Best bets for UFC 266: Volkanovski vs. Ortega

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Favorites achieved a 10-2-1 result in last weekend’s UFC Las Vegas 37 event, making them an even 60 percent proposition in 2021 at 194-107-10.

Nate Maness, who closed + 175, produced .88 units — though he did not win via decision, which cost us a half-unit. My main event prediction of Anthony Smith was accurate, as he took care of Ryan Spann. Insight the Octagon’s 2021 profitability stands at 22-18 (+ 7.26 units), with an open parlay on Smith -165 awaiting fulfillment.

This week UFC 266 offers fight enthusiasts a loaded card stacked with interesting matchups and plenty of high-priced favorites. Let’s dig right in.

Alexander Volkanovski (-160) vs. Brian Ortega (+ 140)

Featherweight (145 pounds), main event

Ortega faced Max Holloway in 2018 for the featherweight championship. What was clear for all to witness was Ortega’s lack of fluid striking ability coupled with ineffective strike defense as Ortega stopped most of Holloway’s strikes with his face. Fans also saw his toughness and determination in the beatdown he absorbed.

Then in October 2020, Ortega took a fight with a master of striking in Chan Sung Jung, the “Korean Zombie.” The improved striking Ortega displayed in that bout along with his fluid defensive movement surprised MMA observers, as such dynamic improvement was unexpected. Clearly, Ortega had addressed his needs and had come back a more complete fighter.

Ortega’s forte lies in his mastery of BJJ. He is a first-degree black belt under Rener Gracie, yet what we witnessed after the long layoff was that Ortega went into the gym with new coaches and developed an effective striking component to his BJJ mastery.

Ortega arrives at this bout the younger, taller man, and though he’ll not have a reach advantage, his current form forces his consideration.

All fights begin on the feet, so while Ortega’s plan of action still calls for taking fights to the mat, he appears equipped to compete standing, especially with his height edge.

Eventually Ortega must compete with Volkanovski on the mat, but he’s more equipped now to strike with Volkanovski until he decides to attempt the takedown. Ortega’s path to victory lies in his ability to get Volkanovski to the mat.

Volkanovski was once a 200-plus-pound rugby player with legs as thick as tree trunks. Now he’s a 145-pound champion with explosion that emanates from his powerful legs and core.

Volkanovski has a pronounced wrestling base, a brown belt in BJJ and an effective Muay Thai striking arsenal complemented by some of the nimblest feet in the division. Those feet and his striking allowed him to beat former champion Holloway twice.

Volkanovski trains at New Zealand’s City Kickboxing, a gym whose fighters possess tremendous confidence and includes middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. However, because of COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, Volkanovski was unable to train there and managed to prepare for this bout with his coach and separate training partners.

Volkanovski’s striking comes from his athleticism, as he is power-based, diverse and unrelenting in his forward striking and kicking pressure. His wrestling is foundational to his fight arsenal, and if we see it, I believe it will be in the form of takedown defense as opposed to initiating tight contact. Also, Volkanovski’s stocky, compact physique — a man with almost no neck — coupled with his insane strength make him almost impossible to submit.

Ortega’s height and size could allow him to compete with Volkanovski on the feet until the champ earns his way inside the pocket to unleash a barrage of power hooks and crosses.

Ortega must not allow Volkanovski to gain close proximity to him when these men are upright. He must use movement to keep this fight at distance. If this bout hits the floor, as I believe Ortega needs it to, it is my experience that the wrestling-based fighter is usually at advantage. That said, the level of ability matters, and both have masterful levels of fight acumen, though they present it in different styles.

This fight must hit the floor for Ortega to display dominance, while Volkanovski is confident he can best Ortega standing from inside position as well control him with his wrestling from top position.

Both will arrive at the large cage at T-Mobile Arena with confidence and a little angst, as both coached the TUF last season and got to know each other pretty well. Some consideration in my prediction comes from what I learned watching the TUF series, especially the dealings between Volkanovski and Ortega’s teams and how each regarded them. Yes, that’s very intangible, but it’s input I cannot disregard.

Volkanovski -160

Total for this fight: 4.5 rounds. Over -135 (it opened 4.5 rounds. Over -170)

Valentina Shevchenko (-1500) vs. Lauren Murphy (+ 900)

Women’s flyweight (125 pounds), championship

Shevchenko is pound for pound the most dangerous women’s mixed martial artist of all time — and that includes Amanda Nunes. When they met, 125-pound champion Shevchenko had to compete in bantamweight Nunes’ 135-pound class. I contend that if you put those women in a cage at 130 pounds, Shevchenko would dominate Nunes.

But this fight features Shevchenko and Murphy.

Murphy is tough as a $3 steak and is durable, well-rounded and a perfect example of the mass of athletes in the women’s flyweight division who are classed together at talent levels well behind Shevchenko and Brazil’s Jessica Andrade.

Deliberate, plodding and relatively stationary in exchanges, Murphy is a grizzled, determined individual who has earned this opportunity through toughness and grit. The fact that she’s completely outclassed does not faze her, for she has deep belief and is used to playing the underdog.

Shevchenko is a bred fighting machine. She’s versed in every fighting dialect and is athletic, lightning-fast, precise with her leg and arm strikes and dominant with her wrestling and grappling.  

In no way, shape or form do I believe Murphy can compete with Shevchenko other than forcefully walking toward her, which happens to be the way Murphy fights. Murphy’s approach against Shevchenko, a deft counterstriker, is what exciting fights are made of, but this exciting fight is going to be one-sided and unfortunately violent.  

Total in this fight: 2.5 rounds. Under -110.

Pass for now.

Merab Dvalishvili (-230) vs. Marlon Moraes (+ 195)

Bantamweight (135 pounds)

Moraes is the sixth-ranked bantamweight facing the 11th-ranked fighter in the same division — yet Moraes is a + 195 underdog!

Moraes is a decorated mixed martial artist loaded with explosion, quickness, power and striking and kicking precision. What he struggles with is the ability to extend those traits past five minutes.

Dvalishvili is a potential champion. A dominant wrestler with unending cardio ability, Dvalishvili outhustles, outworks and outperforms opponents with his unrelenting wrestling and his ability to fight for 10 rounds, let alone three.

Dvalishvili needs to make sure he is evasive and out of range from Moraes early, when Moraes is his most explosive, precise and powerful. Dvalishvili will strive to earn his way inside his ferocious opponent to negate Moreas’ striking and smother the striker’s offense with takedowns and top control.

Dvalishvili must take this bout into the second round, where his pressure wrestling based on unending cardio will overwhelm a most capable mixed martial artist in Moraes.

Add this a second leg to last week’s Anthony Smith -165 parlay.

Dvalishvili -230/Smith -165 + 1.31

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