Star-laden UFC card ends live sports drought

Fifty-six days.


That is how long it has been since the NBA suspended its regular season and the rest of the sporting world came to a halt. It has been a grueling 56 days filled with bets on table tennis, darts and esports to pass the time until regular human competition returns.


That day has finally come.


The Ultimate Fighting Championship will produce its 249th mixed martial arts event Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. By all accounts, it is an extremely quality card that would be highly anticipated by any UFC fan at any time of the year. 


Two ferocious strikers, Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, will meet in the main event with the interim lightweight belt on the line. The co-main event pits an all-time great in Dominick Cruz, who last fought in December 2016, against bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo. The card includes 12 ranked fighters, and fan favorites like Donald Cerrone, Ronaldo Souza and Michelle Waterson will be part of the preliminary bouts.


However, given the current climate in the world of sports, bettors have a palpable thirst for this card, much like when the NFL draft was on the horizon two weeks ago. That event resulted in a handle 12 times larger at PointsBet and five times larger for William Hill in Nevada.


Bookmakers expect an inflated handle for this card due to its isolation in a world without sports. The UFC really has three types of cards: Fight Night, regular pay-per-view cards and pay-per-view cards with a star attached. Saturday night bookmakers will likely see a handle that reflects the latter event.


“You’ve got three different levels from what you can expect when it comes to the handle,” said Westgate SuperBook director John Murray. “This card will be more like a Conor McGregor-type event, and that would be more than we write on a typical ‘Monday Night Football’ game.”


So far the main event is the center of attention at William Hill, according to sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich, who appeared Tuesday on VSiN’s “Follow The Money.”


“It’s going to be a heck of a card,” Bogdanovich said. “The one fight we do have a ton of bets on right now is the Ferguson-Gaethje fight. That one is really being bet well out of the blocks.”


Ferguson opened as the $3 favorite when Gaethje was announced as the stand-in April 6 due to the extremely abbreviated camp that he would have had to endure for a bout that was slated to take place April 18.


However, since the fight was rescheduled, Ferguson emerged as a shorter favorite, opening at minus-180 at Caesars. The change in circumstances has clearly leveled the playing field. Sharps are positioning themselves behind Gaethje, and that is what the Westgate is anticipating once its online wagering opens for business Thursday.


While most might see value in a once-1-to-3 favorite now laying less than $2, the expanded time frame really works against Ferguson. The top-ranked lightweight contender made headlines when the card was originally postponed by pushing forward with his weight cut, and making it to 145 pounds anyway.


“A camp that is too long is just as bad as a camp that is too short,” said ESPN International MMA analyst Jimmy Smith. “Having this delayed means that Ferguson probably went through two peaks. He got ready for April 18, that didn’t happen, now he has to get ready for May 9. Keeping that intensity too long can really wear you down.”


While Gaethje on the moneyline might be the early sharp side, more will be available to bettors than just wagering on an outright outcome. That is the lone silver lining in an environment in which sporting events are few and far between. More time between events means more time for oddsmakers to get creative with what will be offered.


“We are going to do as many props on it as we can,” said Murray. “We wouldn’t usually do round props and method-of-victory props for a card like this, but because we’re just trying to generate handle and there’s no real sports going on anyway, we’re going to put up those props on every fight on this card.”


Those types of props are very popular with recreational bettors. Specifically, casual bettors will flood books with method-of-victory props such as victory via submission or knockout wagers. Generally, when fights go to decisions, that is a favorable outcome for the books, and in an environment where preparation for fighters is completely different, it is something bettors could see Saturday.


“I don’t think it was a coincidence that the last UFC we saw in Brazil had tied the record in terms of decisions in a row,” said Smith. “Fighters had a lot on their minds, and there were a lot of out-of-octagon distractions. They didn’t have perfect timing; they weren’t super sharp. We might see more of that.”


It is always a shame to see operators make out like bandits, so it would be a shame if what Smith predicted came to fruition. However, bettors will have their fair share of opportunities to make their money back.


Saturday’s card is just one of three events that will be produced by Dana White and the UFC in one week. How bookmakers handle those events in terms of proposition bets available is undetermined.


“It is going to come down to what else is going on,” said Murray. “I’m seeing announcements for some soccer leagues coming back, some golf matchups and NASCAR. If we don’t have enough time to necessarily do some of these props, we might not do them for the lesser events.”


That’s fine. As long as we have something to bet on, because it has been a long 56 days.


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