Last week’s UFC 266 continued a march of favorites as they realized an 11-2 result and have produced a 27-7 record over the last three cards.
This kind of chalky run usually spells trouble for underdog-driven handicappers, but I must point out that while underdogs are my preference, at the end of the day I seek to uncover advantage, no matter its form.
If advantage comes from a favorite such as Merab Dvalishvili (-240) completing the open-ended parlay with Anthony Smith (-165), or a straight-up win with Alexander Volkanovski (-165), then so be it. Profit from favorites will deposit just like profits from underdogs.
On the rare occasion that I release a favorite, the reason must be compelling. The compelling reason last weekend lay with Volkanovski’s determination and preparedness, for he was a man who was simply not going to get beat that night.
Insight the Octagon 2021: 24-18 + 9.57 units
This week the UFC returns to the smaller cage at the Apex Center in Las Vegas with a fight card on which six of the 13 bouts are bantamweight (135 pounds) or lighter. Four are women’s bouts, so off the top we’re going to see decisions. Fortunately, there are a couple of bangers to be uncovered on this card, so I’ll focus on those.
Thiago Santos (-170) vs. Johnny Walker (+ 150)
light-heavyweight (205 pounds), main event
The 13th-ranked Walker arrives to this fight as he does to most, with substantial height and reach advantages. He’ll be 5 inches taller and will hold edges of 6 inches of arm reach and 2 inches of leg reach over Santos.
Walker is an athletic, flamboyant, profusely powerful striker when he fights freely. Those who choose to engage him on the feet do so at substantial risk, for he is lightning-fast and athletically unorthodox. His strikes, kicks, flying knees and spinning elbows come quickly from everywhere and every angle. His biggest challenge is pace because he fires hot early, but his energy wanes after five minutes of combat.
What was discovered in recent losses was that the way to defeat this striker is to wrestle him to the floor, where he is completely inexperienced and without the ability to escape or return to his feet. There his movement, athleticism and ability to compete are squelched.
Walker has switched gyms and now trains at Tristar gym in Montreal, which is renowned for teaching, developing and refining mixed martial artists in the many facets of wrestling, among other specialties. So we know Walker is looking to complete himself, but the biggest question is: In his zeal to complement his fighting arsenal, will Walker forget he is a devastating striker, which brought him to this point?
Santos, 37, has a physique that looks like it’s sculpted out of granite. His kicks and strikes are delivered with explosive, bludgeoning effect. He specializes in Capoeira, Muay Thai and BJJ, but Santos’ forte is to engage opponents on the feet, force them backward and batter them into unconsciousness with blunt-force strikes delivered by both hands and feet.
Santos is the fifth-ranked light-heavyweight based on a solid body of work. He destroyed four highly ranked opponents on his way to a title fight against Jon Jones in July 2019, which he lost. During that fight, Santos tore his left LCL, PCL, MCL and meniscus and cracked his tibia, along with partly tearing his right ACL.
Those injuries caused Santos to step away from the octagon to rehab his knees and try to adequately prepare to return to fighting. He did return, only to be beaten by current No. 1 contender Glover Teixeira and then Aleksandar Rakic.
So Santos enters this bout off three losses. Certainly, he is aware of how critical this fight is for him at his age and at this stage of his career.
Being two fights beyond his knee procedures is important to me in that it signifies that Santos is prepared physically and mentally to offer his absolute best effort to preserve his top-five status in the division. He has a great advantage in experience and cardio despite his age.
I expect Santos to be measured early, when Walker is his most explosive and dangerous. In Round 2 I look for Santos to press forward and push Walker backward, forcing him to the fence and then unloading from inside the pocket. Though he rarely uses it, Santos does have ground acumen, so don’t be surprised if he decides to take Walker to the mat, where Santos may take top position and inflict damage on his 29-year-old adversary.
Walker’s plan will be interesting to monitor. Will he approach Santos with his usual movement-based aggressive striking and kicking attack, or will he be measured and more deliberate? In preparing Walker to be a more complete mixed martial artist, did his trainers dissolve part of what is innate and natural to him — his flamboyant, destructive, free-flowing striking style?
Provided Santos can navigate an early firestorm of striking from Walker and guide this bout into the second round, it’s my judgment that he will be in a great spot to get his arm raised.
Total for this fight is not posted yet. I believe there may be value in the total based on what is released.
Niko Price (-145) vs. Alex Oliveira (+ 125)
welterweight (170 pounds)
Oliveira has had a long 20-fight run in the UFC. The Brazilian is 11-8-1 in those bouts, but he is 2-5 in his last seven. Oliveira is a blue belt in Muay Thai and BJJ, so he is capable wherever the fight goes, though he lacks real striking power and prefers to compete on the floor.
Oliveira is a front-runner in that if he can smell a little success early, he can really put forth the effort and fury to dominate. Yet when he senses the opponent is strong, forceful and determined, he often succumbs. That’s what goes with being an athlete who competes for the money, which is what I believe Oliveira does.
Price is a strong, forceful competitor who loves fighting and has been developing and improving in each bout. In his last outing he showed more in his defeat against Michel Pereira than most do when they win.
A kickboxer and brown belt in BJJ, Price forces aggression, forward pressure and unending cardio at opponents. He’ll look to take this fight directly to “Cowboy.” I believe Price is fighting for a chance at a title, so I handicap advantage on Price by motivation alone.
These two are physically similar, and though Oliveira may have some advantage on the ground, I think Price will have the striking advantage as well as a mental edge simply because the young man is 110 percent driven to succeed.
Price is facing a favorable matchup, and though this will be competitive early, I believe Price’s unrelenting pressure will break Oliveira later in the fight.
Total for this fight is unavailable.