UFC 279 from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday has a 13-fight card beginning at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT, including a five-fight main card beginning at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.
VSiN experts Lou Finocchiaro and Reed Kuhn offer their best bets for Saturday’s action.
Last week, Nasrat Haqparast (-225) earned a one-sided decision over John Makdessi for a one-unit win for Finocchiaro.
Finocchiaro’s 2022 totals: 21-12 (+ 10.42 units)
Khamzat Chimaev (-1050) vs. Nate Diaz (+ 750)
Welterweight (170 pounds) | Main event
Total in this fight: 1.5 rounds (Over -150)
Finocchiaro: I handicap fights. I don’t concern myself with the matchmaking aspect of the sport because, if I did, this matchup would garner a strong response.
Khamzat Chimaev is the newest sensation in MMA. He’s a Russian-born vice grip armed with elite wrestling/grappling ability, lightning quickness and obtuse power. He trains across the globe with anyone brave enough and willing enough to expose this potential fighting savant to the subtleties of the game while measuring their skillset against his.
Eventually, he’ll compete at 185 pounds because he’s soon to outgrow the welterweight division.
No one who’s been around this kid has anything to say but positive remarks about his attitude, training and work ethic. In his last bout, the first real challenge against elite UFC talent, Chimaev looked inexperienced and at times wild. He wandered off the plan and paid for it in a tussle he finally won. That impassioned battle against Gilbert Burns taught Chimaev more in 15 minutes than he’s learned in the last six months. It also showed the kid’s lack of championship experience.
Across the cage stands a man who is due his respect. Nate Diaz is one of the true OGs of MMA. Authentic, original, unyielding to his passions and a world-class fighting machine he was. Now a 37-year-old who has lost what nominal power he once possessed, Diaz is relegated by age to compete at 170 pounds when his most effective fighting came at 155.
The organization forces him into a fight with a young man who is all the hype, a man no one wants to face and one who will soon enough have to fight at 185 pounds because he is maturing so quickly and packing on muscle.
Chimaev’s quickness, speed, agility and precision are enough to overwhelm Diaz, but experience and level of competition must factor into the handicap to a degree.
The ace up Diaz’s sleeve is his depth of experience. Can he stay competitive over time and force Chimaev into the same mistakes, including the abandonment of any form of grappling/wrestling, he displayed against Burns? We’ll see.
Diaz’s plan must be to frustrate Chimaev and figure out a tactical way, as Muhammad Ali once did against George Forman decades ago in Zaire to confound the green-as-a-cucumber kid.
Diaz stealing the spotlight that the organization is planning to heap on Chimaev is only a remote possibility in my judgment. The standing question is: How long can Diaz withstand the beating? My answer to that is all day long, but there’s another factor that will play into this fight.
Diaz bleeds when someone sneezes on him as his face is scar tissue upon scar tissue. By the end of the second round, the tough-as-nails Diaz will be covered in blood, which has to be a factor when considering the total rounds. Like the Jorge Masvidal bout, this one could be stopped by the doctors, which adds complexity to the handicap.
Finocchiaro’s pick: Pass
Kuhn: Can a 10-to-1 favorite have value? Unlikely, but the numbers do support Chimaev laying a heavy number. Diaz, now 37, has been inactive for more than a year. He’s also had fewer UFC fights over the last five years than Chimaev, which is saying something, as Chimaev’s 28 career minutes of Octagon time are minimal compared to Diaz’s 319.
The long layoffs and accumulating career questions for Diaz, combined with Chimaev’s unbelievable performance metrics, make for a murky data-driven prediction, despite leaning strongly toward the favorite.
Historically, matchups with such extreme odds tend to end inside the distance, whether the fight is the expected squash match the betting market foresees or an amazing upset that busts parlays around the world. An inside-the-distance play accounts for a surprise submission by Diaz, a war of damage and attrition from Chimaev and even the pesky doctor stoppages that have plagued the Diaz brothers for years.
Kuhn’s pick: Fight Does Not Go the Distance -650 (or Pass)
Li Jingliang (-300) vs. Tony Ferguson (+ 250)
Welterweight (170 pounds) | Co-main event
Total in this fight: 2.5 rounds (Under -130)
Finocchiaro: Li Jingliang, the 14th-ranked fighter in the division, has gone 5-2 in his last seven fights, all at welterweight and against elite competition. The Chinese fighter trains in Florida, where he faces elite teammates daily and prepares for a run at a world title.
Though inconsistent at times, Li, a BJJ black belt, is a complete fighter. He’s unusually large for the division and packs power in his arm/leg strikes, as four of his last five victories were finishes.
Tony Ferguson was once regarded as a potential lightweight GOAT. However, since he was KO’d at the hands of Justin Gaethje in May 2020, he’s lost his last three fights. Each of those losses were to elite lightweight competition, but Ferguson took some abuse over the last two years and now, at 38 years old, he decides to move up to welterweight?
Considering the beatings Ferguson took in those last four bouts, coupled with the savage, extreme training regimens he puts his body through to prepare for every fight, it’s easy to understand how his fight skills have waned.
Add the complexity of Ferguson moving up in weight class to vie with larger, more powerful men, and it’s easy to see why Li, four years younger, is such a big favorite (fighters who are at least four years younger than opponents have won 62% of their fights since 2013).
This seems a terrible spot for Ferguson. His only chance is to take the huge Chinese fighter to the floor and execute from there, and I just can’t see Ferguson getting Li to the canvas.
Finocchiaro’s pick: Monitoring
Kevin Holland (-190) vs. Daniel Rodriguez (+ 160)
Total in this fight: 2.5 rounds
Kuhn: Slick striker Kevin Holland battles gritty boxer Daniel Rodriguez in what should be a striking duel. On paper, their performance metrics look similar. Both have unusually good accuracy and put on an aggressive striking pace on the feet. They have each scored four knockdowns and have yet to be finished by strikes, but there’s a big difference in their fight histories.
Holland has faced some top talent for the middleweight division and has even seen former light heavyweight contender Thiago Santos. On the other side, Rodriguez used to compete at lightweight and his best wins were against undersized fighters on their way out of the UFC.
That context sways the edge in those striking metrics to Holland. Still not 30 years old, Holland will also have a massive 7-inch reach advantage against an opponent on the wrong side of 35 with poor head-strike defense.
On a card with more chalk than usual, finding a more affordable favorite to back seems like a bargain.
Kuhn’s pick: Holland -190
Darian Weeks (-130) vs. Yohan Lainesse (+ 110)
Welterweight (170 pounds)
Total in this fight: 2.5 rounds (Under -140)
Finocchiaro: In the first bout of the night, Darian Weeks is long on forward pressure laced with power striking and has no fear of standing in the fire. Yohan Lainesse will be the taller, larger fighter with 4 inches of reach advantage in what figures to be a standing war.
Weeks has been in the cage with better talent but he’s lost both of his UFC bouts, while Lainesse showed up for his debut fight with hype and circumstance. Lainesse started by dominating the first round then gassed badly and was finished in the second round by Gabe Green.
Lainesse has the more complete skill set, he holds the statistical advantage in what appears to be a standing fight and he figures to bounce off of that poor debut.
Finocchiaro’s pick: Lainesse + 110
“GambLou’s ’Bout Business Podcast” is available Friday afternoons and offers Finocchiaro’s final releases. Catch it on any podcast platform.