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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will head back to Mexico City for the first time in over two years with UFC Fight Night 159. Much like UFC Fight Night 158, several bouts on this card feature fighters who have fluctuated from underdog to favorite and come in with razor-thin margins. With plenty to talk about, here is the UFC Fight Night 159 edition of Prime Picks.
Yair Rodriguez (-105)
The odds for the headliner have been all over the place leading up to the show. While Rodriguez opened as a sizeable -165 favorite, the line has gotten closer and closer to even odds. Rodriguez is now actually the lesser of the two favorites, with Jeremy Stephens at -115, making this a pick-’em fight. We expect the line to continue to wobble back and forth until fight night, although the larger favorite could come from the physical appearance of the two men on the scales on Friday.
In his last seven outings, Rodriguez has racked up six post-fight bonuses, most recently picking up two in his Sherdog.com 2018 “Knockout of the Year”-winning performance against Chan Sung Jung. About 10 months ago, “Pantera” and “The Korean Zombie” engaged in a battle for the ages, and in the closing minutes, it appeared as though Jung would pull off the win. However, with one second remaining, the Mexican fighter shut the lights out on his South Korean counterpart with a no-look elbow in an all-time great moment MMA fans will remember vividly for years to come.
With 44 fights under his belt, including 30 inside the Octagon, Stephens has fought practically every fighter in the featherweight and lightweight divisions who is worth fighting, ranging from Jose Aldo, Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar to Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone and Rafael dos Anjos. In Rodriguez, Stephens faces yet another youthful prospect on the rise, much like he did in his most recent appearance against Zabit Magomedsharipov. Unfortunately for Stephens, many of those fights have resulted in his defeat, as holds the record for the most losses in company history with 15.
On paper, this is the kind of matchup Rodriguez could enjoy, with Stephens more apt to engage in a brawl as “Pantera” keeps his distance and sets up his kicking arsenal. With equivalent reach, Stephens will likely look to keep things close to keep Rodriguez from unleashing his most effective tools. The Mexican prefers high-volume affairs, as he has outlanded his opponent in most of his Octagon appearances and has eclipsed the 100 significant strike mark twice. Stephens, on the other hand, has not, although he came close when he faced Gilbert Melendez. “Lil’ Heathen” has only connected with more than 60 significant strikes three times in his lengthy UFC career.
What could play against Rodriguez is his inactivity, as 10 months have passed since his titanic clash with “The Korean Zombie.” Prior to that bout, his previous loss to Edgar came in May 2017. Comparatively, since Rodriguez squared off with Edgar, Stephens has fought five times. Having spent so much time in the Octagon, Stephens will not likely fall for Rodriguez’s wild activities and may turn this into quite a scrap. Across five rounds, Rodriguez should have more tools to win, as it seems likely that the only way this fight hits the canvas is if “Pantera” takes it there. Avoiding any of Stephens’ more serious blitz attacks while firing off kicks could be the key to success, and we predict Rodriguez will do just that. Additionally, if you feel this fight will reach the scorecards, Fight Goes to Decision is +160, while Rodriguez Wins by Decision is a decent +240.
Carla Esparza (+105)
Takedowns will be the name of the game in this strawweight contest pitting Esparza against Alexa Grasso. It is no secret that Esparza utilizes a heavy wrestling game with top pressure and ground-and-pound to soften her opponents. Grasso, who has struggled with wrestling-first game plans throughout much of her UFC career, is faced with yet another grappler in the division. Tatiana Suarez easily took control of Grasso to become the first fighter to ever stop the Mexican-born strawweight, and the 26-year-old has also given up multiple takedowns against the likes of Randa Markos and Felice Herrig.
“Cookie Monster” was also handled by Suarez, with the unbeaten fighter battering Esparza on her way to a late stoppage after scoring nine of 11 takedowns. Outside of Suarez, an early drubbing to Joanna Jedrzejczyk and a controversial split decision loss to Markos, when Esparza wins, it is because she has the takedown advantage. Although Grasso holds a takedown defense rate of over 60 percent, Esparza’s chain wrestling is such that if one attempt does not succeed, another is soon to follow. The former champ’s game plan of closing the distance and pursuing the takedown is one that will not allow Grasso to get off her most successful asset: boxing. Although Grasso could take it to Esparza on the feet, where she holds an advantage, this could easily be coined as “a classic striker versus grappler” matchup. The takedowns will be there early and often, as Esparza wears down her Mexican adversary and captures what is now considered a mild upset.
Irene Aldana Wins by Decision (-130)
Aldana came into the UFC with an impressive 7-2 record, with each of her wins by first-round stoppage. When she entered the Octagon for the first time, she ran into a wall that was Leslie Smith and was beaten to the punch in a thrilling battle that resulted in 277 combined significant strikes in what was at the time a record for women’s bantamweights. It was then that Mexico’s Aldana was no longer able to run through her opponents, as she has gone on to reach the third round in every subsequent fight. Her only UFC stoppage came via an armbar she snatched on Bethe Correia in a fight she was arguably on her way to losing.
Vanessa Melo earned her shot in the UFC on the strength of a five-fight winning streak -- all by decision -- including her most recent performance over Jan Finney at the infamous Battlefield FC 2 event in July. Melo, who also holds a win over current UFC flyweight Molly McCann, has reached the scorecards in 12 of her 15 career bouts, with two submission victories and one technical knockout defeat on her ledger. With this short-notice appearance, Aldana is the large favorite (-535) and perhaps rightfully so. Aldana’s technical boxing prowess and strength should be able to handle the debuting Brazilian, who relies on her toughness and aggressiveness rather than a particular set of skills she has acquired over a seven-year career. While we expect Aldana to get her hand raised, she may not be able to finish the Octagon newcomer. If you feel otherwise, the line for Aldana Wins Inside Distance is +210, while Aldana by TKO/KO is +365.
Paul Craig-Vinicius Moreira Castro Does Not Go to Decision (-225)
From a statistical perspective, these two men are nearly mirror images of one another. In their 27 combined fights, none have ended in the hands of the judges. Preferring to do their work with submissions, each man holds a single win with strikes, with the rest by tapout through a variety of maneuvers. All but one of their combined losses have come by knockout, with each man thrice on the losing end due to strikes. Each man measures around 6-foot-4 and possesses 76-inch wingspans, so to quote legendary commentator Mike Goldberg, they are “virtually identical.”
The odds are understandably close, as they have both dropped two of their last three fights, with their lone wins in those stretches both coming by triangle choke. In their respective spans, Alonzo Menifield knocked both of them out in under four minutes. In terms of an experience advantage, one would have to look to “Bearjew,” as he has competed seven times inside the Octagon compared to Castro’s two. Castro is a slight -125 favorite, but he initially opened as an underdog. While committing to a prop bet with relatively high odds instead of selecting one fighter over the other might seem like taking the easy way out, this is a true coinflip fight. Instead, perhaps the best way to spend your hard-earned dollars is to take the option that this fight will not be decided by judges’ verdict.
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