UFC: Brunson, Whittaker are live underdogs

By Reed Kuhn  (vsin.com) 

February 8, 2022 11:23 PM

The main event at UFC 271 features the top two middleweights in the world, but before that showdown we’ll see two other top-five fighters face off in a potential eliminator for the next title challenger. 

Neither Jared Cannonier nor Derek Brunson has earned a title shot yet, but both have faced some of the division’s best, including current and former champs. And with both pushing 40, the clock is ticking. A win Saturday on a card already featuring a middleweight title bout could make for easy matching.

Middleweights Jared Cannonier (-175) vs. Derek Brunson (+ 150)

They say styles make fights, and this matchup should play out as a classic striker-versus-grappler matchup.

It’s not as if Brunson doesn’t have decent standup, but he’s facing a former heavyweight who has been successful by keeping fights on the feet against some gifted strikers. So you have to wonder if there’s any reason to play to his opponent’s strength. Brunson attempts frequent takedowns and spends more time on the ground controlling opponents than any fighter on the main card. He has the exact skill set and enough experience to maintain control in this fight, giving him a great chance for the upset. 

Conversely, while Cannonier hardly ever initiates the ground game, he’s no stranger to facing takedown attempts. But at 62% takedown defense, he rates about average, meaning if Brunson uses his typical string of takedown attempts, the fight should eventually end up on the ground. Once there, ground-control metrics indicate a total mismatch. Brunson is in control 94% of time spent on the ground, while Cannonier checks in at just 9%. 

While there’s still the matter of Cannonier’s power threat, cardio should be less of an issue in a three-round bout. Brunson appears to be getting better at using his ground game, landing 19 total takedowns during his current five-fight win streak. The risk of a KO by Cannonier is still there, but unless it comes early, look for Brunson to dominate on the ground and on the cards. 

Money line play on Derek Brunson at plus money.

Main Event: Middleweights Israel Adesanya (-260) vs. Robert Whittaker (+ 220)

Speaking of middleweights and contrasting styles … we’ve already seen how Robert Whittaker fared in a striking duel against Israel Adesanya, so now we’re left wondering if he’ll deploy a different strategy. Whittaker has similar striking metrics to Adesanya but also the hint of a more well-rounded fight game. 

Recently, Jan Blachowicz demonstrated that size (and wrestling) matters when facing a distance striker as slick and as dangerous as Adesanya. That might lead Whittaker to change levels early and often, something he didn’t do in his first fight with Adesanya. Whittaker landed four takedowns against Kelvin Gastelum in April, the most in his career. 

One thing’s for sure, Whittaker’s best chance at an upset will require a different approach this time because he’s still facing a superior range fighter. If recent trends hold, I think we’ll see a difference. It may not lead to the massive upset, but the threat of wrestling should at least make for a closer fight and also stretch out the rounds. 

Over 2.5 rounds, plus small prop on Robert Whittaker by decision.

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