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It’s officially fall, so pop that pumpkin imperial ale and get ready for two title fights at UFC 266 — and potentially a Nick Diaz sighting.
Heavyweights: Curtis Blaydes (-300) vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik (+ 250)
It doesn’t get more “striker vs. grappler” than this top-10 heavyweight pairing on the main card in Las Vegas. The No. 4-ranked Blaydes wrestles early and often, while the No. 6-ranked Rozenstruik has yet to even attempt a takedown in his UFC career, let alone land one. The stats confirm their stylistic backgrounds. Blaydes, a decorated wrestler, has spent 45 percent of his octagon time on the mat dominating opponents. Rozenstruik, with a lengthy kickboxing career, has finished nearly every one of his MMA wins by strikes and avoids the ground at all costs.
We’ll learn a lot in the first few minutes of the fight when Blaydes mounts his wrestling offense. It’s either Rozenstruik by TKO or Blaydes by decision or a late finish. The correlated outcomes make prop-hunting this matchup more profitable.
Historically, we favor the wrestler in matchups such as these, but the Over 1.5 rounds presents an interesting opportunity to back the wrestler at a far more reasonable price while also protecting against a surprise underdog haymaker in the later rounds. The numbers like Blaydes to wrestle his way to victory. To do so, he’ll need to close the distance and weather the precise, powerful strikes of Rozenstruik at the start of each round. Expect him to clinch first to set up his takedowns.
Moneyline play on Blaydes, and mix him with Valentina Shevchenko for a better return. Over 1.5 rounds. Depending on how big you go, a tiny hedge on Rozenstruik by TKO or in Round 1 will offer long odds.
Co-main event: Valentina Shevchenko (-1200) vs. Lauren Murphy (+ 800)
When you see a 10-1 champion favorite or more in a title fight, the question usually boils down to whether the challenger offers some superlative threat that could lead to an upset. In this case, Murphy has cardio, well-rounded skills and tons of heart, even in defeat. But her stat line doesn’t offer a significant finishing threat.
In general, Shevchenko has advantages on the feet and on the ground, and she has five-round experience against elite opponents to keep her sharp. Ultimately, there’s no real path to victory for the challenger unless an injury alters the fight. That’s not something we can bank on.
Use Shevchenko in parlays, and consider the Over 1.5 rounds to trust Murphy puts up a good fight early.
Main event: Alexander Volkanovski (-165) vs. Brian Ortega (+ 130)
This title fight is the final matchup of the night and will be one of the most evenly matched. Volkanovski has the distance striking advantage, combined with competent wrestling. Though Ortega has an impressive highlight reel of submissions, he doesn’t use offensive wrestling especially well.
If Volkanovski fights to his strengths, we should expect him to dictate the location of the fight. He’ll get the better of the stand-up striking exchanges and should accumulate more damage scored through the rounds. Ortega hasn’t proven he can stand with the best strikers in MMA like the champ has.
Mild lean toward Volkanovski as long as his price stays reasonable. Over 2.5 rounds.
Bonus pick: Robbie Lawler (-115) vs. Nick Diaz (-105)
Both are likely past their peaks, but that could favor Diaz in their rematch. Lawler has taken a lot of damage in his time, while Diaz has been taking time off running triathlons. Diaz averages twice the striking output of Lawler, who has been hesitant looking for a big counter throughout his career.
Diaz can fight long with high-pressure striking and knows he’ll have a huge grappling advantage should the fight hit the ground. He also knows how to stay out of danger against elite opponents, assuming his ring rust doesn’t burn him. The stats might be stale after such a long layoff, but at even or underdog odds, Diaz seems the better play. Moneyline lean on Diaz.