The UFC brings us the first statement event of the year, a card so stacked that its normally reserved for International Fight Week. It really couldn’t have come at a better time.
As always, I’ll be giving you my picks for the best of the card and 5Dimes will be providing the odds.
Lawler v Askren:
Robbie Lawler makes his long-awaited return to the octagon after sitting out 2018 due to injury. Multiple bloody wars are arguably beginning to take their toll on Lawler who has fought only twice since losing his belt to Tyron Woodley in July 2016. Lawler is a fan favourite who puts the fans entertainment over his own wellbeing. Its great for the UFC, not so great for the fighter.
At 36 the question comes up about how many more rounds Lawler has left. A two-time UFC veteran, former EliteXC champion, dual Fight of the Year winner he has given 18 years of his life to this sport. Longevity puts food on the table but a lot more miles on the clock.
Making his UFC debut is former Bellator and ONE FC Welterweight champion, ‘Funky’ Ben Askren. ‘Askren is a latecomer to the UFC, but given he was more than a year retired it is the circumstances that brought him to the UFC, rather than his actual debut, that will provide the talking points. Askren was one half of the first cross-promotional ‘trade’ of fighters, with ONE FC acquiring the contract of Demetrious Johnson in return. Fair to say that nobody saw it coming, and a few still can’t believe it happened but it did, and the best wrestler never to fight in the UFC is about the change that fact.
Stylistically this looks made for Askren, which means its bad for Lawler. Askren can pretty much take anyone down and smother them, so for a predominant striker like Lawler that nullifies his strengths. While Lawler has a background in wrestling, most of his defeats have come against fighters who excel on the ground in either wrestling or BJJ (Shields, dos Anjos, Jacare, Hendricks, Woodley). Askren is undefeated and never been troubled, although this will be the highest level in which he has competed. I’m taking Askren by lop-sided decision.
Recommendation: Askren by Decision – 2 units at -133 (20/27) @ 5Dimes
Woodley v Usman:
Fresh from making quick work of Darren Till in September, Tyron Woodley returns to make the 5th defence of his 170lb belt. Unbeaten in almost 5 years and one of the most well-spoken fighters around today, Woodley still cannot seem to get over with the UFC brass. As a result, they hype up every opponent he faces to the point that you can’t help but feel they are pinning their hopes on them rather than him. We saw this with Stephen Thompson and more recently, Till.
Each time though, Woodley has come out on top. In fairness, his fighting style hasn’t always been a huge draw and three of the four defences have been horrible fights. Two snoozers against Thompson and a record-setting bore fest against Maia that saw Woodley land just 57 significant strikes, and to cap it off Maia achieved only half of that!
Kamaru Usman has powered his way to #2 in the rankings through sheer force of will alone. Despite being a wrestler by trade, Usman came into the UFC as a striker, with all his wins coming by stoppage and rarely seeing the third round. As with many newcomers though, he has found the UFC level to be a bit tougher and has reverted to his wrestling base with 7 of 9 victories coming by way of the judges.
There were some standout performances in that run, he was the last man to beat Leon Edwards and has seen off former challenger Demian Maia as well as former champion Rafael dos Anjos, himself no slouch in the wrestling game. Although he has the title shot, arguably he should be behind Colby Covington rather than in front of him.
I am not expecting fireworks as that doesn’t match the expected style for either fighter. Chances are that this will come down to who has the best wrestling base and BJJ, in both instances that is Woodley. Usman has a decent height and reach advantage and he may just be slightly too big for Woodley to control but I don’t see him causing too many issues. I’ll be making a decent play on Woodley and banking on him turning the Nigerian Nightmare into the Nigerian Nytol in a largely forgettable bout. Possible that Woodley finds the submission late on, but the odds are good enough to ignore the prop.
Recommendation: Tyron Woodley – 3 units at -185 (4/6) @ 5Dimes
Jones v Smith:
Jon Jones makes a quick turnaround with his second appearance inside of two months this weekend, which is good news since he’s basically sat out the last two years. An active Jonny Bones is a good Jonny Bones and, hopefully, a sign that it’s a clean Jonny Bones. He is on course this year for 4-5 appearances in the octagon, and its something that he clearly owes the promotion that stuck by him through various indiscretions.
Anthony Smith is the latest to step up and challenge the real 205lb kingpin for his title. After a moderately successful stint at 185lbs he found real success when moving up in weight. Wins over Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua and Volkan Oezdemir put him firmly in the frame for a title shot. Now he gets to find out whether he is the solution to the Jones conundrum.
I’ve deliberately kept this write up short for a reason – I won’t be betting it. I simply do not fancy Smith for the win. At 6’4” he matches Jones for height but from here human physiology takes over and Jones outreaches him by 8” as well as various other areas. Jones could be submitted as Smith has the better BJJ, but I don’t see it. Jones at -750 (2/15), Fight to end Inside the Distance (ITD) is -750 (2/15) and Jones ITD is -530 (1/5), which are all unplayable with no value whatsoever. It’s a case of dog or pass in this one and I’ll pass.
Recommendation: Nothing. Zero. Invest your pennies elsewhere.
Honourable mentions go to the following, so look to play these in a small parlay; Zabit Magomedsharipov (-245) & Johnny Walker (-130). Both still relatively undervalued and underexposed at this level. Both are facing their biggest tests yet and are well priced at a combined +145.