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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday carries on with a card that has been hamstrung with withdrawals and odd reasons for fights getting scratched. It brings together an event topped by two fights cobbled together on short notice, but it still has a great deal to offer from both action and financial perspectives. UFC on ESPN 24, which currently features no betting favorite above -250, sees some solid action in the headliner, an old vet that may finally get back on track and a pair of intriguing upset possibilities with decent style matchups.
Marina Rodriguez (-210)
In this unexpected flyweight headliner, both Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson find themselves thrust into a position of fighting up a weight class on short notice. Neither woman had a fight scheduled, and therefore neither of them will have that particular disadvantage relative to their opponent. When it comes to the bout itself, the UFC has elected to schedule it at flyweight instead of their standard strawweight class due to the short notice. This particular facet massively plays into the hands of the presumptive favorite Rodriguez, who was already expected to be larger than her opponent inside the Octagon. At a full-framed 125 pounds, likely having to cut weight to reach that number, as well, she may look a weight class larger than Waterson come fight night.
Despite that her nickname is “The Karate Hottie,” Waterson has excelled in large part through her UFC career not due to her striking but from her grappling. The Jackson-Wink MMA rep has triple the number of submissions compared to knockouts through her career, and she has not put an opponent away with her hands or feet since joining the promotion in 2015. On the other hand, she has tapped a few women out along the way, although she is currently riding a seven-fight decision streak, win or lose. When she has won—outside of a recent matchup with Angela Hill that a fair number of analysts believe she lost—she has done so by imposing her grappling on the likes of Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Cortney Casey. When she has lost, it has been because she has been bullied. Rodriguez is very much a bully in the fight sense.
The Brazilian’s kryptonite to date has been her wrestling defense, although she has only lost once—to Carla Esparza. The former champ performed at her suffocating best, dumping Rodriguez on her back multiple times and not letting the heavier-handed striker get off. Waterson could play this foil, but her offensive grappling is not likely at that level to be able to outmuscle a powerful, well-hydrated Rodriguez for long periods of time. Cardio can play to Waterson’s advantage, but Rodriguez’s striking power is not to be ignored. Waterson can tend to stay in the clinch for extended periods of time, like when she met Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and this is dangerous territory for her. Rodriguez put Amanda Ribas away with a stunning elbow and several big punches her last time out, and Waterson may be surprised at just how hard the once-beaten Rodriguez hits.
Unless Waterson can embrace the grind for 25 full minutes, there is little margin for error against a much more powerful Rodriguez. It may be a safe play to bring in Fight Goes to Decision at -205 as a parlay option, as it would be surprising from both a results and betting perspective if she pounds out Waterson. If Waterson does win, it will also likely be on the scorecards.
Donald Cerrone (-190)
The line may be somewhat surprising that Cerrone is nearly a 2-to-1 favorite against a short-notice replacement in Alex Morono, as “Cowboy” is on a five-fight stretch without a win. His last appearance was a potentially hopeful one for faithful fans, as he went toe-to-toe with the hard-charging Niko Price and came out with a draw. If not for a pair of eye pokes in the first round, Cerrone was on his way to losing the decision, and it is impossible to tell how well Cerrone would have performed had his eyes not been probed repeatedly. Cerrone fares best when he gets into his own rhythm and worst when an adversary charges at him and pressures him. Although Morono can play the bull to Cerrone’s matador, the short-notice nature of this co-headliner should favor “Cowboy” by a wider margin than the lines indicate.
Morono had a chance to break through into the upper echelon of the division against Anthony Pettis in December, but a solid first round led to two subsequent rounds in which he was outstruck and outgrappled. “The Great White” did surprise Pettis by taking the ex-champ’s back early on after “Showtime” whiffed on a spinning strike. Pettis rode out the round, gathered himself and put the screws to him. The Houston native is a fundamentally sound fighter with a variety of ways to win a fight, but his well-rounded skillset might fall short to either the still-sharp kickboxing of Cerrone or the underrated ground game. Morono’s best chance of success is to come out like his hair is on fire and try to put his man away quickly, but this is a huge risk because his potentially hindered gas tank will run out fast. This is a bounce-back opportunity for Cerrone, who should show the UFC that he is not quite finished yet. As long as his line remains under the -200 mark, he is worth placing money on.
Maurice Greene (+165)
It is striker-versus-grappler in this heavyweight contest, as two big men far away from the rankings take a higher position on the billing than a pair of Top 15 lightweights. The reason for this might be because of the potential for something silly and/or violent to take place in this 500-pound-plus slobberknocker. In Greene, it is unclear whether he possesses specific knockout power of his own or if it is the result of his size, but he has been shown to crack. On the other hand, his chin is rapidly becoming a liability, and he should look to put the much shorter Marcos Rogerio de Lima on his back and take away the Brazilian’s power punches.
When strikers take on grapplers, the grapplers can largely succeed by being able to put the fight where they want it, whether that means in the clinch or on the canvas. Strikers largely need to keep the battle upright in order to get off their shots. Rogerio de Lima does have the kind of shocking power that can put you away in a flurry, and that power translated well from light heavyweight to a large-framed heavyweight. His submission defense is an extreme liability, as all five of his UFC defeats have come by submission within two rounds. Greene should exploit that by wading forward, pressing Rogerio de Lima into the clinch and dragging him down any way he can. If there is a potential for a bust in this play, it is the intangible that “Pezao” has alternated wins and losses in his last nine bouts, and he is due for a win following that pattern. Otherwise, this pairing is tailor-made for Green to record a stoppage win—this line is +280, should one be expecting he gets the job done inside the distance—and allow “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 28 standout to remain on the roster.
Diego Ferreira (+155)
In his run up the lightweight division, Ferreira has feasted on several different types of opponents to amass a six-fight winning streak, as he has beaten grapplers and strikers at their own games. It is easy to write Gregor Gillespie off as a ground specialist thanks to his litany of wrestling credentials, and it has been largely forgotten that “The Gift” has scored multiple knockdowns in his UFC career. There is no question that Gillespie’s striking can be opened up thanks to the takedown or simply the threat of the takedown, and he would vastly prefer to be on top raining down blows and fishing for his preferred arm-triangle choke. When he is not able to get the fight to the ground against a better striker like Kevin Lee, he finds himself like a fish out of water. He found flashes of success against “The Motown Phenom” until he was put down by a booming head kick. Ferreira may not possess that one-shot power, but he can fight off takedowns and make Gillespie pay for every attempt.
Even though Beneil Dariush took Ferreira down at will, he was able to do so not just because of pure grappling but by setting up shots with powerful punches and forcing him to play the scramble game. For as effective as Gillespie is at pure wrestling, his setups have worked for lesser opponents but may not be as effective against the battle-tested Ferreira. There is a real possibility that Gillespie spams takedowns and grinds for 15 minutes, but Ferreira holds an impressive ability to threaten no matter where the fight takes place. It remains anyone’s guess how a fighter comes back after his first loss, let alone being on the receiving end of a highlight-reel finish. This factor, coupled with a layoff of over 18 months, will play to Ferreira’s advantage. Should Ferreira get complacent against the fence wall or on his back, it will be a long night for him. His work against sambo specialist and vaunted grappler Rustam Khabilov can be a blueprint for how to fight off bad positions to get his hand raised.