Top Underdog Plays of UFC 235

UFC 235
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Now that the betting lines have been released for UFC 235, bettors can start to research and identify their plays.  When looking over the odds of each fight, three underdogs immediately stuck out as value plays. To be clear, “value” doesn’t necessarily infer that said underdog will win. Rather “value” means that a fighter’s chances of winning are significantly better than what the money-line implies. Without further ado, here are my top underdog plays of UFC 235:

Kamaru Usman (+160)

A lot of folks are going to think saying Usman is undervalued against the four-time defending champion is crazy. Yet to understand why this is the case, one must understand what the primary metrics are to win a fight in the judges’ eyes: volume of strikes landed and top control. While the most common retort to this will likely be “Tyron Woodley has insane power,” KO’s are not generally a predictive metric. In fact, one needs to look no further than Woodley’s own resume to see the truth: Woodley has only won by finish in two of his five fights since his reign began (including his victory over Lawler at UFC 201). Removing KO’s and looking at Woodley’s metrics reveals an ugly truth. Woodley lands 2.52 significant strikes per minute, an alarmingly low rate. When it comes to grappling, he only lands 1.34 takedowns per 15 minutes. A shockingly low rate for a fighter with his wrestling pedigree.

The Case for Usman

On the other side of the coin, Kamaru Usman’s metrics are actually quite good. He lands at a rate of 3.93 significant strikes per minute, a solid rate for a welterweight. When it comes to grappling he lands an elite 4.47 takedowns per 15 minutes. Based on the stats alone it’s quite clear that Usman has a considerable advantage when it comes volume and raw numbers. The other strong attribute that Usman has is his pressure. Usman has a deep gas tank for the division and wants to be in his opponents’ faces at all times. Pressure generally scores well with judges. But fights don’t happen on a stat sheet so let’s look at intangibles.

The two big intangibles that stand out when analyzing this fight are Woodley’s takedown defense – which is about as good as it gets (94%) – and whether Usman’s chin can handle the rocket launcher that is Tyron Woodley’s right hand. It’s a fair assumption that Woodley’s defense is good enough to keep Usman from landing takedowns with any type of consistency. Even if Usman can land a few, it’s hard to believe that he’ll be able to keep the fight grounded for very long. At the same time though, it’s hard to count on Woodley’s power being able to finish Usman. Usman has never been visibly wobbled in the UFC and it’s not something prospective bettors should be counting on.

Given these realities, Usman shouldn’t be priced at worse than PK.

Diego Sanchez (+260)

This line is laughably mispriced. I can only attribute it to Mickey Gall becoming relatively famous in MMA circles for his maulings of CM Punk and Sage Northcutt. The line implies that Gall (-350) has a 77.8% chance to win this fight. And yet looking at the matchup, it’s hard to see where Gall’s real advantages are.

Gall is a wrestler and submission grappler who enters this fight at 5-1. All five of Gall’s victories are by rear-naked choke (RNC). There’s no question that Gall has above average wrestling and submission abilities. Yet when the fight is on the feet, Gall looks like a fish out of water. He just lacks the fundamentals to win a striking war with anyone the least bit technical. So the question typically is “can Gall get the fight to the ground?” In this fight though, the ground may not be nearly as friendly to Gall as is typical.

The Case for Sanchez

Diego Sanchez is in some respects a UFC legend. His career has become sad to watch in recent years. The damage has clearly worn on him and he can no longer take a punch. In fact, it’s almost impossible to wager on Sanchez against any type of technical striker at this point. Yet as previously mentioned, Gall’s striking is well below average and not at all technical. Sanchez isn’t much of a striker either, but he throws in high volume. And while he doesn’t land much, it’s effective enough. The real question here is how will Sanchez be able to stand up to Gall’s grappling? The answer is: likely quite well. Sanchez is a high-level Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt who has never been finished by submission in his career. Even if he isn’t able to consistently defend takedowns from Gall, I believe he should be able to win most scrambles and either find strong positions on the ground or get back to his feet quite easily. And if this fight gets to the feet, it’s difficult not to favor Sanchez.

Misha Cirkunov (+130)

Johnny Walker has finished his last two fights in the first round, most recently a highlight reel finish of Justin Ledet at UFC Fortaleza. Since then he’s become the toast of the MMA community and has earned his first shot against a ranked opponent: Misha Cirkunov. The betting line treats Walker as a significant favorite at -160 (implying a 61.5% chance of victory). And yet, it’s hard to make sense of why. Yes, Walker has finished both of his UFC fights in spectacular fashion. But victories over Khalil Rountree and Justin Ledet shouldn’t be enough to crown Walker a future champion. The biggest thing Walker has going for him is Cirkunov’s chin. He’s been KO’d in two of his last three fights. Given Walker’s insane power, this may seem like a very clear path to victory. Yet it’s foolish to assume that Cirkunov is just going to wade into the pocket and brawl with a savage like Johnny Walker.

The Case for Cirkunov

Cirkunov isn’t a brawler. He’s a high-level grappler who averages an elite 4.53 takedowns per 15 minutes. He also holds a black belt in jiu jitsu and has finished eight fights by submission. Cirkunov is an intelligent fighter whose likely to try and get a feel for Walker, find range, and then time a takedown and look for a sub. And while Walker represents a very dangerous striker, we’ve seen Cirkunov overcome similarly dangerous finishers in Ion Cutelaba and Nikita Krylov.

Given how little we know about Walker – outside of the 135 seconds of octagon action he’s seen – it’s hard not to like the value presented by Cirkunov in this spot.  Sure it’s possible that Walker is able to consistently stuff takedown attempts and finish Cirkunov standing. But given how undisciplined Walker’s striking seems to be, it’s not too far-fetched to think that he may not have the technique to stop takedowns or get back up.

Author’s Note: I may or may not bet any of these fighters. These are purely my opinions on which underdogs have the best value given their betting lines.

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