Kuhn: My best bets for UFC 258

By Reed Kuhn  (VSiN.com) 

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The UFC welterweight division has featured many dominant title runs, each lasting several years. What began with Pat Miletich was eventually handed to Matt Hughes. Then came the Georges St-Pierre era, the longest run of all. More recently, Tyron Woodley flirted with the status of welterweight GOAT. Transitional champs were sprinkled through the lineage, but those champions managed to keep their belts for years on end.

Now, as Kamaru Usman enters his third title defense already owning wins over most of the top 10 in the division, he could be on the verge of cementing his status on the welterweight equivalent of Mt. Rushmore. 

His opponent, Gilbert Burns, is the obvious top contender, having recently bested former champion Woodley. But if Burns fails to upset the current king, the division will have to reach deep into its ranks to identify a new threat to Usman. That would make for interesting midrank matchmaking, but it also would mean the current champ is likely to maintain his perch for a long time. Suddenly, the pairing between Leon Edwards and Khamzat Chimaev will be critical to the future of the division.

 

When evaluating a dominant champ against a new contender, it’s important to look for any clear imbalances favoring the challenger. Yet in this case, at least numerically, Usman has almost all the advantages, and across all positions of the cage. Furthermore, he earned those metrics against the elite of the division, while Burns only recently rose to face top talent. 

Usman will have the more technical striking and should control the cage better while standing. Assuming Usman’s 100% takedown defense holds, Burns will have an uphill struggle to get the fight into a spot where his submission game has a chance. That appears to be the only clear difference on paper that favors the challenger — his submission attempt rate. We know Burns is an elite grappler, but that requires him to get dominant position on Usman, which has never happened, despite the strong wrestlers he has faced.

Usman is undefeated in the UFC and has closed as a clear betting favorite in all but one fight in his career, which was his first title shot against Woodley. He also has taken top talent into deep water by hitting the fifth round in each of his last five fights. That endurance, persistence and reliability give additional confidence in taking the favorite.  

The pick is Usman, despite the rise in price. He makes for a good parlay leg.

Welterweights Kelvin Gastelum -225 vs. Ian Heinisch + 185

Kelvin Gastelum has always been undersized in his bouts, so it’s surprising to see him getting a matchup with an opponent of similar range. Despite the mixed record and current losing streak, Gastelum’s strength of schedule is among the best in the division. He’s also one of the few fighters ever to win rounds off current middleweight champ and new light-heavyweight challenger Israel Adesanya.

Gastelum’s clean boxing paired with competent wrestling give him a chance in every matchup. He’s willing to wade forward and initiate exchanges, even against the most dangerous strikers, though he normally has to do so with a severe range disadvantage. If he works his usual offensive game, his power hand could find a target more often than normal. We’re banking on Gastelum, 29, to be quicker and to be able to keep the fight in the position he prefers. 

Despite his youth, Gastelum is one of the most experienced veterans in the game. You’d have to go back to 2014 to find an opponent unworthy of a main event. His record since may be mixed, but this bout should feel very different in terms of the caliber of opponent. Ian Heinisch is taking a big step up, and even if he eventually secures a high rank in the division, this first high-level matchup doesn’t work in his favor.

The pick is Gastelum. Paired with Usman, a two-leg parlay pays nearly even money.

 

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