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Anthony Pettis shocked and thrilled us with his “Knockout of the Year” contender on Stephen Thompson on March 23 in Nashville, Tennessee. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship heads to the renowned fight city of Philadelphia for UFC on ESPN 2 on Saturday, what better way to follow up Pettis’ theatrics than with a legitimate “Fight of the Year” candidate featuring the most reliably violent man in MMA?
Yes, the UFC lightweight division continues to be characterized by chaos, but the UFC on ESPN 2 main event between Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje purports to offer us the right kind of chaos. Better still, while Gaethje will have the opportunity to co-author a third consecutive “Fight of the Year,” the UFC’s second proper offering on the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” is simply a fantastic top-to-bottom card and certainly an improvement over UFC Fight Night 148. On our six-fight main card, the biggest favorite is the unbeaten Kennedy Nzechukwu, who is around -180 or -190 on average headed into his fight with Paul Craig; no other main card favorite is averaging higher than -150 across the gamut of sportsbooks. Across the entire event, only four of the 13 fights feature a favorite -200 or higher. Suffice to say, we have some tightly matched fights on tap, and better than that, the card is chock full of exciting, offensively gifted talent.
While Pettis might have delivered at UFC Fight Night 148, my bets were not quite as fortunate. Our parlay was busted by Jordan Espinosa in the opening fight; Frankie Saenz could not make it five minutes against Marlon Vera let alone 15; and other than Curtis Blaydes, no one came through to get us the green. Just because Gaethje might not care about having a game plan does not mean we should not consider one, so let’s figure out the necessary strategy to get paid via UFC on ESPN 2:
Straight Up CashJustin Gaethje (+115)
While I do think Gaethje deserves to be the favorite here, hence advocating for the bet, I fully appreciate why Barbosa opened as a -135 favorite and folks have not been overly keen to pound the line on “The Highlight.” Sure, Gaethje is celebrated for being the most thrilling fighter in the sport, but he earned and reinforces that honor with a reckless, devil-may-care style of fighting, candidly talking about his willingness to absorb insane amounts of punishment in the cage as a point of pride. So profound is his own self-realization that he openly says things like “I win this fight eight times out of 10,” a nod to his own mortality, which is bizarrely out of step with the standard cocksureness we usually see from MMA fighters.
Gaethje’s penchant for playing with fire notwithstanding, he still has a lot going for him in this style matchup. First and primarily, he is a relentless pressure fighter by nature, which is exactly the sort of opponent with which Barboza has struggled throughout his career. The American will have to at least employ a little more technique than simply marching forward, as Barboza does have some sharp counter boxing when he opts to throw his hands, and he is keen to circle his opponents rather than move straight back and get trapped on the cage. Still, Gaethje lands 54 percent of his significant strikes, and 54 percent of that total lands to the head, as opposed to Barboza, who only lands 28 percent of his significant strikes aimed at the head. Gaethje may struggle to land his own usual barrage of low kicks here, but if he successfully manages to close the distance and crowd Barboza, he stands a good chance of defusing the Brazilian’s own brutal leg kicks and forcing more of a close range, dirty boxing sort of bout.
Though it’s hard to rely on such a thing, it’s at least worth mentioning that Gaethje was a Division I All-American wrestler as the University of Northern Colorado, though he has only attempted one takedown through his four fights in the Octagon. Plus, if Gaethje does get his man to the mat, he’s likely to do it by trapping him against the fence and sucking his legs out, at which point Barboza can use the cage to aid him in standing. Still, I think the wrestling angle is valuable to discuss, as Gaethje’s grappling background helps inform a lot of his nasty clinch work, as he alternates between hard pummeling and punching, trapping his opponents’ hands to set up his own shots while often landing fantastic strikes on the breaks.
Gaethje is undoubtedly going to have to eat some heat from Barboza to get this bout into his wheelhouse and win, but while both men absorb more significant strikes per minute than they land, Gaethje’s defensive liabilities are a direct function of his unceasing offensive output. Barboza’s stats in this regard are more troubling, given his preference for maintaining distance and protecting his head. Footwork and positioning here will be paramount, but stopping Gaethje like Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier did requires some willingness to constantly attack and exploit the former World Series of Fighting champion’s cutthroat mentality. I think the more likely outcome here is that Gaethje walks down Barboza consistently, traps him in the phonebooth and takes away his range, leg kicking ability and defensive security to take another wild win.
Straight Up PassJosh Emmett (-110)-Michael Johnson (-110)
There’s a time and a place to bet on a pick-’em fight. After all, the Barboza-Gaethje line, while not truly even odds, is still close and I just championed taking Gaethje straight up. Other times, however, you get a measure of uncertainty on one or both sides of a contest, which informs why the line is set as such and why to avoid playing it. This is one of those instances.
Granted, this fight didn’t open even, as Emmett began as a -140 favorite with money on Johnson moving both men on par with one another on the books, so if you favor “The Menace,” you missed your chance at better money. Still, there’s a reason the line ended up here and is stuck where it is. Emmett was simply a quality roster fighter until rocketing to prominence almost 16 months ago by clobbering Ricardo Lamas, but he hasn’t fought in 13 months due to a host of horrific facial injuries he suffered in his knockout loss to Jeremy Stephens, which necessitated surgery. Meanwhile, Johnson, 11-9 in the Octagon, has been consistently inconsistent during his UFC tenure, and it’s always a complete toss-up as to how he’s going to perform. The Missouri native is 2-1 since dropping to featherweight, but at the same time, he got choked out against Darren Elkins in a fight he was completely dominating for the first five minutes, arguably deserved to lose the decision to Andre Fili and beat running punchline Artem Lobov, who is now pivoting his career toward bareknuckle boxing.
Both men have similar output and defensive statistics, but Emmett is the more natural pressure fighter on the feet and blends together his wrestle-boxing style more intently by using his boxing to set up takedown attempts, averaging 1.90 takedowns per 15 minutes -- over triple the rate of Johnson. In some cases, tactics like this have forced Johnson to freeze and lower his output, rendering him more of a bystander and detracting from his defensive wrestling. By the same token, while Emmett has vastly improved his boxing over the last two years, he has struggled with left-handed punching, specifically on the counter, which is precisely how Johnson prefers to operate. Emmett’s only two career losses have come to Desmond Green, a southpaw counterstriker who landed his left diligently for 15 minutes, and Stephens, who despite being a natural righty, touched Emmett with his lead hand repeatedly before wiping him out with a left hook counter. Johnson, who will enjoy a three-inch reach advantage, has the superior hand speed and throws his left hand straight and true, so it’s critical that Emmett is clever with his forward pressure and can avoid getting rung up by clean counterpunches.
As I said, there’s no doubt that Emmett has grown as a fighter since moving to Team Alpha Male, but we have such a small sample size of his work against upper-echelon featherweights that it’s still not clear where he stands. When it comes to Johnson, his brief run at 145 pounds so far has been all over the place, which is a running theme throughout his career. Both fighters have offensive skills proven to thwart the other, which on the other side of the coin means that they each have Achilles’ heels that play in the other’s hands. In other words, enjoy the fight without the sweat of putting money on it.
A Prop-ular BetKarolina Kowalkiewicz Wins by Decision (+105)
There are lots of intriguing props on this card. I’m also interested in unbeaten Kennedy Nzechukwu to knock out the hittable and vulnerable Paul Craig at -105, as well as the potential for Barboza-Gaethje to start Round 3 at +100. However, here we’re getting better odds than the Nzechukwu prop, with more safety than the potentially raucous Barboza-Gaethje bout offers us. For my money, this is a quality blend of security and potential profit.
As always with proposition bets, we’re looking for those gaps between likelihood and betting expectations, especially when it concerns a favorite. Here, we have a former title challenger in Kowalkiewicz, who is a righteous favorite, hovering around -150 right now. At the same time, she hasn’t finished an opponent in nearly five years and is primarily a volume-based striker. Kowalkiewicz faces Michelle Waterson, who has only been knocked out once in her entire career and against vastly larger pro boxer Elena Reid a decade ago. If you believe the Pole is going to win this fight, it’s virtually certain you think she’s going to do it on the scorecards, making this a worthwhile play.
Despite her “Karate Hottie” nickname, Waterson is at her best as a grappler and that’s how she seeks to press her opponents. Unfortunately for her, Kowalkiewicz’s 87.2 percent takedown defense is the best in UFC divisional history and she is particularly effective in the clinch, both in terms of landing short dirty boxing combinations and elbows, as well as blocking opponents’ takedowns to claim top position for herself, as she did against current champion Rose Namajunas. At distance, “The Polish Princess” is a smart, clever counterstriker, with many of the same skills that Cortney Casey recently used to take Waterson to the brink. Kowalkiewicz has struggled against physical brutes like Claudia Gadelha and Jessica Andrade, but Waterson is a natural atomweight who is far too reliant on repeated headlock throw and trip attempts in the clinch. This is Kowalkiewicz’s fight to lose, and for a -150 favorite to be +105 to win in basically the only way she ever wins at the elite level is a steal.
An Unprop-ular BetEdson Barboza-Justin Gaethje Lasts Under 1.5 Rounds (+155)
I tend to use the word “temptation” a lot in this section, and this instance is no different. Throughout this column, I have extolled the exciting virtues and “Fight of the Year” potential of Barboza-Gaethje. Gaethje is overwhelmingly regarded as the most violent fighter in the sport, and Barboza has authored some of the most spectacular, devastating knockouts in MMA history. Are those truths enough to gamble on our main event lasting less than seven minutes and 30 seconds?
Sure, it’s distinctly possible, but I say no. Both fighters have serious power to go along with their diverse attacking arsenals, and last time out, it only took Gaethje 87 seconds to lay waste to James Vick. That being said, both fighters, generally speaking, operate offensive game plans based around attrition, which by its nature, takes time. It has been four and a half years since Barboza finished an opponent within a round and a half, owing to the fact that he prefers to maintain his range with jabs and chop away with low kicks to set up his heavier flying and spinning attacks. Gaethje, for all his piss and vinegar, has only two finishes within a round and a half in the last five years, preferring to overwhelm his foes with constant, relentless pressure and combinations. Again, these are strategies that require a little bit of time to percolate and pay dividends.
Seeing a clash between two dangerous dynamos with the ability to end a fight suddenly and viciously at a +155 line to last seven a half minutes is tempting, no question. However, while we’re definitely going to get some hot-and-heavy offense here, the early going of this fight is likely to be characterized by Barboza circling and Gaethje trying to trap him. I don’t think we’re looking at 25 minutes of bull-and-matador pantomime, but our headliner is more likely to be a grueling marathon than an explosive sprint.
An Accumulation ContemplationJustin Gaethje (+115)
Karolina Kowalkiewicz (-150)
Sabina Mazo (-145)
Total Odds: +505
Is it a bit of a risk to include a gunslinger like Gaethje as a critical part of a three-team parlay? Yes, but he who dares wins. As mentioned, I think “The Highlight” deserves to be the favorite in this fight based on the style matchup, even given his predilection for taking damage. For that reason, I think he’s the most attractive underdog on the card. If you’re feeling a bit squeamish about hitching your parlay wagon to a fighter as reckless as Gaethje, fellow former World Series of Fighting champion David Branch is an appetizing +105 against Jack Hermansson. However, the 37-year-old Branch has had wildly uneven, erratic performances in the Octagon, while Hermansson has stepped up his game recently and has the power to threaten the American, so while I do favor Branch to get the job done, Gaethje has the marginally better number; and in spite of his anarchic style, I still feel like I have a better handle on the main event than the co-feature.
I espoused the value of Kowalkiewicz to win by decision at +105 in the prop section, but again, what makes that prop especially worthwhile is largely due to the fact Kowalkiewicz is getting a copacetic style matchup against Waterson. Sure, it would have been better to have plunked down money when she opened around -135, but -150 is still a fantastic line for a fighter who has so many stylistic advantages, from her superior combination and counter boxing at range to the savvy clinch game necessary to shut down Waterson’s takedowns. Think of it like this: The implied winning percentage of a -150 line is 60 percent. Do you really think Waterson would win four out of 10 bouts against Kowalkiewicz? I certainly don’t. Kowalkiewicz is perfect for a parlay in this case, offering stylistic security in a fight balanced with a curiously competitive line.
Speaking of stylistically preferential matchups where the favorite should carry even wider odds, unbeaten former Legacy Fighting Alliance champion Sabina Mazo makes her anticipated UFC debut and gets a perfect first matchup in Ukraine’s Maryna Moroz. Purely in a competitive sense, this is a smart step up in competition for Mazo, who just turned 22 years old earlier this week. In turn, because Moroz is the more experienced veteran and the most accomplished fighter “The Colombian Queen” has faced, we’re getting a sweeter line than we should be entitled to here.
Since shocking Joanne Calderwood in her UFC debut, Moroz has not been particularly impressive in the Octagon, going 2-3 since, with one of those wins coming in a dreadful fight against the infinitely smaller Danielle Taylor. Moroz eats 3.79 significant strikes per minute and lands only 24 percent of those that she throws -- a statistic that comes as little surprise when you watch her fight, as “The Iron Lady” spends most of her time jabbing and whiffing at the air a foot in front of her opponent. I don’t expect Mazo to pull off the sort of head kicking savagery that put her on the map in 2017, but the Kings MMA rep is rangier, with a more aggressive, accurate and powerful striking game. At the minimum, she should be able to piece up Moroz with her kicks, just as Angela Hill did 13 months ago.