Welcome MMA bettors, speculators, and gambling lurkers! Back at it again for another week of comprehensive gambling analysis from your friends at MMAFighting.com. This Sunday, we have a strange one as B.J. Penn returns once more to the octagon after almost two and a half years away from the sport to take on one of the hottest prospects in the featherweight division.
For those of you who are new here or those who have forgotten, this aims to be an exhaustive preview of the fights, the odds, and my own personal breakdown of where you can find betting value. The number after the odds on each fighter is the probability of victory that those odds imply (so Rodriguez at -445 means he should win the fight 82 percent of the time). If you think he wins more often than the odds say, you should bet it because there's value in the line.
As always, all stats come from FightMetric and all the odds are from Best Fight Odds. Net Value means how much money you would have made if you bet $100 on that fighter in every one of his/her fights that odds could be found for. Doubly as always, I'm trying to provide the most thorough guide I can for those who want to legally bet or who just enjoy following along. If you are a person who chooses to gamble, only do so legally, responsibly, and at your own risk.
Now with all that out of the way, let’s go.
Yair Rodriguez is a highly touted prospect with the type of exotic, disjointed game you see from hyper athletic young fighters. On the feet he is creative - sometimes to his own detriment - but limited. He has an array of acrobatic and exciting kicks, but throws very few punches and has little else to connect his striking together. His defense is almost entirely predicated on his ability to maintain a lengthy distance via his kicking game, but when people get inside that range he’s hittable. However, more often than not, Rodriguez's good movement and stance switches enable him to keep his preferred range. When fighters work inside on him, he can initiate a clinch where he uses a sneaky selection of tosses and trips to get his opponent off balance and to the mat.
Despite the big talk about his striking acumen, grappling is probably the strongest part of Rodriguez's game. He’s a sneakily good offensive wrestler (though not a great defensive one) and he times power doubles well and finishes cleanly. As a top position grappler, he works sharp ground and pound and he’s good at passing and holding position. From the bottom, he’s even more aggressive, constantly moving his hips to find attacks, but like many Jackson-Wink fighters, he works quickly and then looks to stand should his guard game find no traction.
As for Penn, let me preface whatever I say with this: B.J. Penn is the reason I first got into MMA and, like many in the media, he has in irreplaceable spot in my heart for making me a fan of this sport. Having said that, Penn is one of the greatest fighters ever to step foot in the cage and his return brings with it a ton of different questions and unknowns.
At the peak of his powers, Penn was the most impressive blend of craft and athleticism in MMA. He’s the first American to win gold at the Mundials in the black belt division and he did so after only three years of training. It’s hard to put how impressive that is into context but just know that had B.J. Penn not gone into fighting, there is a very real chance he would be known as the best grappler in history. He carried that grappling prowess with him into MMA, being the best top position grappler in the sport during his reign and probably the second-best all-time behind Demian Maia.
But Penn didn’t rely on his grappling nearly as much as many other jiu-jitsu practitioners who jump to MMA. Penn quickly adapted well to the striking aspect of the sport and became known as one of the best boxers in the entire sport, operating behind a sharp, dipping jab and a powerful left hook. He had serious, natural power in his hands and excellent defensive skills, paired with an iron chin and the natural ability to not show damage. He was less defensively sound for strikes to the body though and he would often get lazy and fail to check leg kicks.
These two aspects of Penn’s game were held together by some of the best clinch fighting and wrestling in the sport. Penn’s takedown defense is legendary, especially from single leg attempts and he also excelled at utilizing short punches in the clinch to exact a toll from fighters who would try and take him down. He was also a surprisingly good offensive wrestler when he chose to be, and his aptitude for striking carried over to the ground where he is still likely the best blend of positional top control and ground and pound the sport has ever seen.
In the above breakdown of Penn, you’ll notice one key thing: everything is in the past tense. That’s because Penn hasn’t fought in years and even his last outing was a horror show of awkward, stiffness that is best forgotten. Given the layoff, how he looked the last time he fought, and the uncertainty about his training being split between so many different camps, there is no telling what this iteration of Penn looks like.
Still, I can’t help but pick him here. Rodriguez is hyper talented and Penn is old and of questionable commitment and training level, but of all the top 15 opponents, this is one of the more winnable fights for him. Rodriguez’s game still lacks a lot of the fundamental parts that make up a complete fighter and he just went a hard 25 against Alex Caceres. Moreover, he isn’t a great defensive wrestler and Penn is a good takedown artist and one of the best top controllers in MMA history. I think Penn will come out as a grappler, plant Rodriguez on the mat and there is approximately zero percent change Rodriguez taps Penn from his back. Once on top, I think we see vintage Penn for one more go, and he hustles his way to the back before locking in a rear-naked choke. Call it abject homerism, you are probably right. But I’m picking Penn to win and I’m betting him at these long odds. You shouldn’t though. I would never advise anyone to die on this hill with me, nor to put money down in doing so.
Joe Lauzon is one of MMA's premier action fighters. Heading into 2016, it appeared Lauzon might be beginning to decline, and while that may still be the case, his last few fights have had him looking better than ever and every bit as fun to watch as he always has been.
Aggression is the name of Lauzon's game. He's a powerful puncher and wrestler who comes out of the gate like hell on wheels, and while this has led him to be one of the all-time leaders in bonus award wins, it also results in him only having cardio for about seven minutes, which is why he's only won a single decision in his almost 40-fight career. That may be changing a bit though as he put together a complete 15 minutes in his last outing against Jim Miller, and though he lost the decision, many people believed he was robbed.
On the feet, Lauzon mostly throws big power strikes while moving his way forward until he shoots a takedown or winds up in the clinch. He’s very hittable, with minimal defense, but he’s got a good chin and his pressure makes up for some of his defenses lapses. He’s mean with the elbows in the clinch and his takedowns are solid and relentless. On the floor, Lauzon's a good transitional grappler who strikes will and often but he isn’t the most consistent at holding position.
Marcin Held is an exciting young prospect with a wealth of experience (24 fights) despite being only 24 years old. Held is primarily a grappler with one of the great equalizers in MMA, a diverse and lethal leg lock game. He's not just a leg lock man, though, as he can use them to sweep or scramble to dominant position, and once he’s on top, Held is an excellent ground and pounder.
On the feet, Held is still developing, but he's a competent combination boxer and uses his strikes to set up his takedowns well, though he isn’t a dynamite wrestler. Held primarily works boxing combinations with the occasional kick mixed in. However, he’s poor defensively and his cardio is suspect which means he gets even more hittable as the fight goes on.
Held's biggest weakness is his aggressive style and willingness to go for broke when sometimes it would be better to just bank rounds. He will often give up his back in pursuit of rolling heel hooks or chase a submission that leaves him vulnerable to experience grapplers who will defend and punish him. That’s exactly what Lauzon is. Lauzon is a talented, experienced grappler who isn’t likely to fall for the tricks Held is bringing to the table and on the feet he packs much more power and craft. Furthermore, Lauzon’s cardio has always been a concern, but Held too has cardio issues, and those will worsen considering Lauzon starts fast and punishes opponents early. If Lauzon doesn’t score a knockout in his first round blitz, I expect Held will be too tired to mount a comeback and as he gets increasingly desperate, will dive for an ill-advised leg lock attempt that will put him in prime position to get punched on from the top. The pick is Lauzon by second-round TKO and I like a bet on him.
Court McGee is the definition of a fighter who makes the most out of what he has. McGee isn't an athletic marvel, and thus his game is entirely predicated around the things he can control, namely, pressing a high pace and making conditioning a factor. McGee has an exceptional work rate, constantly throwing strikes and shooting for takedowns. He is durable and defensively sound and he leans on those fundamentals combined with relentless pressure to break his opponents.
On the ground, he’s not much for passing and finishing, preferring to control and pepper with shots to prevent a stand up. Much like his striking game, there isn’t a lot of flash here but it’s effective at winning rounds.
Ben Saunders is a good sized welterweight with an effective Muay Thai striking style, paired with an active submission game that benefits his long, lanky frame. On the feet, Saunders does his best work either at kicking range or in the clinch where his frame allows him to land powerful knees. Inside though, Saunders struggle to string combinations together and he’s not a defensive genius.
Competent wrestling compliments his striking game but his real secondary skill set is his grappling. His long frame allows him to connect a variety of submissions together off his back and he is always looking to threaten a sweep. On top, that same frame allows him to control his opponents and work strikes while passing to dominant position.
This is an extremely close fight. Both guys are durable veterans and both have proven effective against similar styles as their opponent brings to the cage. It’s somewhat a dynamism versus process fight, and whether Saunders’ superior power and finishing ability will overcome the grinding of McGee. For me, this comes down to the likelihood of Saunders actually catching McGee in a submission which seems unlikely. McGee is a savvy vet on the floor, and though I think takedowns will be hard to get, he will get them and Saunders is a bit too content to try and submit which will be his downfall. Overall, I like the volume and pressure of McGee to win the rounds so the pick is McGee by decision and I like a small bet on McGee by Decision at +180.
John Moraga is a well-rounded fighter who is competent at every phase of the game without excelling at any one, particular thing. He’s a solid striker that works in combinations and with power but he lacks the real craft to set up anything truly dangerous to elite opponents. He’s also a solid, if unspectacular wrestler both offensively and defensively.
Moraga’s best skill is his grappling, specifically his submissions in transition. He made it all the way to a title shot by virtue of his opportunistic throat hunting in scrambles and if given the opening, he will make his opponent pay. The problem for Moraga is in getting that opening because if his opponent doesn’t afford him the chance, Moraga isn’t great at creating his own chances.
Sergio Pettis is the younger brother of former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and he’s had a tougher time of things as a result of having a famous name and being rushed too quickly. Pettis is still very young at only 23 years old, and he’s really been coming into his own the last few fights.
Pettis is primarily a striker, and while he doesn’t have the hyper-dynamic flair that his brother used to win a title, he is fundamentally better at the game. He’s a precise striker, less reliant on the sniper shot than his brother and more willing to work angles and combinations that win exchanges rather than stop fights. He also has much better footwork than his brother and moves well and often on the feet.
Where Sergio is fairly behind his brother is in his ground game. That’s not to say that Pettis can’t grapple but his brother is top shelf talent on the floor, and Pettis is not nearly the submission threat his brother is. However, Pettis doesn’t pretend he is and usually works to get back to his feet.
This fight, like many of Moraga’s, comes down to whether Pettis makes a mistake. If Pettis stay tight and focused, he’s a better technical striker who throws more volume standing and a good enough defensive wrestler to keep Moraga off of him. If Pettis makes a lapse though, Moraga can certainly jump onto it and finish the fight. At 23, Pettis is young enough to fall prey to a mental error, but he’s also much younger and much more likely to make large improvements. Given all the factors, the most likely scenario here is Pettis keeping things buttoned up and winning a unanimous decision. That’s my pick, and I also like a bet on Pettis by decision at +125, since Pettis isn’t much of a finisher, and Moraga is so tough that he lasted almost five full rounds with Demetrious Johnson.
Frankie Saenz (-160/62%) vs. Augusto Mendes (+140/42%)
Saenz is a collegiate wrestler for Arizona State who would be considered a blue-chip prospect but for the fact that he started his MMA career so late in life. He’s fast and athletic, with good combination striking on the feet and solid knees and elbows in the clinch. As his pedigree would suggest, he’s a great wrestler both offensively and defensively and he’s only lost to the elite of the division, and barely doing so at that.
Mendes is a multiple-time world champion BJJ practitioner in both the Gi and in No Gi. He is one of the few grapplers in MMA who can truly claim to be “world class” and that skill makes up the core of his fighting style. He’s not a great wrestler though and on the feet he looks uncomfortable, is hittable, and doesn’t look used to getting hit yet.
Mendes really has had a rough go of it for his introduction to the UFC. First, he had to fight the now champion Cody Garbrandt which is the worst possible style match up for him, and now he faces a similarly awful match up in Saenz. Saenz is an excellent wrestler and should be able to keep this standing and on the feet he is faster, sharper, and more powerful than Mendes. Barring some dramatic improvements by Mendes, this seems tailor made for a Saenz win here. The pick is Saenz by second-round KO and if he gets down to -150, I like a bet on him.
Aleksei Oleinik (-135/57%) vs. Victor Pesta (+115/47%)
Oleinik is a multiple time world champion in combat sambo and carries and International Master of Sport in the discipline. Basically, he is really, really good at amateur MMA which is, in many respects, what combat sambo is. His game is all pressure and takedowns and chasing submissions on the mat and he is very good at doing just that.
Pesta is a willing striker though not a particularly good one but his game relies much more on shooting takedowns and control from the top. Unfortunately for him, he’s not an especially great wrestler though he is dogged in his pursuit and he’s tough as nails.
This is a strange one to bet on because Oleinik is a much superior fighter at this point, but he’s also pushing 40 and Pesta is 13 years his junior and it feels strange to pick against the younger fighter in fights like these. But this is heavyweight and 39 is the new 29 north of 205 pounds and Oleinik’s veteran savvy, experience, and skill advantages should be enough to get him the win here. The pick is Oleinik by second- round submission, but this is heavyweight MMA, so keep your wallet in your pocket.
Tony Martin (-225/69%) vs. Alex White (+185/35%)
Martin is a world champion BJJ practitioner in No Gi at the blue belt level, who currently holds a brown belt. Aside from jiu-jitsu, Martin doesn’t have much else. He isn’t the best wrestler though he’s huge for the division so that helps and he’s also not a great striker and gets hit a fair bit on the feet.
White is a former featherweight who works out of a southpaw stance and has solid boxing and power. He isn’t a great wrestler though and he’s still a relative novice on the ground at only the blue belt level.
This is a clear “Either-Or” fight. Either Martin gets the takedown and hustles White on top on his way to an early submission, or White keeps it standing and jaws Martin. The former seems more likely to me as Martin should have a good bit of size over the former featherweight and one it hits the floor he is a much, much better grappler. The pick is Martin by first round submission but the odds are off and you shouldn’t bet this one. White is almost an intriguing bet at so high a number but this is still low level competition and the exact types of fights I stay away from.
Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger (+125/44%) vs. Nina Ansaroff (-145/59%)
This is my pick for Fight of the Night. Jones-Lybarger is big for the division and uses her size well, operating at distance behind a long jab and low kicks. She works at a good rate but she isn’t the best defensive fighter. She is an excellent defensive wrestler though, but I doubt that will come into play here anyway.
Ansaroff is also a combination striker but she’s must faster than Jones-Lybarger and has much more craft to her game. She can lead or counter and she works at a high rate while also having much better defense and movement than Jones-Lybarger.
This is a competitive bout but it feels like Jones-Lybarger is just a tad behind in the areas that matter. Ansaroff is better at range, quicker, and should be able to counter effectively off the volume that Jones-Lybarger throws. The big concerns here are Ansaroff’s year-long layoff and the fact that she doesn’t seem to curry favor with the judges. She should have won both of her UFC losses and her tendency to fight moving backwards, even though she does so effectively, cost her against Kish. Still, I like Ansaroff to win a decision here and a small wager on her by decision at +110 is not a bad option considering how tough JJL is.
Devin Powell (+210/32%) vs. Drakkar Klose (-250/71%)
Powell is a grappler by trade, a BJJ black belt who looks every bit the jiu-jitsu guy turned MMA fighter. On the feet, he has power and is willing but he’s awkward and in need of seasoning.
Klose is the opposite. He was a collegiate wrestler and looks to fit in that sort of mold as well. He’s athletic and fluid and looks quite comfortable on the feet. He’s not high level grappler though so his best bet is to keep this standing and work combinations.
If Powell can get this to the floor, he should have an edge in the grappling but that seems a tough out for him. He’s not a superb wrestler and Klose is quicker and more athletic. I expect Klose will be able to keep this fight upright for the full 15 and use his superior boxing to earn a decision. I wouldn’t bet this though as it’s two debuting fighters and the odds are long.
Walt Harris (-140/58%) vs. Chase Sherman (+120/45%)
Walt Harris is a big, athletic southpaw without much else going for him. He has fast hands, hits very hard, and has solid takedown defense, but he doesn’t throw a lot and his durability is questionable.
Sherman is the opposite. He works at a high rate but he lacks power and his defense is really concerning. He throws great combinations and works good low kicks but he also gets hit A LOT, though he seems to have a pretty solid chin.
Sometimes fights are simple and this looks to be one of those. Chase Sherman gets hit in the head a lot and Walt Harris has big time power and very fast hands. That should line things up for a first round KO for Harris – and that will be my pick – but Harris is also 1-4 in the UFC and he was losing to Cody East before landing a big punch in the second and getting just a bit of assistance from the referee, stopping the fight while East was still moving to defend (albeit pretty badly hurt. What I’m saying is, don’t put your money on low end heavyweight fights.
Bojan Mihajlovic (+200/33%) vs. Joachim Christensen (-240/71%)
Mihajlovic is a grappler by trade, with a brown belt in BJJ, a black belt in Judo, and powerful takedowns that fit his well-built frame. He doesn’t offer much beyond that and his willingness to take strikes is up for debate.
Christensen is a big, well-rounded light heavyweight. He’s a very active striker who throws a lot of combinations and works behind his jab on the feet, albeit without a ton of power. He’s also a BJJ black belt though he’s lost grappling exchanges in the past.
If Mihajlovic can get takedowns he can make this close but otherwise this should be a Christensen win. Mihajlovic has a touch more power but he throws sparsely and Christen has much more technique. Christensen is also a good enough wrestler and grappler to nullify Mihajlovic and when you factor in his size and reach advantages, it looks like one way traffic. The pick is Christensen by decision, but at those odds and with this level of fighting, you should stay away.
Dmitrii Smoliakov (+100/50%) vs. Cyril Asker (-120/55%)
Smoliakov is a Master of Sport in freestyle wrestling in Russia, one of the premier world powers in the wrestling world, so his grappling and takedowns are solid. On the feet, he’s a slow, plodding boxer with power in his hands and developing skill but he’s still a limited striker.
Asker is much crisper on the feet, working more combinations and he’s several magnitudes quicker. Asker can grapple as well, preferring upper body takedowns with leg entanglements to compliment his BJJ brown belt.
This is a low level heavyweight fight so there are a lot of X factors here and a lot of unknowns. With that caveat, I’m picking Asker to win based on his much faster hands and his grappling background. On the feet, I think Asker’s speed should let him light Smoliakov up and I don’t know that Smoliakov’s gas tank will allow him to win a decision over a solid grappler who can make him work. The pick is Asker by third-round TKO, but no bet.
And that's all folks. Enjoy the fights everyone and good luck to those who need it. If you've got any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @JedKMeshew
(Editor's note: All of this advice is for entertainment purposes only.)