The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday in Las Vegas will put on a tripleheader of title bouts in its final pay-per-view card of the year. We have identified some intriguing opportunities for all three championship matchups, a good underdog play and a parlay to end the year in style. Let us run the table in this UFC 245 edition of Prime Picks.
Kamaru Usman (-185)
Usman’s coronation as welterweight king could not have been more emphatic, as he dominated former champ Tyron Woodley over 25 minutes. By earning 10-8 scores in the fourth round, he became the first title challenger since 2012 to take a 10-8 over a defending champ. “The Nigerian Nightmare” only needed to secure two takedowns in an overwhelming display of force and racked up nearly 200 strikes to the body -- a UFC record -- over five rounds. Although less than half were considered significant strikes, he landed more than 50 total strikes each round, his output rarely waning as the bout pressed on. He will be facing an opponent in Colby Covington who also has put a pace on fighters lately.
In his own most recent performance, Covington hit 10 takedowns on Robbie Lawler, but in the process, he was unable to make anything from any of them. In fact, he landed zero ground strikes, did not attempt a single submission and failed to pass Lawler’s guard once. His ability to keep Lawler concerned with the threat of the takedown was enough to stifle the former champion’s feared striking, as Covington landed over 200 times in total on the feet. This could be a battle determined in part by the first fighter to gain a dominant position, as neither man likes to fight off his back.
“Chaos” is currently riding a seven-fight winning streak. In that span, he has landed 48 takedowns over 104 attempts (46 percent), with five of those bouts featuring at least 15 attempts. Covington will undoubtedly test the flawless takedown defense rate of Usman, who stifled Demian Maia in all 15 of his attempts and has never been put on his back in any of his 10 UFC outings. While Covington might manage to drag the fight down, whether he can do anything with it for long is entirely a different story. If one can impose his will and implement his game plan successfully, it could quickly demoralize his opponent. This exact situation happened between Usman and Woodley, as the disappointment and surprise of his inability to stop Usman’s attack was written all over Woodley’s face.
We expect that Usman will be able to gain the upper hand early and stay aggressive in all five rounds. If he forces Covington to defend himself and fight going backwards, all while not allowing the American to get comfortable, he can “bully the bully” and snap the outspoken challenger’s streak. Fighters can find themselves emotionally compromised after taking verbal abuse leading up to their bout, but Usman appears unfazed and has laughed off most of the insults—personal attacks or not. A calm, composed Usman will cause problems for Covington, even as oddsmakers expect this fight to go five full rounds (-250). If you agree and think Usman takes home a decision, that line currently resides at +105.
Max Holloway (-175)
The way Holloway has performed lately, he is going to land a minimum of 100 strikes on any given fighter. On nine separate occasions throughout his Octagon career, he has broken the century mark with significant strikes landed, including each of his last five appearances. This is the kind of offense that makes many fighters wilt, with his last four stoppages taking place after 14 minutes into each fight. While he may not possess knockout power in the traditional sense, a 48 percent career knockout rate—eight of those have taken place since 2014—demonstrates how he has developed tremendously as a striker.
A volume striker in his own right, Alexander Volkanovski has outlanded his opponents by wide margins throughout his UFC career, bullying Jose Aldo against the fence and landing on him consistently over three rounds in May to earn his title shot. Despite the fact that Holloway will hold a five-inch height advantage, it is Volkanovski who is two inches longer in the arms. Holloway fights long, following his jabs to set up relentless one-twos and lengthy combinations. If Volkanovski manages to land and, perhaps more importantly, sting Holloway, he can get something going. Dustin Poirier’s power surprised and temporarily hurt the “Blessed” Hawaiian but could not put him away, and Holloway was never out of that fight. Even though he was never able to officially drop Holloway or get close to a finish, “The Diamond” did rock him in the opening round and again in the second. Putting the power on Holloway gave Poirier the leg up to take a decision.
If Holloway had a weakness that could be exploited, he has historically been less successful off his back than when he is upright. All four of Holloways UFC losses have come against opponents who took him down at least once—although the Poirier rematch did not hinge on grappling—but his takedown defense has been shored up substantially over the years. Poirier attempted to plant Holloway on his back eight times but could only do so once and only for a brief moment, with a quick double-leg in the fourth round. Frankie Edgar tried to ground Holloway 15 times and managed to secure his only takedown in Round 3 after Holloway cracked him with an uppercut that knocked out his mouthpiece.
Perhaps more important than his ground game is the fact that while Holloway puts absurd striking numbers on his opponent, he is hittable. Aldo, Poirier and even Brian Ortega managed to connect and momentarily stun the Hawaiian, and if Volkanovski can share their successes and capitalize on it, he can do what others have not done at 145 pounds for many years. Going punch for punch with Holloway is a risky proposition, as he sports five-round cardio with an attack that ramps up as the fight progresses. A fluid striker who attacks when he sees openings, switches levels and stances and goes from the body to the head in the blink of an eye, Holloway can fight going forward or off his back foot. If the Aussie can crowd Holloway and not let him get into his rhythm, “Alexander The Great” could start capturing rounds. We do not see this happening for long, as Holloway should cruise to an exciting if relatively one-sided decision. Holloway Wins by Decision is roughly +140, so if you believe Holloway can take it in five rounds, this is the best option for you.
Amanda Nunes Wins Inside Distance (-150)
Nunes is currently a -310 favorite, which is a bit too high for our liking to pursue outside of a parlay. Instead, we should hone in to the likely option that Nunes will not only win but do so before the final bell sounds. The only fighter to survive Nunes’ assault in defeat is Valentina Shevchenko, who did so on two separate occasions. The list of names on Nunes’ resume cements her as one of the greatest ever, and that list also includes one Germaine de Randamie in 2013. In her first meeting with de Randamie, a far less seasoned Nunes pursued a single-leg takedown that transitioned into a successful double-leg in the early going. “Lioness” did not need much more than two minutes of full mount to smash the Dutchwoman with punches and elbows. We can see this kind of one-sided performance happening even quicker than before in the rematch.
Coming from a kickboxing background, de Randamie's weakness is—or was—her ground game, as Nunes showed when they faced one another in 2013. While Nunes has taken 10 fights since then, de Randamie has merely competed five times. Six years can certainly be enough time to transform a fighter’s game and adopt new skills, but “The Iron Lady” has zero interest in this fight hitting the canvas, top or bottom. De Randamie has never landed a single takedown in her UFC or Strikeforce career and has only attempted to do so on two occasions. Her best chance in this fight is at a long distance, where she can get off her kicks and take advantage of a slight two-inch reach advantage.
If Nunes bullies her as she is wont to do in recent outings, de Randamie will find herself in the danger zone quickly. If this fight goes to the ground, Nunes could impose her heavy top attack and force de Randamie to twist around and give up her back. The suggestion of Nunes winning inside the distance allows for the potential of a submission—the only kind of submission Nunes has ever landed in her career is a rear-naked choke—without breaking up the play. Otherwise, the line of Nunes Wins by TKO/KO at +105 is a solid plan for those who do not see the fight ending with a tap and instead see Nunes pummeling the Dutchwoman. Thirteen of Nunes’ 16 career stoppage victories have come in the opening frame, so if you choose to be even bolder, Nunes Wins in Round 1 is +200.
Irene Aldana (+155)
Aldana is a crisp technical boxer who lands over six significant strikes per minute—more than most fighters in the promotion, let alone those who populate the women’s divisions—so this bout will more than likely be determined by where it takes place. If most of the time sees the fight standing, Aldana should hold a significant advantage. If this bantamweight bout hits the cage floor, Ketlen Vieira will likely be winning. Aldana boasts an incredible takedown defense rate of 93 percent, as she has only been grounded twice after 31 attempts to force the rangy Mexican boxer the canvas.
Primed to be an unbeaten 135-pound title challenger in waiting, a knee injury in late 2018 kept Vieira on the shelf for over a year. This absence is a major intangible. Is she up to full strength? Will she be affected by the proverbial ring rust? Vieira, as she has done in past bouts, will likely look to utilize a grappling-heavy approach and, in this case, take her opponent’s best weapon—technical boxing—out of the equation. If Vieira can successfully neutralize her adversary, Vieira Wins by Decision is hovering around +105. We favor the opposite scenario, where Aldana can stave off takedown attempts and break away from the clinch to get her striking going and capture a hard-fought decision.
A Champion’s Accumulator
If you picked each of the champions—Usman (-185), Holloway (-175) and Nunes (-310)—to get their hands raised, a championship parlay or accumulator could be an option for savvy bettors. According to these current odds, taking a three-fight parlay on these bouts would roughly play at +220. This means that if you place $100 on this parlay, with the bet only paying out if all three fighters prevailed, you would end your night with $320 in total. Not all sportsbooks allow for bettors to add prop bets to their parlays, so therefore, selecting Nunes would be the recommended option rather than her winning by stoppage.
If you disagree that all three champs will retain their belts and want to take their opponent or avoid a matchup altogether, we can suggest a decent favorite like Geoff Neal (-250) to come out with a win. Neal has the power and patience to hurt Mike Perry, avoid the bombs coming his way and procure a stoppage—a knockout loss would be a first for Perry—or win at least two rounds handily. As a final note, if you include the fourth play of Aldana to this accumulator, the four-fight parlay would jump to about +716.
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