This article is part of our Handicapping the Octagon series.
The UFC returns for its first card of the year Saturday, and while that means a return to DFS for most of us, it also gives us an opportunity to make money with sports the old-fashioned way: through betting. With this in mind, I present four spots on the card that I see as potential areas to beat the book in what I hope can be a recurring series going forward. I have limited my looks to lines below -200, as I feel that anything more expensive is supposed to come in, and doesn't really require a writeup. All lines are taken from the William Hill online sportsbook and are accurate as of the post date of this article. Without any further ado, let's get to it.
Claudia Gadelha (17-4-0) v. Alexa Grasso (11-3-0)
The Pick: Gadelha -110
The betting community's faith in Gadelha seems to have taken a sizeable hit after a controversial split-decision win over Carla Esparza and a loss to the perennially underrated Nina Ansaroff, as she enters into this fight as a pick'em against a fighter in Grasso, who has lost every UFC bout (3) in which she has been taken down. That's not to say that Grasso's strong fundamental boxing should be no concern to Gadelha backers whatsoever, but we already saw a noticeable improvement in her first fight under the tutelage of Mark Henry in July, as she eschewed big haymakers in favor of tighter combinations in a win over Randa Markos. Make no mistake, Grasso can crack when she has to, and Gadelha has a bad habit of throwing herself into brawls. Still, it feels very much like the striking improvements, combined with the wrestling prowess of Gadelha should be enough to take this from Grasso, who is without a finish in her five UFC fights. Some may also have concerns about the former top contender's gas tank, but we have only really seen her get tired in fights that aren't going her way, and I expect her to be the one pushing the pace for most of the contest. There may be a tense moment thrown in here or there, but overall, I expect Gadelha to be able to use enough striking to set up her takedowns and grab the win.
Aleksa Camur (5-0-0) v. Justin Ledet (9-2-0, 1NC)
The Pick: Camur -125
There are few moves in recent memory I've been more critical of than Ledet's decision to drop to 205 pounds following three straight wins at heavyweight to open his UFC career. Being a slick, technical boxer with fast hands gave him two major advantages in a division full of slow, sloppy power punchers, and while he was frequently on the wrong side of the weight equation, this generally meant a fairly significant speed advantage. While his hand speed and boxing technique are still advantages at light heavyweight, he has put himself behind the eight ball tremendously when it comes to athleticism, a fact that was painfully obvious (quite literally) in the one-sided drubbings he took against Aleksandar Rakic and Johnny Walker. Ledet welcomes Camur to the UFC after the Strong Style Gym product's impressive performance on Dana White's Contender Series, where he used a counter jump knee to change the course of the bout and ultimately get the finish. There is no doubt that Camur is raw (5-0 with one amateur fight) but even in that short window, we can see he is a good, quick athlete who seems to have a grasp on fundamentals, as he used good head position in a clinch up against the cage to stifle his DWCS opponent. Add to that a nice kicking game, and what you get is a promising young prospect who calls heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic a training partner. In the end, I think what we have here is another matchup where the more complete fighter and better athlete will win the day, which will hopefully send Ledet back up to HW where he can put his skills to better use.
Sabina Mazo (7-1-0) v. JJ Aldrich (8-3-0)
The Pick: Mazo -110
After a promising, but unsuccessful UFC debut against Maryna Moroz in March, Mazo had something of a coming-out party against Shana Dobson in August, showing that she can be dangerous in multiple ranges and facets of MMA, including the Thai clinch and wrestling game. It is, of course, fair to say that Aldrich is a much tougher task than someone like Dobson, who is stationary and doesn't really counter punch. Still, it's very easy to like the improvements we have seen from Mazo in just two fights. Not only did she show a more complete game in her last outing, she also made a great adjustment in the third round of the Moroz fight, lifting her back knee to intercept the forward pressure of her opponent. The main obstacle for Mazo here will be that she tends to keep her head on the centerline, and Aldrich has added power to her game at 125 pounds to compliment her extremely accurate counter shots. While we can't overlook this as a potential trouble area, we should also note that Aldrich tends to get flat-footed, which has caused her problems in wins over Polyana Viana and Lauren Mueller. Factor in a two-inch height advantage and a nice, stiff jab for Mazo, and I think she will be able to control enough ranges in this fight to stave off potential problems and take home a decision victory.
Holly Holm (12-5-0) v. Raquel Pennington (10-8-0)
The Pick: Holm -130
The first thing to note here is that Holm had to pull out of this fight, which is actually a rematch of her 2015 UFC debut, with a partial hamstring tear in October. She was never expected to miss significant time, however, which should put fears that the former bantamweight champion will be diminished in some way to rest. Does this mean we can look at Holm's split decision win and conclude the fight will play out on similar terms? My answer (spoilers) is yes. The bottom line is that Holm carries a lot of advantages into this fight. She is quicker, a more technical striker and should be able to comfortably slide out of range when the plodding Pennington tries to sit down on strikes, leaving her ample time to find her counter shots. On top of this, she is (for my money) the strongest woman in the division, as evidenced by the fact that she was able to keep Cyborg pressed up against the fence in what was an admittedly boring decision loss. It must also be pointed out that Holly is very good at making opponents pay for leaving themselves open with attacks. We don't need to go all the way back to the Ronda Rousey fight to make this point, as Germaine de Randamie was significantly hurt no fewer than twice in their bout on the way in. The natural reaction here would be to think that Pennington can lean on her wrestling, but she missed on all five of her takedown attempts in the first fight and hasn't been successful in general (26 percent) getting fights to the ground, while Holm has amassed a stout 79 percent takedown defense since the debut fight. And while it may be the case that Pennington performed well against Irene Aldana, even Aldana, a fighter who primarily relies on boxing, was touching Pennington's legs and body at will when she decided to kick, which makes me believe Holly has a strong chance at success. It might not be exciting, but I expect Holm to take a fairly comfortable decision on the back of her work rate, speed, and technique.
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