It feels good to get back to handicapping fights with the UFC's schedule resuming this weekend after its end-of-year break. Saturday night's 12-fight card takes place at the UFC Apex and serves as an appetizer for bettors before the big pay-per-view event next weekend in Brazil. This card features a nice mix of lopsided favorites for the parlay crowd, but also a decent amount of competitive bouts at reasonable odds.
Coincidentally, the UFC is kicking off the new year the same way it wrapped up 2022, with Sean Strickland fighting in the main event. After dropping a close decision to Jared Cannonier at UFC Vegas 66, Strickland answered the call when Kelvin Gastelum was forced out of Saturday night's headliner with a mouth injury. The new main event looks like two fighters going in opposite directions on the surface. Strickland is coming off consecutive losses for the first time in his career, and his opponent, Nassourdine Imavov, is riding a three-fight win streak. However, Strickland is a significant step up in competition for Imavov.
Here's why I see the main event going in Strickland's favor, plus a breakdown of my favorite play in the women's division, which holds plenty of value in the prop market.
The fight is taking place at light heavyweight due to Strickland accepting on very short notice. Having the natural middleweights compete heavier than usual adds some extra variance, but it doesn't give either fighter a significant edge. Strickland is a big middleweight with an excellent gas tank, which will be one of the more significant deciding factors in the fight. Despite this being Strickland's third fight in a little over six months, I am still comfortable that his cardio and experience in a five-round fight will be an advantage. Both fighters work off their jabs and have finishing ability. Imavov has the advantage on the ground, but Strickland's solid 85% takedown defense will render that part of his game useless.
Strickland's heavy output, pace and accuracy from distance will win him the fight. Imavov will look to snap off counters in the pocket, but Strickland has solid striking defense despite its unconventional appearance. If he can survive danger for five rounds against Cannonier, he can do the same against Imavov.
After failing to get the nod from the judges in his last bout, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Strickland crank up the aggression against a less powerful opponent in Imavov. Strickland's volume presents problems for most fighters, but its challenges will be magnified in a five-round fight. Imavov was able to win his last two fights despite getting out-landed at distance, but with Strickland nullifying his grappling, it's hard to see Imavov winning three of the five rounds on the feet.
That leaves a finish as Imavov's only path to victory. I am happy to bet Imavov isn't able to connect cleanly on Strickland and spends most of the later rounds frustrated with Strickland's jab in his face.
The bet: Sean Strickland -110
Raquel Pennington (-105) vs. Ketlen Vieira (-115)
A win over the fifth-ranked Pennington puts Vieira one step closer to fighting for the women's bantamweight title. Vieira's recent resume, with wins over Miesha Tate and Holly Holm, looks better on paper than the actual performances. However, she still has all the tools to take advantage of this opportunity, and I expect her to get the job done.
It won't be the most exciting fight of the night. Vieira's greatest asset is her length, while the scrappy Pennington will push the pace to force her way inside. I expect the tug-of-war between Pennington trying to keep the fight in a phone booth and Vieira leveraging her position to create space to result in a good amount of clinch work and both fighters pushing each other into the cage.
Vieira has a 92% takedown defense and decent judo throws that could help her score points in the grappling realm, but it also opens her up to getting reversed in a scramble. Vieira has been content fighting more cautiously than aggressively in her last two fights and likely follows the same formula that helped her climb the ladder of the bantamweight division.
This one will likely end up in the hands of the judges, and the oddsmakers agree. In some markets, the prices for the fight to go the distance are as wide as -300. I will be betting on Vieira to get her hand raised, but rather than playing the money line at -115, let's land some solid value in the prop market.
The bet to make is Vieira to win by split decision at +700. It's excellent value as Pennington will be competitive enough to sway one of the judges, and it's much more advantageous to grab this at 12.5% implied odds than betting the fight to go to a simple decision at a price like +140.
The bet: Ketlen Vieira by split decision (+700)
Stats provided by ufcstats.com.