Last week’s UFC event from the Apex Center in Las Vegas might have been the most incident-affected production ever. By the end of the night, fans watched nine fights in which favorites ran 2-4-3 and seven of the 18 fighters competed on short notice or were debuting athletes.
It’s becoming clear how arduous it is for the UFC to line up fighters and replacements for 12 fights per card — with 40 to 46 cards per year — even under normal circumstances. Add safety measures to protect the Apex environment from COVID-19 and the task becomes more complex.
As an MMA investor, these times have only reinforced my determination to scrutinize the weigh-ins before making final decisions on investments unless compelling evidence exists to move earlier. With late scratches and replacements, handicapping may become a bit more time-consuming. But remember: The result of that effort produces advantage, and advantage produces profit.
Last week I released two bouts. The co-main event was canceled after the weigh-ins, and the other was a miss with Austin Hubbard. To date UFC favorites stand 173-84-5, or 66%, which is about the organization’s average since 2016, though a few ticks up from last year.
Insight the Octagon’s profitability this year is 23-15 + 11.00.
Both main events this week offer top-15 fighters looking to move closer to championship opportunities.
Aleksandar Rakic -310 vs. Anthony Smith + 270, light-heavyweight (205 pounds), main event
This three-round main event is unusual since most main events are five.
The eighth-ranked Rakic (12-1) enters as a steep favorite. He looked overpowering and explosive in his first four UFC fights against journeymen or aged competition. Rakic is primarily a kickboxer and striker who has a blue belt in BJJ. His preference is to walk opponents down and finish them via violent kicks, elbows and fists.
In this fight he’ll face an opponent of similar size, which will be unusual for Rakic, who is used to being the taller, longer, larger fighter. Rakic unleashes 5.1 strikes per minute and is hit by just 2.4 per minute. But whether he can maintain that effectiveness against the elite in the division remains to be seen. Last December he stepped in against Volkan Oezdemir, then ranked eighth in the division, and lost via decision.
High-output power striking and destructive kicking force Rakic’s opponents to back up, then succumb when a fight is going his way. In this fight, however, he takes a serious step up in pedigree.
The fifth-ranked Smith is a grizzled MMA veteran with 48 professional fights in 12 years. Before his last outing, Smith’s only two losses since 2016 had come to Thiago Santos at 185 pounds and Jon Jones.
Smith (33-15) will hold a vast advantage in experience, as he has had success against the division’s top fighters. Rakic’s ferocity and violence motivate Smith.
The durable Smith is an effective striker and has a black belt in BJJ. His wealth of experience and more complete fight arsenal lead me to question the line. Smith has grappling and wrestling advantages, so he could try to take his hungry young opponent down to the mat for a dose of ground-and-pound.
A major concern for Smith is that he enters this bout off a devastating KO loss to Glover Teixeira in his last fight May 13. Many think he is rushing his return after absorbing so much damage, and I regard this as a legitimate concern. This unknown about Smith’s mental and physical condition is a potential explanation as to why the betting market regards Smith as such an underdog, but in my judgment it explains why he’s in an advantageous spot.
In the days leading up to Smith’s last bout, his family’s home was burglarized in the middle of the night. I believe this affected Smith’s preparation mentally and physically, yet few are mentioning it.
He accosted the assailant and struggled with him in their home, then dealt with a wife fearful for her family and his children wanting to know why this would occur — all during fight preparation.
I find it reasonable to give Smith a pass on that fight, and I believe he’ll bounce off that dismal effort.
I do not concern myself with Smith’s condition or preparation. A fighter of his experience knows his body and what he may ask of it. In fact, it’s plausible that Smith will enter the cage more prepared than he did for his last fight. I believe Smith will show up highly focused against a dangerous, powerful yet inexperienced opponent.
Once the bell rings, Rakic, off a loss himself, will look to take this fight to Smith and attempt to bully him from the start. Smith must weather the furious first round from the Austrian and take this fight into the second and third rounds, where his experience, guile, conditioning and grit will make this bout compelling.
Rakic opened -330, so the line has not moved much.
The total is lined 1.5 over -140
Smith + 265 1u
Over -140 1u
Both pending weigh-ins, of course
Neil Magny -225 vs. Robbie Lawler + 195, welterweight (170 pounds), co-main event
Lawler, 38, was once one of the most fearless, unrelenting fighters in the game. As welterweight champion, Lawler is best remembered for his demolition of Rory MacDonald in an epic 2015 bout that seemed to sap the soul from both men, as they were never the same.
Lawler is 1-4 since July 2016, and his win came against Donald Cerrone, who was really a 155-pounder fighting up in weight. Lawler’s speed, quickness and mobility are waning, but his forward pressure and willingness to engage remain constant. Lawler comes ready to throw down.
Lawler will see a familiar face in Magny, who trained with Lawler early in his career. Magny reflects positively on that period a decade ago, for as a young man he learned how much he needed to grow and learn.
Magny’s physical advantages are vast. He’s four years younger, is 4 inches taller and will hold arm and leg reach advantages of 6 inches. Training at Team Elevation in Colorado ensures that he is being coached and competing daily with the top MMA athletes from all weight divisions and fight specialties.
Lawler will need to work his way inside to attack Magny, then turn this fight into a brawl. Lawler averages 3.6 strikes landed per minute but gives up 4.1. He’s not afraid to stand and toss.
Magny uses his size and movement well, manifesting the two into potent strike offense and evasive defense. Magny allows only 2.2 strikes per minute. He will use movement to try to control Lawler on the outside, then batter the brawler with strikes, elbows and kicks as he lunges to gain his way inside.
Magny opened -190
Total 2.5 Over -210
Magny -140 via decision seems the most logical approach, but for now this fight is a pass.
Alessio Di Chirico -120 vs. Zak Cummings + 100, middleweight (185 pounds)
Di Chirico, 30, is a stand-up striker who until 2012 was playing linebacker in the Italian leagues. He is a power-based striker who is tough, athletic and durable. After an impressive couple of UFC wins, Di Chirico has dropped his last two and will look to get back into the win column to restore his career.
Though older by six years, Cummings is a well-versed fighter with a strong wrestling base and is 2-1 since returning to the middleweight division. Cummings has slight reach advantages, and being the more well-rounded fighter plus his wrestling base provide sound advantages, especially should he get Di Chirico (82% takedown defense) to the mat. That will be a key to this fight.
While Cummings can stand with Di Chirico, he’ll want to strike only long enough to set up a takedown to give Cummings control on top. This is a good spot for a fighter who is highly competitive and champing at the bit to compete.
Cummings opened -135 where I track lines, and he has been bet into what I believe is an advantageous price.
Cummings + 100 1u
I’m appearing on “Follow the Money” at 6:30 a.m. PT Friday on VSiN, when I’ll solidify these positions.