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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday forges ahead with an all-ESPN event that has undergone several changes before reaching the station. This lopsided UFC on ESPN 21 show sees only two betting favorites below -175, meaning the avenues for value are sparse but still available. Join us on this edition of Prime Picks as we review the lines for a rising star atop the card, the potential for a big upset, a possible torch-passing battle and a heavyweight slobberknocker that should not last long.
Kevin Holland (-175)
Could this be a trap fight for fast-rising Holland against de facto Top 5 gatekeeper Derek Brunson? Absolutely. Brunson has made a habit of playing spoiler to those not quite ready for the upper echelon of his division, turning away the likes of Uriah Hall, Edmen Shahbazyan and Ian Heinisch when they were all aiming for elite status. Brunson has transformed many times over the years, starting out as a man more than willing to embrace the grind before morphing into a face-first flamethrower who was clipped often by superior strikers. Facing Brunson is a sniper in Holland, who is one of the most accurate strikers in UFC history. This is Holland’s moment to shine, and as long as he does not get careless and wind up on his back or stuck against the cage for long periods of time, he should prevail.
This current iteration of Brunson is far more patient than before, and he appears to have dispelled the desire to crash headlong into punches while hoping to blow his opponent away with looping shots. No longer blowing out his gas tank by lobbing bombs and trying to slug out with superior strikers has worked wonders for the 37-year-old North Carolina native, who finds himself on his longest winning streak since 2016. Brunson has remained calm in the face of fire, brushing off the fast-charging Heinisch to turn the tables after he fatigued. Shahbazyan likewise came out firing, and although he won the first round, the tide changed fast once he started getting careless. Once Brunson took top position on a tiring Shahbazyan, it was all one-way traffic, as the Sanford MMA rep clobbered his then-undefeated opponent.
Holland does not present the same kind of reckless aggression for Brunson as the two aforementioned foes, instead sitting back and chipping away with quick punches and kicks to all targets. Holland is one of six fighters in company history to maintain a significant strike accuracy rate of over 60 percent, although this percentage is skewed by a smaller sample size of 10 bouts. Even so, putting 21 of 24 total strikes on a typically defensive Ronaldo Souza is further evidence that there is not a lot of wasted movement on the man UFC President Dana White affectionately nicknamed “Big Mouth.” His pinpoint precision and propensity for trash talk can frustrate Brunson into making mistakes, and this is where Holland can capitalize.
It is rare when a fighter has the ability to get into an opponent’s head with just pre-fight banter, but Holland has the ability to do so. Brunson found himself flustered with Israel Adesanya, and he charged at the now-champion like a bull, only to get his block knocked off. Whether “Trailblazer” talks about dreams he had involving fights, Brunson’s Sisqo-esque appearance or some other kind of taunt, he can get under his opponent’s skin in a meaningful way. Brunson, at 37, should be mature enough to dismiss the taunts of his adversary nearly 10 years his junior, but some people have a way of getting to you no matter how far you have come. If fighting is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, Holland may have sharpened his edges enough to have the overall advantages. With that said, the Texan is far from indestructible, and Brunson’s power is the kind that changes the course of the fight. If you believe that the Strikeforce veteran should not be counted out, his comeback line of +155 is completely reasonable.
Montserrat Ruiz (+280)
Cheyanne Buys drew a difficult assignment in her promotional debut, as the darling of Season 4 of Dana White’s Contender Series was matched against Invicta Fighting Championships export Kay Hansen. Although Hansen withdrew with an injury, Buys now faces another tough ex-Invicta talent in Ruiz. The value in this matchup is clear: Buys, a young prospect still learning as she enters her seventh pro bout, should not likely be an overwhelming -340 betting favorite. The odds should be far closer, making this strawweight selection a prime pick.
Mexico’s Ruiz cruised through lower-level competition to secure a shiny record of 8-0 with a few choice finishes, although only two of those eight opponents had a winning record when she faced them. When making her Invicta debut, she had the misfortune of taking on ex-UFC name Danielle Taylor and found herself unable to secure any takedowns of note. Her takedown game was her most precious element, and Taylor stymied her to eject Ruiz from the ranks of the unbeaten. A fortuitous stylistic matchup against Janaisa Morandin—another woman whose once-impressive record fell apart once she faced legitimate competition—allowed Ruiz to hit a head-and-arm toss to set up a scarf hold armlock. Count on Ruiz spamming takedowns for as long as her energy holds up, as she took this fight on short notice.
Buys is still a bit of an unknown commodity, and the way she carried herself through DWCS puts her stock higher than it might otherwise deserve to be. A UFC newcomer going against an opponent with a dangerous but potentially one-sided skillset is some cause for alarm. Even if Buys manages to stuff the takedowns like Taylor did, she might give up control time while Ruiz presses her into the cage. “The Warrior Princess” has some skills on the feet, and she teed off on Hilarie Rose in her audition tape for the UFC while Rose whiffed on every takedown attempt. Keeping the fight at a distance and not letting Ruiz get her hands on her for long will be to her benefit. Even if Buys does pull off the win, there is substantial value on Ruiz as the upset pick.
Macy Chiasson (-210)
Chiasson—a potential featherweight title contender before realizing she could move to bantamweight and retain her power advantage—will meet the oldest active fighter on the roster. Marion Reneau, a sneakily effective and strong fighter in her own right, will find herself at a significant disadvantage against a Fortis MMA prospect who enjoys ragdolling opponents. Every fighter reaches that cliff where no amount of athleticism and conditioning can overcome Father Time, and Reneau appears to have hit that point; she has dropped her last three fights by relatively one-sided results. Chiasson, who could be an even greater favorite when comparing her skillset and power to that of her opponent, is still a suitable option at just above 2-to-1.
Reneau’s ability to succeed has largely come from penchant for snatching wins out of nowhere. Sara McMann likely took a 10-8 first round over her when they met in 2018, only for Reneau to snag a triangle choke and force the former Olympian to tap out. Talita Bernardo was at least keeping up with Reneau until “The Belizean Bruiser” got the finish with six seconds left in their match. When facing strong, faster opposition like Cat Zingano, Yana Kunitskaya or Raquel Pennington, Reneau found herself outgunned in a bad way. Unless Chiasson gets careless towards the end of the fight and gets caught with something while she scores takedowns or pins Reneau into the wire, the 43-year-old Californian may not have much more to offer at this point.
Chiasson found herself in some danger when Sarah Moras hit an early takedown and even took mount for a time, but she gathered herself in the next round to pound “Cheesecake” out. Lina Lansberg outlasted the featherweight victor of Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” even giving up the first round so that she could turn the tables and embrace the grind in the clinch. Chiasson showed in this fight that she has the ability to get stalled out and frustrated, and Reneau could look to do that early to take some of the sting out of the Louisianan’s attack. Chiasson’s dominant rebound performance against the outmatched Shanna Young could get re-created on the canvas once Reneau runs out of options, finding out she cannot snare Chiasson with a triangle off her back or catch her chin hanging out in the breeze. In this battle of youth versus experience, youth should prevail handily.
Tai Tuivasa-Harry Hunsucker Goes Less Than 1.5 Rounds (-205)
A few days ago, Tuivasa was staring down a matchup with Don'Tale Mayes in order to rise out of the basement of the heavyweight division and aim for a ranked spot once more. Instead, the Australian brawler now draws Hunsucker, a man who has only prevailed in the state of Kentucky. “The Hurricane” attempted to reach the UFC through DWCS, only to get flattened and pounded out by Jared Vanderaa. Tuivasa, who takes on a man that welcomes a brawl, should have the heavier hands and can get the job done early.
Hunsucker did not need long to get his call to the UFC even after a quick loss on DWCS, smashing up now .500 Cory Moon in 45 seconds to earn the short-notice callup. “The Hurricane” is a fair nickname for the burly heavyweight, who uses reckless forward momentum to rain down a storm of strikes as he surges towards his opponent. Although he has hit takedowns and landed multiple submissions in his career, they are primarily of the brute-force nature and the kind that his opponent can counter with his own strength. This whirlwind of all-offense makes it completely unsurprising that Hunsucker has never before competed beyond the 3:56 mark as a pro, as he can walk face-first into strikes as he wings them. Two of his first three defeats did come early to men that forced him to tap to strikes, including Tuivasa’s former opponent Mayes.
This is the perfect style matchup for Tuivasa, whose chin has held up against everything but the tail-end of Junior dos Santos’ stretch at the top. Tuivasa busted up dos Santos through the course of the fight, damaging the former champ with a nasty leg kick, as well. If not for two “Cigano” punches that caught him square on the chin, he may have pulled off a win. Two men each not far from the 265-pound mark will come to blows in the cage, and after a wild flurry of feet, fists and maybe even flying knees, the winner will get his hand raised likely before the end of Round 1. Tuivasa has the track record and the substantially greater level of competition to prove he is up to the task against a fellow brawler, and he should finish this fight with strikes.