With the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s main card debut on ESPN on Feb. 17, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. On the one hand, we were given the clear frontrunner for “Fight of the Year” with Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena going to war, but our main event saw one of the best heavyweights ever, Cain Velasquez, go down in 26 seconds courtesy of Francis Ngannou’s right hand and a popped left knee. As we head into the UFC’s debut in the Czech Republic on Saturday, I think it’s a safe to presume that most MMA fans are just hoping to feel something, anything.
If nothing else, one or both of our headliners at the O2 Arena in Prague are going to feel some type of way, as our light heavyweight main event is a pairing of two of the sport’s most ferocious body kickers in Thiago Santos and Jan Blachowicz. It’s a tricky fight to decipher, emblematic of just how difficult a gamble this UFC Fight Night 145 bill might be up and down the card.
We know that less-publicized, smaller-scale UFC cards tend to be a dumping ground for the promotion, where it seeks to simply keep certain fighters active, fulfill contracts and sell tickets with local draws, especially if it is the organization’s debut in any particular country. All of those ideas hold true here, but it doesn’t make it any easier to make cash. Only one favorite on the 13-fight card is higher than -280, and seven favored fighters are below -160. Let’s be clear: There’s money to be made here, but it requires navigating some tricky style matchups, which in many cases involve talent unproven at the UFC level.
The national Czech motto is “Pravda vitezi,” or “Truth prevails,” so let’s figure out how we can sidestep some betting falsehoods and make some money at UFC Fight Night 145:
Straight Up CashSantos (-110)
Before we get to stern betting talk, I’ve heard many a fight-loving soul complain that this is what the UFC is offering as a main event as it breaks into a new territory: a Brazilian middleweight against a Polish gatekeeper before a fight-hungry audience like the Czech Republic, which has widely supported smaller shows over the last decade and is a country that has cried out for a UFC debut for years. On that accord, I feel you. On the other hand, we need to realize this is the changing -- and necessary -- face of contention at 205 pounds. The UFC stripped Daniel Cormier; Jon Jones is king again and has beaten Alexander Gustafsson twice now; Cormier destroyed Volkan Oezdemir; and Ryan Bader is in Bellator MMA with two belts on his shoulders. No, this isn’t the sort of fight you would typically put forth to fill an arena with 18,000 seats, but in the modern light heavyweight climate, it’s as legitimate as any fight to help let the cream rise to the top.
With that being said, Mick Maynard’s matchmaking here is smart. For the hardcore fans, you have a battle of the brutal body kickers. Longer-tenured, hardcore observers may bemoan the reality that 205 pounds isn’t the “star” division of MMA anymore as we prepare for Jones defending his title against Anthony Smith, but there’s only one way to create new contenders, and it’s through fights like this. Frankly, you could do worse. Blachowicz is on a four-fight winning streak over increasingly impressive opposition, and Santos is 7-1 over his last eight, having now moved up to 205 pounds, where he may be physically better suited. This isn’t a blockbuster, but it’s still a well-made and valuable fight to the light heavyweight division. Can we cash on it?
I fully understand why bookies are sizing this up as an even line, given the style matchup. Blachowicz eats a lot of shots, but he is a sturdy technician and has shown it over his winning streak, absorbing some damage to figure out his opponents in order to break them down, whether standing or on the ground. Meanwhile, Santos, for all his piss and vinegar on the feet, is still susceptible to getting popped. However, if you look at how David Branch caught him snoozing in the standup, “Marreta” was clearly expecting a double-leg shot and got clocked with an overhand right. Blachowicz doesn’t tend to mix up his attacks in that way; he’s either striking, or he’s grappling. It’s still a major issue that this is a 25-minute fight and the Pole has shown he can take a licking and keep on ticking, while Santos tends to depreciate in fights, even when he’s dominating. See the Kevin Holland fight.
Still, Santos is the more potent offensive fighter here, and this is a bout, regardless of weight, between two fighters that typically eschew defense. I may have sized this up as a “battle of body kickers,” but Santos has the most devastating left shin to the liver in this entire sport. On top of that, he has savage power in both hands to compliment his body kicks. Santos also lands a whopping 5.02 significant strikes per minute to his opponent’s 3.64, while absorbing almost a full significant strike less over 60 seconds. Blachowicz is the more well-rounded fighter, and if he can tease out the Brazilian and get him on the floor, he could make fools of us all. However, Blachowicz is at an athletic disadvantage and Santos is healthier at 205 pounds, and that dynamic should create a bout in which “Marreta” is piecing up his slower, plodding foe on the feet, no matter the toughness. While I understand bookmakers’ conservative even odds, I like Santos here; this is MMA, and offensive firepower is what wins fights more often than not.
Straight Up PassMarcos Rogerio de Lima (-125)
It has been almost five years since Rogerio de Lima put together back-to-back victories inside the Octagon. While I’ll admit that almost 10 years ago I thought “Pezao” might have been a hot prospect, his floundering performance against Mike Kyle disabused me of that notion, and ever since, his truer nature has been obvious. He should be fighting at 205 pounds, but for whatever reason can’t seem to make the weight in a healthy fashion. As a heavyweight, he’s carrying extra weight that only seems to exacerbate his woeful cardio issues.
Last time out, Rogerio de Lima nailed down his best win in years by grinding out Adam Wieczorek, but it was positively gruesome to watch and largely predicated on the Pole’s lack of wrestling ability and willingness to play from the bottom. In this case, Struve offers a totally different game. The Dutchman has 10 inches of height and nine inches of reach on Rogerio de Lima, which will make him infinitely more difficult to handle in any situation, whether it’s on the feet striking or just playing guard -- a position from which “Skyscraper” actually has some nifty skills and is constantly active. Struve is far from a defensive wizard, but in this case, he’s facing an inflated light heavyweight who can crack hard but more often than not chooses not to crack at all.
I understand why this line was set where it was and even understand why pretty much all the money that has come in has gone on “Pezao,” moving him from -110 to -125. Because Struve has been on the wrong end of so many notable knockouts and because of the presence of his iffy heart condition, it’s reflexive to imagine that any fighter who can put a couple of strikes together could exploit the fact he absorbs a grim 3.92 significant strikes per minute. With that said, Rogerio de Lima only has seven or so minutes of gas; beyond that he is forced to resort to sloppy takedowns and grinding from top position. Not only does Struve pack some surprising pop with his rangy strikes, which he should be able to use on the much smaller man, but he is certainly the more active, finish-oriented grappler on the floor. This fight seems fated to be a sloppy, wacky affair, and resultantly, Rogerio de Lima should get a hard pass from bettors.
A Prop-ular BetGian Villante-Michal Oleksiejczuk Goes to Decision (-165)
Speaking of messy fights, this is likely to be one, as well, albeit with a different flavor. Villante is a plus athlete and presented as a great prospect early in his career before he made it to the elite level of MMA and it became abundantly clear he has zero defense and little interest in strategy. That may have him on the losing end of things against Oleksiejczuk, who showed against Khalil Rountree that he is more than willing to minimize risk and simply land pot shots from distance.
The approach Oleksiejczuk used against Rountree may be informed by the fact that so many of his victories early in his career revolved around his absorbing considerable damage from his opponents, then needing to brawl his way out of tight spots before eventually landing himself a knockout. While Villante will never be confused for a future 205-pound title contender, he is tougher than shoe leather, and while he eats a staggering and worrisome 5.31 significant strikes per minute, he has only been stopped via strikes twice in the last eight years; and based on his penchant to suck up damage and keep fighting, it’s a fair argument that his stoppage loss to Tom Lawlor was a bit premature. More than that, for all of his defensive liabilities, the Bellmore Kickboxing Academy product can also flex with his wrestling, and if he happened to feel strategically inclined, he could actually ground Oleksiejczuk and slow the fight down.
Obviously, this is not a fight pick one way or the other; the purpose here is to point out that -165 is a fairly generous prop bet given that Oleksiejczuk, despite having racked up knockouts coming up in Poland, is not a naturally aggressive striker and Villante, despite his porous defense, has long demonstrated his ability to take one to land one, plus, he has the size, athleticism and wrestling ability to put the brakes on a slugfest if he just happens to think about it. I imagine Villante throwing his usual reckless strikes and Oleksiejczuk working a steady, sterile outfighting game, just as he did against Rountree. Even if one or the other lands a harsh shot on the other, both have demonstrated their ability to recover and soldier on, so despite the possibility of some train wreck violence, this one seems bound for 15 minutes, making this prop an appetizing one.
An Un-propular BetRogerio de Lima by Knockout (+220)
I cautioned against betting on Rogerio de Lima, so consider this a bit of corollary to that idea. There is more of a specificity here, though. Typically, I advocate for the idea that when you like a fighter to win a particular bout, if there’s an obvious and likely method of victory for said fighter, you should grab that prop bet, as well. Even if you’re on the side of Rogerio de Lima headed into the Struve bout, I’d skate on this proposition.
As I mentioned earlier, when people imagine Struve losing, they imagine Mark Hunt cracking his jaw in half or Junior dos Santos folding him like an accordion. After all, “Skyscraper” has been knocked out seven times in his 11 career losses. “Pezao” is at his most effective on the feet when he can work heavy kicks to the legs and body, then bring slugging hooks on the follow-up attack. In this fight, he’s giving up nine inches of reach and likely won’t be in his ideal range to work that sort of game. Given Struve’s tendency to hold his chin straight in the air and often forgetting to use his jab to maintain distance, Rogerio de Lima will undoubtedly land some hands over the course of the fight. However, they’re likely to be reaching shots and not the usual heavy hooks he lands in mid-range with his feet planted.
Both fighters are highly flawed with major defensive liabilities, hence the line being nearly even, so it’s not like a Rogerio de Lima win would represent a revolutionary upset. If the Brazilian is going to pull it off, though, he is likely to take the path of least resistance and work the kind of game plan he did against Wieczorek. If that’s the case, a knockout is awfully unlikely, as Rogerio de Lima will just be pushing Struve into the fence, knuckling him in close and then trying to grind him out on top with lukewarm offense. On the surface, it seems appealing to jump on a natural striker to knock out Struve at +220, but Rogerio de Lima’s striking style, physical deficits and recent performances suggest that even if he gets the victory, it’s not going to be a classic example of Struve getting boxed up.
An Accumulation ContemplationSantos (-110)
Liz Carmouche (-140)
Gillian Robertson (-165)
Total Odds: +426
I already expressed my preference for Santos in the main event, and while he is a flawed fighter that Blachowicz may well exploit, I think “Marreta” should be a bigger favorite; and since we’re building a parlay and trying to get that multiplier up, a -110 line on such an offensively potent fighter is a huge help. More than that, there are many competitive lines on this card, and there’s an awful lot of uncertainty there with many middling or unestablished fighters paired against one another. Santos isn’t a sure thing, but at least we know what we’re getting when he steps into the cage and a fairly clear idea of how his skills pair with Blachowicz, which makes him all the more appealing if we’re putting together a three-team bet.
Operating under that logic, that’s also part of why I like Carmouche here. Sure, opponent Lucie Pudilova is fighting in her home country and cutting down to flyweight, a more appropriate weight class for her. However, Carmouche is still bigger, stronger and has more options in this fight. Pudilova is a tough nut to crack and not scared to brawl, but even though Carmouche often falls in love with her own standup from time to time, her recent win over former Invicta Fighting Championships titlist Jennifer Maia showed she still knows the best way to butter her bread. Even if this bout spends a lot of time on the feet, Carmouche is likely to work an outfighting game, moving around the charging Czech and attacking with leg kicks from distance. Carmouche often struggles in fights where she has to chase her opponents to grab the body lock, the position from which she generates most of her takedowns. Pudilova’s straightforward punch rushes figure to help her get to the body on that accord. Pudilova is rugged, but off of her back, it’s unlikely she’s going to offer much to “Girl-Rilla,” who figures to take a unanimous verdict courtesy of top-position grinding. Carmouche should be a bigger favorite, and -140 is too good to pass up here.
As for Robertson, though she’s coming off a loss to the uber-talented Mayra Bueno Silva, she has really stepped her game up recently. She’s no world beater to be sure, but she’s a super-slick grappler, and in Veronica Macedo, she’s facing an opponent who is still very green and hasn’t faced much in the way of serious opposition. Macedo has gotten completely run over in her two UFC appearances against Ashlee Evans-Smith and Andrea Lee and had no way to get her grappling game going. Robertson is likely the better striker here and should be able to dictate position, as well. The Canadian still lacks structure in her overall game, but against Macedo, who still fights like a novice, she will likely realize that her cutthroat grappling game is her greatest advantage and will be able to use superior standup to set it up.
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