Best bets for UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Gastelum

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UFC Vegas 24 returns to an afternoon broadcast schedule Saturday. The prelims kick off at 4 p.m. PT, with the main card available on ESPN starting at 7 p.m. PT. As the dog days of summer near, it’s nice to know that the UFC is presenting three to four slates a month, making profit possible for the whole year. That’s something few other bettable sports boast.

Last week Mackenzie Dern did everything we thought she’d do. It was unusual for her to be in such a favorable pricing position, as bookmakers opened Nina Ansaroff as the pick against Dern. That seemed incorrect and proved to be exactly that. Crazier to me was the market reaction to the opening line — betting Ansaroff early, often and forcefully.

We won’t see such mispriced bouts too often, so it’s important to attack them when they do arise.

Insight the Octagon’s 2021 profitability: 9-5, + 5.15 units.

Robert Whittaker -250 vs. Kelvin Gastelum + 210 

middleweights (185 pounds), main event

Whittaker, Australia’s first UFC champion, is a forward-pressing striker decorated in boxing, karate, hapkido and BJJ.

The No. 1-ranked Whittaker, like the eighth-ranked Gastelum, spent time in the UFC’s 170-pound division. Each man’s struggle to make weight coupled with a few poor performances mandated a return to the 185-pound division, where Whittaker has been dominant while Gastelum has struggled, just returning to the win column in his last bout after losing three straight fights.

Whittaker’s level of competition has been elite, and he has dominated each fight except for his loss to Israel Adesanya. Surely Whittaker will arrive a most underrated, underestimated and underappreciated ex-champion.

I believe fighters can experience a drain or rut, as Whittaker seemed to go through entering the Adesanya bout, so I am willing to give him a pass on that effort based on his body of work as well as how he has looked in his last two outings. 

The physical nature of MMA coupled with the frenetic pace of Whittaker’s style paint a picture of a dynamic warrior who has beaten every force put in front of him except one. His mental state, once a question mark, seems to have settled after recent results, providing Whittaker with tremendous confidence and momentum.

Physically, Gastelum appears more round than ripped, but don’t measure his game by how he looks. He’s a wrestling-based southpaw with formidable boxing skills and a black belt in 10th-planet Jiu-Jitsu.

Gastelum is fast, powerful and often underestimated. He has been in the main-event spotlight in the past and is eager to resurrect his career by getting a chance to engage the top-ranked Whittaker after their title fight was canceled at the last minute in February 2019.

Gastelum’s level of competition does not approach Whittaker’s, so considering all aspects of this bout, Whittaker’s renewed focus and recent results lead me to regard him as a firm favorite. 

Both men have will, power, cardio and determination. In what could be one of the most exciting fights of the year, it’s my take that Gastelum might be slightly quicker. Whittaker will look to announce to the division that he indeed stands next in line to face champion Adesanya.

In this fight, each man will look to control the middle of the octagon and press the other back with punching pressure. At 185 pounds and in a small cage, this fight is sure to be explosive and frenetic. This matchup has the makings of a real throwdown.

Whittaker was -250 in 2019 when this bout was canceled, and he opened -250 for this tussle. I believe the original price was accurate, but now I think Whittaker is perhaps underpriced at -250.

Over for this fight: 4.5 rounds, Over -145.

Pass pending weigh-ins.

Jeremy Stephens -130 vs. Drakkar Klose + 110 

lightweights (155 pounds), co-main event

Stephens, the ninth-ranked featherweight, steps up to the lightweight division to battle the unranked Klose.

Motivation for the 34-year-old Stephens must revolve around the difficulty of making 145 pounds, coupled with the fact that he has lost his last four bouts to competent featherweights.

Moving up in weight can actually contribute to the success of fighters as they’re able to work on their game plans and conditioning instead of grappling through a weight cut, yet in this case I sense some desperation.

Stephens’ style makes for great watching, but it’s not conducive to career longevity. He is a basic power striker who stalks opponents to knock them out. In the process he has dished out plenty of drubbings, but he also has taken a few.

Stephens’ power will be enhanced at this weight, which is scary. He’ll be looking to find engagement with Klose and stand toe to toe, where he is most comfortable. While he’ll be explosive and powerful early, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to remain active at a high pace for 15 minutes.

Klose was competing favorably against Beneil Dariush in his last outing before he got overly excited after hurting Dariush and pressed straight into a shot that signified the end of that bout. Klose learned much from that fight, and with a little game plan involving patient long-term pressure, I think he stands a good chance to take Stephens deep and expose him late.

How Stephens manages beyond the first round at this size will be interesting. But Klose also has the unknown following him into this scrap. Since he left the MMA Lab in Phoenix, he has been a man on a journey in and out of various Phoenix gyms. He has yet to find a home, choosing to train all over the Valley.

This matchup has the potential of an all-out war if Stephens has his way or a technical beatdown if Klose can maintain his mentality and beat the old warrior with precision volume striking.

Klose + 110.

Total for this fight: 2.5 rounds, Over -170.

 

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