This weekend, the UFC will attempt to parlay its Fox promotion during NFL Conference Championship weekend into a big pay-per-view number with a pair of title fights on UFC 220. Despite being one of the weakest divisions for years, the heavyweight title is still one of the more prestigious in the sport, and it will headline in Boston’s TD Garden. Stipe Miocic will look to set a UFC record with an elusive third successful heavyweight title defense, but most of the attention in this bout has been centred around the challenger, Francis N’Gannou.
The massive Frenchman has seemingly turned into what everyone expected Cheick Kongo to be a decade ago, and the general consensus is that it is only a matter of time before he becomes champion. His 6-0 record in the UFC — with all six by stoppage — is as impressive as his rise to the top of the heavyweight division has been swift. However, despite all his successes perhaps he was a bit too eager for this matchup. A seven-week turnaround between fights is short even for someone who doesn’t need to cut weight, and Miocic is naturally the most complete challenge N’Gannou has seen in his career.
Contrary to his challenger, Miocic had a more tumultuous rise to his current perch atop the division. Seen as a solid prospect entering the UFC back in 2011, he looked impressive early before suffering his first career loss in what is now a baffling result (a TKO loss to Stefan Struve) which had many questioning his long-term outlook. Since that time, he has shown consistent improvement in all aspects of his game, and has proven his durability in a five-round war with Junior dos Santos (his only other defeat) as well as surviving getting clipped by Alistair Overeem in one of his title defenses. Whether that durability can hold up against the “record-setting” punching power of N’Gannou (although I believe Ivan Drago still holds the true record) remains to be seen, as does Miocic’s ability to take the challenger out of his comfort zone. Regardless of how you look at this bout, it is one of the more fascinating matchups that can be made with men of this size.
The other title bout on the card isn’t quite as intriguing on paper, as Daniel Cormier defends Jon Jones’ light heavyweight title against a man who probably wouldn’t be listed among the top 100 most likely fighters to challenge for the 205lb bout at the beginning of 2017, Volkan Oezdemir. However, upsets over Ovince St. Preux, Misha Cirkunov, and Jimi Manuwa — the latter two by KO within a minute — vaulted Oezdemir into a title shot in the UFC’s former glamour division. Cormier presents a vastly different look from the men Oezdemir has defeated to get to this spot though. His wrestling, cardio, and toughness have carried him through every challenge in his career save for Jones. That brings up an interesting point, as (and I might have to check my math on this) Cormier becomes the only fighter in UFC history to defend a belt which he lost in his previous fight. Say what you will about the second Jones bout being overturned, but that doesn’t take away the head trauma incurred by Cormier back in July. Perhaps Oezdemir’s opening in this bout is that Cormier is depleted from his age and the wear-and-tear he’s suffered through long wrestling and MMA careers.
Beyond those two title bouts, UFC 220 doesn’t offer a ton (although appearances from Shane Burgos and Thomas Almeida are always welcome). Let’s take a closer look at each of the 12 fights on Saturday night. Opening odds from 5Dimes Sportsbook are listed in parentheses:
Stipe Miocic (+130) vs. Francis N’Gannou (-160): Once upon a time, I wrote an article regarding champions as betting underdogs in UFC title defenses (if you go and look for it, the formatting got messed up when we migrated to the new site, but the table at the bottom provides the necessary information). It hasn’t been updated since UFC 205, but at that time, bouts that saw a champion as the underdog were split 5-5-2. While that doesn’t indicate a big trend, it shows that champions tend to overperform in these situations (or the hyped challenger underperforms) versus expectations. I expect the same out of Miocic here. It’s certainly possible that he gets starched inside the first round, but I think his combination of tools will be enough to keep N’Gannou off balance long enough that the champion can start to wear him down, or even land his own big shot against a chin that has yet to truly be tested. Now up at +165, I’ll likely be taking a shot on Miocic.
Daniel Cormier (-380) vs. Volkan Oezdemir (+260): I say this every time Oezdemir fights, but this guy lost to Kelly Anundson, and that fight is still relatively recent. I still can’t really wrap my head around him being a title contender, aside from the explanation being that the UFC light heavyweight division is in the toilet at the moment. Essentially, Oezdemir has to land harder than Rumble Johnson did (not an easy feat), or put his shin upside Cormier’s head like Jon Jones did. I simply can’t see him accomplishing either, as he doesn’t have the wrestling to keep this on the feet any longer than Cormier wants it there. I see this turning into a mauling, with Cormier finishing Oezdemir in the second or third via merciful rear-naked choke. This price has dropped down to -290, and as much as I don’t really want to back a guy coming off of a brutal KO loss, this division has a clear hierarchy: Jones, huge gap, Cormier, huge gap, everyone else.
Shane Burgos (-265) vs. Calvin Kattar (+185): Kattar made me some money in his UFC debut, so I thank him for that. However, this line has dropped down to almost a pick ’em, and I think that presents a ton of value on Burgos. This is probably the last chance to get a price this low on him until he faces the truly elite at 145, and I’m more than a little intrigued. My only real complaint with Burgos in the past has been his lack of urgency to finish in fights he has well in hand. I don’t see that being a problem against Kattar, who will consistently push forward into Burgos’ slick counter game and eat leather all night. While I don’t expect a finish here either, I do anticipate a performance which increases the hype behind Burgos and pushes him into the top 15.
Gian Villante (-215) vs. Francimar Barroso (+165): Remember what I said about the light heavyweight division being in the toilet? Yup. This fight being deemed relevant enough to air on a PPV main card proves it. Barroso fights make me look back to the days before Fight Pass, FS1, Facebook, and even Spike prelims with fondness. Back then, he was the fighter who was always in dark bouts, and you feared the day he made it on TV. Unfortunately in today’s UFC, that day is every time he fights. Yuck. Oh, I’m supposed to break these fights down or something right? Villante, I guess. Save your money.
Thomas Almeida (-175) vs. Rob Font (+135): Font really seemed to have turned a corner, but that could be what happens when you fight a blown up flyweight (Matt Schnell) and an unpolished Brazilian with a glossy record (Douglas Andrade). He came back down to earth against Pedro Munhoz who had a ton of success once he started mixing up levels in his attacks. Much like in his loss to Lineker, Font didn’t react terribly well to his opponent landing on him, shot a desperation takedown and got choked out. I hardly expect a submission in this one, but Almeida is worlds beyond Munhoz in his ability to mix his striking, so if this bout goes any prolonged period of time he will find his range and rhythm, and make Font’s life miserable. The key for Font to win this bout is to get out of the gates early and keep Almeida from getting on track. While I anticipate him landing early (because let’s be honest, everyone lands on Almeida), I don’t think he has the power to put the Brazilian away, and then it becomes a matter of time before Almeida breaks you down. At -120 now, I have to say I like Almeida quite a bit in this spot, even with Font in front of the home crowd.
Brandon Davis (-185) vs. Kyle Bochniak (+145): Not to get too negative here, but I had to double and triple check to make sure that I didn’t skip over the FS1 portion of this card and went straight to Fight Pass, because this is far from the best prelim fight. Bochniak can be best described as tough, which as we all know is universal code for “gets punched a lot,” and Davis hasn’t proven himself against much stiff competition. I expect Bochniak’s hometown advantage and UFC experience will help him dictate a bit more of this fight — even if that means moving forward and getting hit — and the end result will be a decision, but I’m not terribly interested in betting him at the current +120 (or anything up to about +150, for that matter).
Abdul Razak Alhassan (-315) vs. Sabah Homasi (+235): Somehow I completely missed the fight between these two the first time around, so I’m assuming that’s why the UFC booked it again. After rewatching that fight, you have to think it was trending in Homasi’s direction, and that accounts for this line being a bit closer than the first one. Alhassan is probably still the more dangerous of the two, but at nearly 2-to-1, I have to side with the guy I felt would have won the first fight, had it finished more naturally.
Alexandre Pantoja (-150) vs. Dustin Ortiz (+110): This is a typical Dustin Ortiz line, and will likely be a typical Dustin Ortiz fight, possibly equipped with a split decision. I do favor Pantoja slightly because I think he’ll a bit more controlled when these two are grappling, which will probably end up with him in dominant positions. On the feet he’s the more active and varied of the two, so he gets the slight edge there as well. It won’t be a blowout by any means, but Pantoja will continue his climb up the flyweight ladder. If you’re really looking for a way to bet him, I’d suggest the decision prop in the +175 neighborhood, as Ortiz has consistently proven one of the toughest fighters to finish at flyweight.
Julio Arce (-180) vs. Dan Ige (+140): The trend for me on this card seems to be that I’m finding value in the favorites who have been bet down from their original price. On the main card it was Almeida and Burgos, and Arce fits the same bill here. He’s down to -130 here, and comes in as the more talented striker and the more seasoned of these two fighters. Ige can certainly win this fight if he manages to get top position repeatedly, but Arce just seems like he’s able to crack through his opponent’s defense at some point in all of his fights. I think his pressure does the trick here and forces Ige into mistakes.
Enrique Barzola (-215) vs. Matt Bessette (+165): After a decent run against some of Bellator’s better featherweights, Bessette seems to have really settled into the New England journeyman role. In fact, his competition seems to have regressed in some of his more recent matchups (3 of his last 6 fights have come against opponents with double digit losses). So while Barzola is a bit too expensive for my liking, I think he belongs here more than Bessette, and that will show in the fight.
Islam Makhachev (-270) vs. Jangleison Herculano Alves (+190): If you’re a young Russian fighter who relies on your wrestling, why on earth would you want to face Jangleison Herculano Alves? The man is about as easy to take down as a fire hydrant. In 26 UFC bouts, he has been taken down 6 times, never more than once in a fight, and 0 times by Khabib Nurmagomedov, who even then was a better wrestler than Makhachev is now. Maybe Tibau really faded while out on his vitamin suspension, but I have a hard time believing he’s simply forgotten how to stop takedowns. Life will be tough for Makhachev here, and with Tibau at +230m I expect him to make this competitive (however this time get the win he deserved against Khabib).