight competition to demonstrate that his submission chops can hold up atop the division. His knees are powerful, as he leveled Jack Mason with one in 2015, but he will not likely catch Hermansson standing still. While Vettori is a well-rounded fighter with a skill set often referred to as “meat and potatoes,” nothing he does stands out to give him a clear path to victory over five rounds.
This middleweight headliner has all the makings of a fun ground battle. All too often, two great grapplers square off and it turns into a less-than-thrilling kickboxing match, but these fighters throw caution to the wind and may dare one another to go for submissions. Vettori may still be riding the momentum of taking champion Israel Adesanya to a tough split decision, but a close fight in the past with a fantastic unbeaten fighter can only take you so far. Ask Gleison Tibau. In a bout that should see “The Joker” coming in as a mild to solid favorite, the underdog play on Hermansson looks too good to pass up.
Ovince St. Preux (+150)
“OSP” has feasted on young up-and-coming talent for years, and even if he may find himself relegated to the position of a Top 10 gatekeeper, this is not a poor place to be at light heavyweight. Every fighter to beat him in the last decade has at one time or another has been ranked among the Top 10 fighters in his respective division; even Ben Rothwell was a Top 5 talent at heavyweight not long ago. Some of the men to take him out have gained this ranking by beating him, while others achieved further greatness by using the win as a springboard. Jamahal Hill could be the next in a line of 205-pound fighters that have taken out St. Preux, but this is a radical step up in competition that sees “OSP” with a favorite underdog line.
Hill is unbeaten with seven wins, and his most recent performance—a battering of Klidson Abreu—was overturned to a no-contest when the Chicago native failed a drug test for marijuana. His six-month suspension having been completed, Hill spoke on UFC Virtual Media Day about his frustrations with the process. Regardless of the stance one takes on marijuana in MMA, a win getting stripped like this is unquestionably demoralizing. This could light a fire under the ferociously active striker, or it could add an unnecessary distraction coming into a very tough stylistic matchup for Hill.
“OSP” is showing few signs of slowing down even though he will be 38 in a few months, and his game has changed little over the years. Relying heavily on power and a diverse skill set that can take advantage of openings few others see, “OSP” already kept Michal Oleksiejczuk and Alonzo Menifield in check in recent memory at 205 pounds. His “Von Preux” choke is the stuff of legend at this point, as he scores a takedown, only to leave his neck exposed on purpose so that an opponent can futilely attempt a guillotine choke. It is statistically unusual to see a fighter land a single shoulder choke of this type, but St. Preux has nailed this maneuver a remarkable four times. Should Hill throw everything he has at St. Preux, gas out in the first round and get taken down in the second, a fourth instance is not entirely out of the question. Either way, this looks like a trap fight for an otherwise promising Hill, who, at 29 years of age, still has plenty of time to develop into a star.
Louis Smolka (-135)
This bantamweight pairing may hinge on Smolka’s ability or lack thereof to hit the 136-pound limit. He tried to do so in November, but came in at 139 pounds and later pulled out of the match on fight day due to illness. Some three weeks later, it is unclear if Smolka has fully recovered to be able to cut weight again so aggressively. This is a man who started his career at flyweight inside the Octagon and was bounced after four consecutive defeats. Three stoppages and a promise to move up in weight to avoid the brutal weight cuts that would leave him “pretty close to death” brought about his return to the Octagon. Should Smolka miss weight again, it is not even a guarantee that the fight will go on at all. It is a cautious bet but one that should be buoyed by Smolka’s grappling prowess against a fighter who is not averse to going to the ground.
Jose Alberto Quinonez’s UFC record may stand out on paper given that he has notched five wins in his last seven appearances, but upon further scrutiny, it may look less impressive. The five men he defeated post a combined UFC record of just 5-13-1, and all five appear to have departed the UFC roster. By himself, Smolka has beaten more opponents inside the Octagon than all five of those men. Quinonez made his start by dropping his promotional debut in the “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” finale at UFC 180, and even though he put together a four-fight winning streak, no performance looked particularly spectacular or noteworthy to merit additional consideration. The two times “El Teco” met higher level competition, he was dispatched in fairly dominant fashion, as Nathaniel Wood tapped him with a rear-naked choke and Sean O'Malley lamped him with a head kick.
Smolka’s .500 UFC record belies his talent on the roster, with a 2018 armbar of Su Mudaerji looking even more impressive given the Chinese fighter’s recent success. The only times Smolka has been finished has been early in the first frame when both he and his opponent were dry, as Brandon Moreno, Matt Schnell and Casey Kenney all recorded first-round submissions against him. On the other side of the coin, “Da Last Samurai” has finished his opponent in each of his last seven victories, so Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision at +115 is a suitable option if one does not trust Smolka. Another trend that could make a bettor cautious is that Hawaiian fighters have fared poorly in the Octagon of late. However, Smolka can reverse this trend thanks to his grappling chops, which have put him in advantageous positions even when he winds up on his back.
Gian Villante-Jake Collier Doesn’t Go to Decision (-175)
This heavyweight rumble, between two men who recently decided to let the 266-pound weight limit be their guide, could either end with a quick knockout or transform into a tough slog. This line hopes for the former, as the punching power of these big men should carry with them even if their chins do not. Villante wandered up to 255 pounds in June, while ex-middleweight Collier may have had to cut weight to get down to the limit by coming in at 264 pounds. Even though their physiques may betray them, both sluggers still have tools to end this fight early and violently.
Collier is a major question mark by leaping up two weight classes in the span of a few fights, most recently getting chin-checked by Tom Aspinall in July. Collier started the fight aggressively and even fired off an early head kick, but his aggression got the better of him, as he walked into a knee and a deadly one-two that put him down for the count. Aspinall may be an outlier, as each of the British heavyweight’s nine wins have come within 95 seconds of the opening bell. Even so, “The Prototype” has charged headlong into danger more times than he should care to count throughout his seven-fight, six-year UFC career. This could work to his advantage if he catches a slow-starting Villante.
An ex-light heavyweight, Villante moved up a weight category due to a lack of places to train during the COVID-19 pandemic and also out of convenience. Aging fighters do not always like to have to cut weight, and Villante, at 35 and counting, should not have to do so any longer. Villante scored his first knockdown in years when he dropped Maurice Greene in the third round after both men were totally gassed. Were it not for an extremely unorthodox arm-triangle choke from his back, Greene might have been pounded out by the seemingly fresher Villante. In a heavyweight clash where the two combatants have been knocked out eight times in total, the tally very well may reach nine when the dust settles.