Value bets for UFC 258: Usman-Burns

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This week’s UFC 258 from Las Vegas will lack the international flavor of last week’s event, but it will feature several competitive matchups with a main event that is compelling in every way. We’re again in the smaller cage this week, which might not have much impact since the card is rife with lighter weight classes.

Last week we had nice wins on Beneil Dariush + 110 and Seungwoo Choi + 210 but lost a unit on Manel Kape, who throughout his performance against Alexandre Pantoja looked ill prepared to compete at this level. Kape will have to improve exponentially if he aspires to defeat elite flyweights.

2021 profitability: 4-3 + 1.1 unit.

Kamaru Usman -280 vs. Gilbert Burns + 230

welterweight (170 pounds), championship

Welterweight is an underrated division in the UFC. It’s championed by Usman, a cerebral, focused, intense, athletic, wrestling-based fighter who does his speaking inside the octagon as opposed to using his yapper.

Usman dominated Tyron Woodley to earn the belt, then defended it in two dominant performances against Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal. Like most wrestlers, Usman applies unrelenting forward pressure. His limitless cardio allows him to execute that simple plan for 25 punishing minutes.

Pressing top-10 welterweights backward and forcing them to fend off his aggression for five full rounds often strips Usman’s adversaries of their willingness to compete. Further, his striking under the tutelage of Henri Hooft and now Trevor Wittman is much improved. Usman’s striking has always been a forceful tool, as illustrated by the fact that in all 12 of his UFC bouts, he has outstruck each opponent. Only one other fighter, flyweight Demetrious Johnson, has done that in the UFC.

Usman is taller and younger, and he will have a 6-inch reach advantage over Burns in this bout. 

Burns, the No. 2-ranked welterweight, has helped Usman become and remain the champion. For years the two trained together and cornered each other in bouts against similar opponents. To say they know one another well is an understatement.

Burns has had aspirations to become a UFC champion since he was a young man. He’s as gifted a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu artist as there is today, and he packs abundant power in his strikes, though his reach is unusually short. Burns is explosive and powerful on the feet and as comfortable and dangerous rolling on the floor as any man alive.

When presented with the opportunity to test his BJJ skills against the champ’s wrestling abilities in a title bout, Burns immediately accepted.

Usman left their gym, Sanford MMA, and traveled to Denver to train with the scads of dynamic professional mixed martial artists at Team Elevation. While I believe the move out of Sanford had to be difficult for Usman, it will be one of the best things that could have happened to him in the long run, for many world-class athletes train at Team Elevation.

That these men know each other, from fighting style to social life, adds intrigue to this matchup. But as I have been taught, world-class wrestlers are kryptonite to world-class BJJ artists.

Jiu-Jitsu’s advantage lies in using aggression against the attacker. Fighters able to apply unstinting forward pressure, who possess elite ground skill — especially from the top — and can supplement that with unending cardio will in time hold the advantage over the BJJ savant.

The BJJ practitioner must find ways to lure incoming wrestling-based fighters into mistakes with aptitude, guile, skill and luck.

Burns has devastating power and might attempt to pressure the wrestler. Burns will be most dangerous early, but as the fight wears on, Usman will take over.

Usman’s physical advantages, his experience in five-round fights and his tremendous pressure wrestling lead me to regard him as a solid favorite.

Usman opened -245.

Total for this fight: 4.5 rounds. Over -135.

I have no release on this fight at this time.

Alexa Grasso -135 vs. Maycee Barber + 115

women’s flyweight (125 pounds), co-main event

Grasso has but one fight at this weight after moving up before her last bout.

She is ranked 15th in the division and is a tough, diligent fighter. I believe Grasso has been selected for this opportunity because she’ll please the UFC and the fans by engaging with her opponent, who happens to be a legitimately sized flyweight fighter in stature and ability.

Barber, 22, is only 8-1 as a professional fighter. She’s coming into this fight off an upset loss in January 2020 as well as a knee procedure, which has kept her sidelined since. But it’s my estimation that the fight acumen Barber possesses is substantially more than her opponent’s.

Barber’s athleticism and weaponry, coupled with the time she has had to take off and reassess after a loss in which she was greatly favored, all spell bounce-back here. Further, I believe there’s a reason the UFC set this bout as the co-main event: It has designs on Barber as “The Future,” just as her nickname suggests.

Barber opened + 110, and she’s a release at any underdog price. Don’t fear being patient to get the best price on Barber.

Barber + 115 or better.

Kelvin Gastelum -210 vs. Ian Heinisch + 180

middleweight (185 pounds)

How the mighty have fallen.

Ninth-ranked middleweight Gastelum was a round from winning the interim welterweight title three fights back but lost a tight decision to current champion Israel Adesanya. Since then, Gastelum has fought a couple of bouts in which he was favored but lost, looking uninspired, unfocused and lethargic.

At his best, Gastelum uses speed, quickness, pressure wrestling and power striking to beat opponents. He is undersized for the division, and his last couple of performances have me viewing him as a pretty dubious favorite.

Heinisch, the division’s 15th-ranked fighter, enters at a crossroads in his career. A high school and college wrestler, Heinisch’s route to the UFC was paved in misery. He learned the hard way and lived with regret but has overcome steep obstacles to capture this opportunity.

Heinisch will be the taller, larger fighter with greater leg and arm reach. He must overcome his opponent’s advantages in experience, wrestling and striking. Heinisch knows a win will catapult him up the ranks of the division, but make no mistake that he steps well up in class for this fight.

Gastelum enters a desperate fighter, having lost three in a row, though to fighters considered much more skilled than Heinisch. If Gastelum fights like the man who was in the octagon against Adesanya, he’ll have great results in this bout. But if he shows the same lack of focus as in his last few outings, he could lose.

With Gastelum, this fight is all mental. Will he be able to push his advantage on the feet and force the striking? Or will he succumb to allowing Heinisch inside and face a groping, wrestling battle?

Pass.

 

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