Any fight involving Justin Gaethje is guaranteed to produce fireworks. After staying busy sweating a few weeks of UFC Apex Fight Nights, bettors are in for a treat this Saturday with one of the most powerful pay-per-view cards of the year.
UFC 274 brings us two title fights featuring current champions Charles Oliveira and Rose Namajunas. The main card ends with sports legends Donald Cerrone, Joe Lauzon and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. It’s rare that I come across a fight that I’d rather just enjoy as a fan, but Cerrone vs. Lauzon is one of them. I’d rather soak up the nostalgia and curiously watch their final chapters unfold than worry about their effectiveness in their final battles. If there was a big enough upside, I’d bet it. Luckily, the map is full of plenty of fighters in their prime that have more predictive value. Here is my betting analysis on the two title fights, my best bet on the preliminary card and my UFC bet that pays out at +121. Let’s take action.
Charles Oliveira (-175) vs Justin Gaethje (+145)
Oliveira has won 10 straight fights in the UFC’s deepest and most competitive division. I don’t think there’s another obstacle course that I’ve come to appreciate more. The lightweight champion still looks underappreciated by the market heading into his second title defense. After finishing Dustin Poirier in December with +140 underdog, he stands as a slight favorite against Justin Gaethje.
“The Highlight” really is the best way to describe the challenger, a fighter who delivers a significant 7.5 punches per minute and soaks up even more. Gaethje uses his crushing kicks to set up his devastating left hand with the sole purpose of putting his opponent to sleep. Gaethje is at his best when the fight turns into a brawl, but this type of approach will definitely open him up for Oliveira to kill him. And no one has submitted or finished more fighters in UFC history than Oliveira.
The current champion is fully aware of how quickly Gaethje’s debilitating kicks can change the tide of the fight. I expect the experienced Oliveira, a 41-fight veteran, to come prepared with a game plan to crush the distance and take this fight to a phone booth. Once inside, the champ has a devastating arsenal of clinch elbows and uppercuts, where he can switch to sweeps and takedowns to bring Gaethje to the mat. The challenger brings very good defensive grappling into the fight but has no answer for Oliveira’s high-level submission grappling.
Oliveria has developed the maturity and composure to overcome adverse situations, and his last two fights give me confidence that he can weather any early storm that Gaethje brings. I wouldn’t be surprised if he worked the challenger quickly, but the value at -175 was enough for me to commit to the silver line price.
The bet: Charles Oliveira (-175)
Rose Namajunas (-225) against Carla Esparza (+185)
“Thug Rose” has the opportunity to get revenge on one of the few women to get the best out of her in the Octagon. The current strawweight champion has won six of her last seven fights and ended back-to-back attempts by Zhang Weili to dethrone her as champion with a split decision victory last November. Namajuna’s evolution as a martial artist has been amazing to watch. She has the power to end the fight on her hands, a very technically sound ground game and can threaten submissions on her back. She is the most well-rounded martial artist in the division and a legitimate champion. Maybe it doesn’t matter Saturday night.
Both fighters hold large advantages in this matchup, and whoever can dictate where the fight takes place will have their hands raised. Calling this a ‘striker vs. grappler’ matchup does a huge disservice to Namajunas’ overall skill set, but in MMA you’re only as good as your greatest vulnerability. For Namajunas, it’s his defense against withdrawal. Rose was taken down five times in her last fight by Weili, the same number of times she was taken down in her loss to Esparza in 2014. Esparza averages 3.53 takedowns per 15 minutes, or 5.88 extrapolating on a fight in five rounds. Asking Namajunas to keep this fight on its feet long enough to win three out of five rounds doesn’t seem realistic against an opponent who will be relentless with their wrestling and control at the top.
The two most likely scenarios are Esparza winning by decision and Namajunas knocking him out on the feet. While “Thug Rose” absolutely has the strength to do it, I don’t think the odds accurately reflect the likelihood of it happening. Esparza may be a one-trick pony, but I can see her mounting her fight for a decision victory. The juicy underdog at +185 is definitely worth a bet to me.
The bet: Carla Esparza (+185)
Tracy Cortez (-145) vs. Melissa Gatto (+120)
It wouldn’t be a UFC card without a plus-money game on the prelims. This is an intriguing stylistic showdown between two fighters who are both undefeated in their first fights in the UFC. Cortez holds an advantage in striking, but that advantage is irrelevant given that neither fighter is interested in keeping this one on his feet. As the fight progresses, Cortez will instinctively implement his fight, testing Gatto on his back. But it’s a dangerous match to play with the 22-year-old Brazilian hopeful. Prior to winning his first two UFC fights by TKO, his previous four victories came via multiple submissions. Whether she’s reaching for an armbar, throwing a Kimura, or smothering her opponent, Gatto has proven she can finish fights.
I think this is the perfect match for her to show off her grappling, and she’s very much alive as an underdog against a wrestler determined to keep the fight where Gatto is most comfortable. The inside distance at +375 is worth considering, but to make sure we start Saturday with a winner, let’s make sure the majority of our stake is on Gatto to win at +120.
The bet: Melissa Gatto (+120)
The bet: Andre Fiahlo, Kleydson Rodrigues and Ovince St. Preux (+121)
*Statistics provided by ufcstats.com.