Dynamic card brings UFC back with a bang

By Lou Finocchiaro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

Saturday’s UFC 249 card is stacked with marquee talent and dynamic matchups that include three heavyweight fights. I’ll provide a breakdown of each bout in Jacksonville, Fla., starting with the main event.

A major criterion in breaking down UFC bouts is the condition of the participants before, during and just after weigh-in, which usually occurs the morning before the fight. So I usually release my positions the day of the event unless otherwise mandated by the market — such as in this main event.

The UFC has shown tenacity, focus and passion to take advantage of an unfortunate situation and get this production on the air. The UFC will be the only major sport active and available for wagering during the next few weeks, and the massive coverage is certain to continue the sport’s global expansion.

Tony Ferguson -170 vs. Justin Gaethje + 150, interim lightweight title (155 pounds)

Last week I released Gaethje + 165 vs. Ferguson -190 in this interim lightweight title fight. The belief was that this price could become tighter as we near the bout.

Ferguson now is a -170 favorite over Gaethje, who is taking back + 150. I believe this price on Gaethje might continue to compress and that any price on Gaethje + 140 or better is a buy. Here’s why:

— When this fight was scheduled for April 18, Ferguson opened -155. The line was -170 by the time it was postponed, which many attribute to Gaethje taking the fight on short notice with just two weeks to prepare. When the new date was announced, Ferguson reopened -175, which in my judgment does not reflect the extra three weeks of training time as benefiting Gaethje, which it no doubt does.

— The added time has given Gaethje almost a full training camp. It’s my conviction that Gaethje now has up to four rounds of cardio and profuse power instead of only maybe 2.5 rounds had this bout occurred in mid-April.

— Ferguson, who deservedly gets credit for superior cardio, is 36 and enters this fight with mental and physical hurdles. He has had to prepare for — and then overcome missing — his big-money fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, which must be factored in handicapping this fight. Now, off the Nurmagomedov cancellation, he has had to prep for Gaethje twice. And in this upcoming bout not only does Gaethje arrive off a full camp, but Ferguson could well be drained based on overpreparation.

— Ferguson earned the respect of some when he made weight for his April 18 bout, while Gaethje was in the gym preparing for this confrontation. This was just three weeks ago, and I believe Ferguson will look back at this as a tactical error. Time will tell.

— The many mental adjustments Ferguson incurred coupled with his brutal training regimen and topped by an aggressive weight cut just weeks ago force me to believe Ferguson is not in an ideal spot.

Gaethje + 165 is in hand.

Henry Cejudo -225 vs. Dominick Cruz + 190, bantamweight title (135 pounds)

Champion Cejudo faces arguably the greatest bantamweight fighter in UFC history. Cruz will hold 4-inch height and arm-reach advantages besides an abundance of Octagon experience.

Cruz, 35, has had a career of championship moments but also devastating injury. Through that, he’s still recognized as an icon based on the dominance he displayed while healthy.

Two ACL surgeries on one knee, then one on the other knee, hand surgeries and a terrible groin pull have interrupted Cruz’s career. His last bout was 41 months ago, a five-round decision loss in December 2016 to Cody Garbrandt, a fighter with power and grit but nowhere near the quickness, skill or athleticism of Cejudo.

Cruz’s tactic will be to stick, move, poke, prod and frustrate Cejudo with his movement, length, reach and evasion, keeping the champ on the outside, where only Cruz’s strikes may land. Cruz offers little to no power, and I wonder whether he is fit enough to employ this tactic on this opponent.

Another real consideration is that while Cruz is the first to toss aside ring rust as an issue, he’s no heavyweight who might rely on one shot to end a bout. Cruz will be forced to rely on his cardio, conditioning and legs to maneuver to victory over Cejudo. I have real doubts as to whether his older body will be able to execute what his razor-sharp mind is telling it to do.

Cejudo is the greatest pound-for-pound combat professional of all time. His list of accomplishments, while lengthy, is nowhere near complete. It’s just a matter of time before the pelts of former great champions in the UFC like Jose Aldo and Cruz are hanging on his mantel, at which time he’ll hopefully turn his attention to fighters who offer viable threats to his title.

Cejudo’s innate competitive fire, superior athleticism, extreme quickness and unrelenting cardio will allow him to take this fight to Cruz from the opening bell. Cejudo will press this fight and force the older and oft-injured former champion to try to maintain distance, which he will be able to do for only so long before his lack of legs forces him to face the fire.

This fight opened Cejudo -245, and a bit of love for Cruz has pressed that number down. It’s my judgment that the Cruz play is based on reputation and not current ability.

I hope the price on Cejudo continues to compress. I handicap Cejudo -300 for this bout at the bare minimum, but I want to remain patient and try to pick up every penny of value. This one is touchy because I could fire at any time.

I will use Cejudo; it’s just a matter of time and price.

Francis Ngannou -280 vs. Jair Rozenstruik + 235, heavyweight (265 pounds)

Tony Ferguson is risking quite a bit to fight Justin Gaethje. If he is defeated, he loses the gigantic payday and career-making championship fight awaiting him against Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Ngannou is taking a similar risk in this bout.

Ngannou is recognized as next in line to compete for the heavyweight title after Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier eventually get their trilogy fight on. Rather than wait in inactivity, Ngannou has decided to stay busy, but he does so against a rising talent and a real threat in Rozenstruik.

Ngannou has many advantages. He’ll be 2 inches the taller man, and he holds a 5-inch reach advantage with his arms and a 3-inch edge with his legs. Ngannou has won eight of his last nine fights via KO or TKO, six in the first round. His average fight time stands at 6 minutes, 5 seconds.

Rozenstruik will be the smaller yet quicker and more athletic fighter. But he will have to navigate Ngannou’s size and reach advantages to be effective, and I don’t believe his effectiveness will be displayed early against a goliath like Ngannou. Rather it will have to come late after the volume of Rozenstruik’s strikes begin to take effect.

Rozenstruik boasts gawdy strike stats, as he has won 90% of his fights via KO or TKO and inflicts 1.91 knockdowns per 15 minutes. And his fights last an average of 7:52.

Rozenstruik, a kickboxer by background, is undeveloped in his wrestling, as is Ngannou. So this bout appears to be a stand-up striking affair that favors Ngannou, as fighters in stand-up bouts with at least 2 inches of reach advantage win at a rate of 65%.

Ngannou’s UFC experience, size, length and power favor him. The undersized Rozenstruik, who will weigh in at about 245 pounds to Ngannou’s 265, will have to use speed and fluid movement to earn his way inside to be effective.

This appears to be a tall order for Rozenstruik. Based on the statistics on average fight time, this fight might not last very long. But I’m not so certain I handicap it that way.

Rozenstruik’s best method for success is to employ steady, constant movement and focus on an unrelenting kicking attack to Ngannou’s legs to slow him down and eventually cripple the monstrous slugger. This will require him to be evasive early and trust his plan to sap some of Ngannou’s energy.

Rozenstruik is capable of making this a fight, and for that reason I lean to the Over 1.5 + 100.

Calvin Kattar -245 vs. Jeremy Stephens + 210, featherweight (145 pounds)

Kattar is a boxing-based fighter who uses movement and precision striking to earn his victories. Kattar is 3-2 in his last five outings, but decision losses to Renato Moicano and Zabit Magomedsharipov only add to this young man’s resume (Kattar would have beaten the Russian had that fight been five rounds).

Kattar will enter Saturday’s bout as the younger man, he’ll be 3 inches taller and he will own slight reach advantages with arms and legs. Kattar will look to confound Stephens with movement and precision strikes to batter his opponent while he barrels forward to engage.

Stephens is 0-3-1 in his last four outings and 2-4-1 as an underdog. If he has an advantage, it lies in his experience and power striking. While Kattar looks to snap straight, sharp precision strikes, Stephens looks to sling shots from the fourth row and hurls punches from every angle.

Stephens is aware of how badly he needs a victory to remain with the organization, and desperation makes for dangerous fighters. Monitoring.

Greg Hardy -195 vs. Yorgan De Castro + 170, heavyweight (265 pounds)

Hardy is an elite athlete who is learning how to become a successful and effective mixed martial artist. He will be the first to tell you that gaining everything it takes to become fluent at MMA fighting is no overnight endeavor.

At 6-5, Hardy has an 80-inch reach and prolific power and explosion. He has had eight bouts since 2018 and will arrive with edges in athleticism, size, length, power and experience.

De Castro is a man with a humble background who is easy to pull for. He spends his days mentoring kids at the high school where he works, then hits the gym to train at the end of his day. He is giving away 5 inches in height, 6 inches of arm reach and 4 inches of leg reach.

When this fight was announced for April 18, the line opened Hardy -175. Now it appears De Castro is realizing some respect, as the number has moved very little, which I find a bit surprising.

I like dogs as much as the next handicapper, but I believe this fight sets up to be a complete mismatch. Off a recent loss to top-15 heavyweight Alexander Volkov, Hardy will be too much for the game but undersized De Castro.

Anthony Pettis -135 vs. Donald Cerrone + 115, welterweight (170 pounds)

This is one of two rematches Saturday. In their first fight in 2013, Cerrone entered with all the momentum and hype but had the liver kicked out of him by Pettis 2 1/2 minutes into Round 1.

This time around each fighter is gripping to remain relevant, understanding that even the winner’s days may be numbered in the UFC. The fight game is a young man’s game, and both fighters, while experienced, professional and courageous, are just about shot.

I do favor Cerrone. He has much to prove to himself for his performance last time against Pettis and the epic effort he put forth in his last outing against Conor McGregor.

Cerrone has experienced 11 fights in the welterweight division to Pettis’ three, and it’s my judgment that he carries the weight better and is more used to fighting at the 170-pound level. Cerrone will have slight height and reach advantages as well.

Pettis has been trading fights in the 155- and 170-pound weight classes, which is always a tell that a fighter is lost (or soon to be). I view his welterweight win over Stevie Thompson as a complete fluke, as Thompson was winning when Pettis popped him on the point.

I lean Cerrone as a dog.

Fabricio Werdum -330 vs. Aleksei Oleinik + 275, heavyweight (265 pounds)

Ex-champion Werdum returns after sitting a few months for USADA-related offenses. Werdum, 42, is a BJJ savant who will be the taller man in the Octagon. He’ll have a distinct striking advantage, which is rare for him as his expertise lies in BJJ and grappling. 

Werdum has never been submitted, and he’ll be in there with one of the most accomplished Russian sambo submission fighters in the world. This sets up as an intriguing fight and a classic Brazil-vs.-Russia battle.

On the floor, I have to grade this fight about even, though I’ll give Oleinik a slight advantage based on his accolades and the fact that he has submitted 10 of the 11 men he has beaten professionally. But when two outstanding grapplers like this meet, the fight often becomes a stand-up battle, which is exactly what I expect to occur.

Werdum is aware that Oleinik’s jaw is as fragile as an antique porcelain tea set, so rather than challenge the Russian at his strength, I anticipate Werdum will try to make him feast on a few fists. Oleinik’s last three defeats have been via KO or TKO, and a heavy sneeze will put him out.

The key is whether Werdum be able to keep within striking distance or Oleinik will be able to throw social distancing out the window and clasp Werdum in a 15-minute slow dance to have any shot of winning.

I look for a most boring outcome here and lean Over 1.5 -110.

Carla Esparza -150 vs. Michelle Waterson + 130, women’s strawweight (115 pounds)

Esparza is an ex-champion who has won her last two fights after dropping the previous two. She is basically a one-dimensional, wrestling-based fighter who is undersized and lacks striking acumen. Esparza’s 3.53 takedowns per 15 minutes clearly map out her path to victory.

Waterson will have advantages in height and weaponry, as she is more well rounded and experienced. One Waterson advantage is that she trains primarily with her husband, which in times like these is a benefit as she has not had to search for, locate or screen capable training partners.

While Esparza relies on her wrestling, Waterson boasts 59% takedown defense, which is the key to this fight. If this fight remains standing, I see Waterson handling her business. However, if Esparza can get this fight to the mat, the advantage swings to her. I believe the wrong fighter is favored.

Waterson + 130.

Ronaldo Souza -120 vs. Uriah Hall + 100, middleweight (185 pounds)

There was a time when Souza was one of the finest submission specialists. However, at 40 and shifting between weight classes to remain relevant, he finds himself at a critical juncture of his career.

Souza, 1-3 in his last four fights with three decision losses, must find a way to engage the striking-based Hall, clasp onto him, force him against the cage then take him to the floor. For Souza, 54% of his wins have come via submission. That’s critical as Hall will be overmatched by average grapplers if forced to the floor, let alone by one of Souza’s pedigree.

Hall enters this bout with a five-year age advantage, and fighters with at least a four-year edge win 65% of UFC fights. He’s a kickboxing-based striker who is explosive and will hold advantages in youth and reach — 7 inches with arms and 2 inches with legs.

Hall’s 59% takedown defense will be tested, for his success relies on his ability to remain standing and keep Souza at striking range. The key to this fight lies in where it occurs. On the floor, it’s all Souza. But if this fight remains standing, I believe Hall has a chance.

Vicente Luque -280 vs. Niko Price + 240, welterweight (170 pounds)

This is the second of the rematches. In October 2017, Price wandered down to Brazil and got submitted via D’Arce choke by Luque in the second round. We’ll have to see if anything changes. Price and Luque have improved, but fight enthusiasts would be surprised if the winner won by anything but strikes.

Luque’s fights average 8:25. He’s physically strong, explosive and powerful. On his feet he averages 5.18 significant strikes per minute while absorbing 5.34 (bad math, indeed). Yes, Luque likes to stand and exchange! Luque also averages one submission per 15 minutes of fight time, so he is anything but one-dimensional.

Price averages a slight 5:48 minutes per fight, and he’ll hold advantages in height plus arm and leg reach. Price averages three significant strikes per minute while allowing 4.29 (worse math). His submission game is a bit more developed than Luque’s, as Price averages 1.62 submissions per 15 minutes. But again, it was Luque who submitted Price in the first fight.

Both fighters are fearless and confrontational. I look for this to be as entertaining a bout as we will see Saturday, but I don’t foresee grappling or a submission. This fight will be a striking war.

Price is 2-2 in his last four, and Luque is coming off a complete schooling by Stevie Thompson, who picked and pecked his way to a one-sided decision. Price lacks the ability and desire to execute a plan like Thompson did, and for that reason I see this fight as being an all-out banger.

Bryce Mitchell -160 vs. Charles Rosa + 140, featherweight (145 pounds)

Southpaw Mitchell (12-0) is an inch taller and eight years younger. He is a grappling-based fighter who has realized submission wins in 73% of his fights. He enters this fight looking to step on and over Rosa.

Rosa’s advantage, if he has one, lies in his experience. He’s off a victory in his last fight against Manny Bermudez in October but has not won two in a row since 2014. However, he has faced better competition than has Mitchell.

Rosa (12-3) has never been submitted, and Mitchell is a submission fighter. Something’s got to give!

Ryan Spann -385 vs. Sam Alvey + 315, light-heavyweight (205 pounds)

In the first bout of the night, the UFC offers an interesting changing-of-the-guard fight in the light-heavyweight division, which lacks young, developing talent.

Alvey has been around for some time fighting as a middleweight and light-heavyweight. He’s characterized by his goofy ear-to-ear smile and a left hook Smokin’ Joe Frazier would be proud to witness.

After that, however, Alvey is a left-handed journeyman who seems to have little to offer besides experience. Alvey has won 58% of his bouts via KO or TKO, but let’s not forget that he spent most of his career at 185 pounds, while this fight is at 205.

The organization wants Spann to succeed. For all intents and purposes, this is a setup fight designed to allow Spann to look impressive and move up the ranks.

Spann is six years younger and 3 inches taller, and he’ll hold a 4-inch reach advantage and a 3-inch leg reach edge. Spann has been favored in all four UFC bouts and has won three inside the distance, two by  submission.

I look for Spann to be measured a bit at first due to his respect for Alvey’s lethal left hook. But as the fight wears on and Alvey’s activity wanes, Spann will impress his will on Alvey. This fight is lined so high it’s difficult to consider a wager on Spann in anything other than a prop position. One consideration might be: Spann via submission -130.

Thus far in 2020, Insight the Octagon profitability stands: 7-0 + 8.71u

Next week will feature UFC Fight Night 175 on Wednesday and UFC Fight Night 176 on May 16. I’ll have breakdowns for each event here.

 

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