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Fresh off its scintillating debut on the ABC network, the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Wednesday strikes while the iron is hot with an ESPN card that is lukewarm at best from a name standpoint. Cards derided often deliver greater relative to expectations, so don’t sleep on this lengthy UFC Fight Night fare. Unlike the bill a few days ago, this event brings several betting favorites well above three-to-one odds. Let us navigate these crowded waters with the UFC on ESPN 20 edition of Prime Picks, with a slight underdog in the headliner, a co-main event competitor who should run roughshod on his opponent and a fight that has all the makings of a 15-minute affair.
Michael Chiesa (+120)
This ESPN offering may not be what it once was, but the top-billed matchup between Top 10 welterweights still brings some back for its buck. Since moving up to 170 pounds in 2018, Chiesa has looked like a new fighter, even if he has competed just once per year since then. With an empowered takedown game in each of those bouts at his new weight class, “Maverick” has gone from a fringe contender to an actual threat in the division. Fifteen combined takedowns across those three bouts are nothing to sneeze at, especially when two of the three opponents, Rafael dos Anjos and Diego Sanchez, have wrestling chops of their own. Neil Magny is a talented striker with solid wrestling of his own, but like many wrestlers, he does not like fighting off of his back. Chiesa is just the fighter to put him there and take advantage of the position, all while hunting for submissions.
A bout pitting skilled grapplers against one another can oftentimes transform into an uncomfortable kickboxing match, or it can be an excursion where one showcases his superior skill level over his foe. When it comes to the ground game, where this fight will likely go to for a non-zero amount of time, Chiesa appears to have the edge. Even if Magny can ground “Maverick,” Chiesa can threaten off of his back with sweeps and submission attempts. It is no accident that the Washington native averages over one submission attempt every bout through his UFC career. Even if he does not manage to secure one, Chiesa is the type of submission specialist that will chain attempts together. Magny may be able to survive the first and even the second, but as the Sikjitsu fighter tightens his grip, he may find what he is looking for.
Magny’s best bet for victory lies with his greatest physical advantage: his reach, where he holds five inches over that of his opponent. Additionally, Chiesa’s striking tends to be a means to an end, punching his way into the clinch or closing the distance so he can grab hold of his opponent. Keeping away from the more active grappler will be key for Magny, who should look to stay at the end of his jab. The “Haitian Sensation” found his best weapon was his jab against another opponent who prefers up-close-and-personal battles in Jingliang Li in March, as he kept the Chinese grinder at bay by doubling and tripling up on it. Forcing Chiesa to backpedal and not close in on him would work wonders, all while not allowing him to set up a trip takedown by latching on to him like an Alabama tick.
This could be a two-outcome bout, where Chiesa manages to wrangle Magny to the ground or Magny stays upright and in kickboxing range to do some damage. Magny’s takedown defense will almost certainly be tested as this 25-minute pairing persists, so it will be up to him to keep his back away from the fence and, above all, off the canvas. With Chiesa as a minor underdog, a narrower play like Chiesa landing a submission (+350) or holding on to win a decision (+390) is not necessary; if compelled to raise the stakes, it seems more likely that Chiesa could snatch a submission and finish the fight. The line on Chiesa winning inside the distance at +255 is unnecessary, as “Maverick” has never finished an opponent with strikes, and Magny does not appear to be the kind of man to be pounded out on the ground.
Mounir Lazzez Wins by KO/TKO (+125)
The Warlley Alves that ran through Alan Jouban, Nordine Taleb and Colby Covington in just over a year would be a fairly significant favorite over Lazzez in the co-marquee billing. Instead, the 30-year-old Brazilian appears to have encountered his ceiling, relying almost exclusively on a power-first game with overaggressive winging fists and explosive moves that may not hold up as the bout progresses. He will be facing a relatively unknown in Lazzez, who surprised most by not only surviving everything Abdul Razak Alhassan threw at him but by landing more successfully and hitting several takedowns. “The Sniper” showed just how to take on a rampaging striker who barreled down on him, and Alves may try more of the same. As Lazzez is a big favorite at -230, the better money may be on a narrow prop bet that he will finish the fight with his strikes.
The Tunisian kickboxer displayed a well-rounded skill set as a sizeable underdog against Alhassan, with only a few noteworthy past performances on his ledger that showed what he was capable of. An 80 percent knockout rate, which does include a stoppage over recent UFC acquisition Sasha Palatnikov, comes from a diverse variety of strikes, including elbows, knees, head kicks and, of course, his accurate fists. With cardio to go three hard rounds if needed, “The Sniper” can counter takedown attempts with crisp knees and chain one strike into several, making him a very dangerous striker. Even though Alves has been put away just once in his career from a James Krause flying knee, on paper, Lazzez could be the most dangerous pure striker he has encountered to date.
While sometimes reckless, Alves can do some damage if he lands on his opponent. Just ask Sergio Moraes about the “Street Fighter”-esque uppercut he encountered in 2019. In addition to the bricks in his fists, Alves thrived partly because of his strong grip, with a wide majority of his career finishes coming from his guillotine choke. While the Brazilian was finished by Krause and Randy Brown, he was also largely nullified by Kamaru Usman and kept at bay thanks to the relentless assault from Round 3 Bryan Barberena. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line; Lazzez’s straight strikes and fast hands should prove more effective than a wild Alves. The line on the fight not going the distance is also tenable at -145, so that could be suitable option if you think that Alves could spring the upset and become the first man to stop the Tunisian.
Omari Akhmedov-Tom Breese Goes to Decision (-135)
This middleweight pairing matches gritty wrestler Akhmedov and grappler-turned-striker Breese. The classic battle between a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and an International Master of Sport in Sambo could prove to be a nullifying matchup when it comes to ground fighting. Akhmedov would much prefer to drag the fight down, where he can implement a heavy top game that has of late preferred position over submission and riding time over damage. This stylistic matchup could provide some grueling exchanges that shear minutes off the clock and leave the fight in the hands of the judges.
Breese started his career in the ranks of BAMMA and briefly Cage Warriors Fighting Championship, finishing all seven of his first foes to earn a spot on the UFC roster. All but one of those stoppage came by submission, but since joining the roster, he has notched four wins inside the distance, all by first-round knockout. Although Breese has only been put on his back a few times through his UFC tenure, he has never once landed a takedown of his own. Far and away the best ground specialist he has faced will be Akhmedov, and even though the Brit’s takedown defense has largely held up, long stretches could be spent fighting off double-legs that push him into the fence.
The lines between these two are fairly close, with bettors expecting that Breese (-160) should be able to pull out the win over Akhmedov (+140). A knock on Akhmedov that may give Breese the upper hand is that the Dagestani fighter fades later on in the fight; a couple of third-round losses and a miserable final frame against Chris Weidman recently illustrates his cardio issues. While it is possible that Akhmedov could control the first two rounds before gassing and getting clocked, the more reasonable outcome is that this match goes the full 15 minutes. “Wolverine” has gone the distance in each of his last seven bouts, and this fight with Breese should make it eight straight. If there were an alternative, an outcome to bust up this play, it would be that Breese Wins by TKO/KO (+254).