UFC 144: By the Odds

Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC 144 brings the Octagon back to Japan and plenty of action back to the pay-per-view airwaves this Saturday night. The oddsmakers have laid down their pluses and minuses. Now it’s up to us to parse through the numbers and put our money where our keyboards are. As usual, let's begin at the top of the card.

Frankie Edgar (-130) vs. Ben Henderson (even)

Maybe the oddsmakers have finally come around on Edgar. Maybe, like many of us, they got tired of being wrong. Maybe they decided that if they have to lose money on an Edgar fight, they’d rather do it in the other direction for a change, just to see what it feels like. As Chuck Liddell said when I spoke to him for a very special edition of ‘Fighter vs. Writer’ (look for that on Saturday, btw): "I can’t go against Frankie...I mean, I have before, both times with B.J. [Penn] and the second time with Gray [Maynard]. But he’s tough, man." That more or less sums up my feelings on the matter. You get burned by ‘the little champion that could’ enough times and eventually you have to learn your lesson, right? Right?

Yes. Certainly. And yet...I can’t stop thinking that maybe -- just maybe -- Henderson is the man to take that title. He’s a big 155’er with a solid all-around game and a non-stop motor. He demolished Jim Miller and won a cartoon dust cloud of a fight with Clay Guida to get this shot, so clearly he belongs at this level. He can wrestle, he can strike, and he isn’t easily put away. So why can’t he beat Edgar? Maybe there’s a quickness gap. Maybe also a quality of competition one, depending on your perspective. But Henderson isn’t out of depth here. Maybe an even money bet to claim the UFC lightweight title isn’t so crazy after all?
My pick: Edgar. If Henderson were a bigger underdog, I’d consider it. But honestly, I just can’t bear to be on the wrong side of Edgar’s ongoing ‘Rocky’ saga. I’d actually rather lose money on him than risk winning while joining the ranks of those who pick against him every single time. Ask me on Sunday whether I still feel that way.

Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (-280) vs. Ryan Bader (+220)

The way I see it, there are two huge question marks here: 1) Can Bader take a punch? and 2) Does Jackson still care enough about this MMA nonsense to do well at it? These questions are equally difficult to answer. It’s possible that getting dropped by Tito Ortiz was a fluke thing for Bader. It’s never happened before or (in the one fight) since. But then, it’s also not exactly something Ortiz is known for. If a short hook from him can take your legs away, what’ll happen when "Rampage" touches your chin? Maybe nothing, because maybe ‘Page doesn’t really give a damn anymore. We know Bader isn’t his idea of a dream opponent for his glorious return to Japan. Of course, he won’t admit it unless he loses -- at which point no one reaches for an excuse faster than Jackson, except maybe Ortiz -- but it seems likely that he didn’t train as hard for Bader as he did for Jon Jones. Will it matter? Maybe not if he can find Bader’s off-switch with his fist early on. But if it goes into the later rounds, age and level of interest might become a factor.
My pick: Jackson. I hardly even feel comfortable with it as a parlay bet, and I think anything over -200 is overvaluing the former champ, but I just have too many doubts about Bader. And after all, this is "Rampage" in Japan. Surely that still means something, right?

Cheick Kongo (-300) vs. Mark Hunt (+230)

Okay underdog-lovers, here’s your chance. You want me to believe that Kongo, whose grappling game consists mostly of shorts-grabbing, testicle-kneeing, wall-and-stall tactics, is a 3-1 favorite over MMA’s hardest-hitting, hardest-headed, and, as far as grappling goes, most improved heavyweight? Not on your life, pal. Hunt takes a punch like a redwood and is equally as willing, as long as it gives him the chance to punch you back. Kongo might start out wanting to wrestle his way to victory, but as we saw in his last fight, Hunt’s upped his game in that department. Eventually Kongo will be compelled, either through honor or a lack of better options, to stand and trade. Then we’ll see who has the better kickboxing and the better chin. I think I already know.
My pick: Hunt. Usually I have to talk myself into picking at least one sizable underdog. This time the oddsmakers went and made it easy on me.

Jake Shields (-300) vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama (+230)

Now this is what a 3-1 favorite looks like. No disrespect to Akiyama, who still has the best walkout in the game, but if you get submitted by Chris Leben I have to admit that I don’t like your chances on the mat with Jake Shields. It probably won’t be the most exciting bout on the card. And despite his recent string of Fight of the Night awards, even Akiyama probably won’t be able to change that. Even so, it’s hard to see how this fight doesn’t get to the floor in a hurry, and once there you have to give the considerable edge to Shields.
My pick: Shields. Make room in the parlay, because here he comes.

Anthony Pettis (-240) vs. Joe Lauzon (+190)

If you believe, as Duke Roufus does, that Pettis is MMA’s Michael Jordan when he gets in his zone, these odds might look like a steal to you. To me, they look like a bit much. Pettis deserves to be the favorite in this fight. He’s dynamic and unpredictable, and he really solidified his wrestling after that loss to Guida. Still, let’s not act like Lauzon hasn’t made fools out of a few guys who were supposed to trounce him. He’s beaten some very good fighters in his day (and some very mediocre ones), and his submissions game makes him a constant threat. At the same time, if Pettis keeps it standing you have to think he’ll easily out-strike him, and it’s not as if Lauzon is known for his takedowns. Despite a little odds inflation, that’s what will make the difference here.
My pick: Pettis. It’s a parlay pick all the way, but I feel better about this one than I do about Jackson.

Quick picks:

- Yushin Okami (-345) over Tim Boetsch (+265). Does anyone else think this seems like a fight that’s tailor-made to make Okami look good in front of the home crowd? Yeah, me too.

- Bart Palaszewski (+140) over Hatsu Hioki (-170). I wasn’t terribly impressed with Hioki’s win over George Roop, while "Bartimus" still hits as hard as almost anyone in the division. Look out.

The ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ Parlay: Jackson + Shields + Pettis + Okami.

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