This article is part of our DraftKings MMA series.
As quick as it arrived, the four-fight stint at Fight Island in Abu Dhabi is now ready to wrap up. It will end on a high note, however, as ESPN will feature two fan favorites colliding in the main event.
If you're hoping to turn the event into an opportunity to build your DFS bankroll, DraftKings.com has you covered with a full slate of contests, including a $500,000 MMA Throwdown Special with $100,000 to first place. Players get a $50,000 budget to select six fighters, and the scoring is distributed as follows:
Significant Strikes (SS): +0.5 PTS
Advance (ADVC): +3 PT
Takedown (TD): +5 PTS
Reversal/Sweep (REV): +5 PTS
Knockdown (KD): +10 PTS
Fight Conclusion Bonuses
1st Round Win (1rW+): +90 PTS
2nd Round Win (2rW+): +70 PTS
3rd Round Win (3rW+): +45 PTS
4th Round Win (4rW+): +40 PTS
5th Round Win (5rW+): +40 PTS
Decision Win (WBD+): +30 PTS
Significant Strikes are any Distance Strike or Clinch/Ground Strikes that are considered "Power Strikes" by official scorers.
Advances include: To Half Guard, To Side Control, To Mount, To Back Control
Now, on to the fights...
Main Event - Middleweight
Fighting for the first time since last October, Whittaker is coming off his knockout loss against Israel Adesanya in which he lost his UFC Middleweight Championship. The setback snapped a nine-fight win streak for Whittaker and was his first setback in five and a half years. Whittaker looked out of sorts in the Adesanya fight from the very beginning. He's always been a competitor who absorbs a lot of punishment on the feet, but Adesanya's strikes appeared to be causing more damage to Whittaker than usual. "Bobby Knuckles" is known for his toughness but was unable to get on track in that fight. Whittaker was scheduled to fight Jared Cannonier in March before withdrawing in mid-January. The former champ openly admitted that he was burned out and needed a break. Whittaker has fought through several injuries over the course of his career and been in countless back-and-forth brawls, and it appears as if he just needed a break.
A welterweight throughout the early portion of his UFC career, Till moved up to middleweight in November following back-to-back stoppage losses to Tyron Woodley (title fight) and Jorge Masvidal. His first fight at 185 pounds as a split decision win over the uber-tough Kelvin Gastelum. Till missed the 170-pound welterweight limit twice in his early time with the company, and it's quite clear his future is at middleweight. He looked very comfortable in the Gastelum fight with the extra 15 pounds on his frame.
In many ways, Whittaker and Till are mirror images of each other. They're both extremely hard punchers who are known for being exceedingly durable. Neither man is much of a wrestler, but both possess takedown defense north of 82 percent. They're both 6-foot and Whittaker has a reach advantage of just a single inch. I would say Till has more one-punch knockout power, while Whittaker is a bit better at stringing together combinations.
There has been some talk of Whittaker's mental state heading into this fight, but if he's accepting this bout, then I see no reason to believe he won't show up ready to fight.
I changed my pick here at the last minute. I originally intended on going with Whittaker. His toughness is legendary and I trust his ability to make in-fight adjustments. That said, he's always been a guy who absorbs a ton of punishment on the feet, and I don't think that will play against Till. He just hits too hard. I am genuinely torn here in what is a legitimate pick 'em.
THE PICK: Till
Co-Main Event - Light Heavyweight
This will be the finale of a trilogy between Shogun and Lil Nog. Rua won the first two fights via unanimous decision. The first took place in PRIDE way back in June 2005, while the second bout came at UFC 190 in August of 2015.
Nog – now 44 years of age – is entering the final fight of his UFC contract and has stated he is most likely retiring following this bout. Assuming it comes to be, it's the correct call. Nog has had a brilliant career, but he is 2-4 in his past six bouts dating back to February 2013. He has retained some of his power over the years, but his chin is extremely questionable. His foot movement has understandably slowed over the years, and it's difficult to believe Nog will be able to survive any sort of significant flurry from Shogun. He would be wise to try to end this fight quickly. The longer it goes, the more it favors Rua.
Rua will turn 39 years of age in late November. He, too, is not the fighter he used to be, but Shogun is somehow 4-1-1 in his past six fights dating back to the second Nog fight. The only loss in that span came against recent title challenger Anthony Smith, and included in that stretch are wins over a pair of decent opponents in Corey Anderson and Tyson Pedro. Rua was a big time power puncher in his heyday. He is not on that same level anymore, but I think he's the clear pick in what projects to be a back-and-forth affair against Nog.
It would have been really nice to see two Brazilians battle in their home country, but the COVID-19 pandemic made that impossible. I'm not a big believer in Shogun at his advanced age and I think Nog has a tiny bit of DraftKings value because his salary is so, low but I still don't see him winning.
THE PICK: Rua
This fight will see Gustafsson – who has been one of the top 205-pounders in the world for years – making his heavyweight debut. Gus is 2-4 in his past six fights dating back to January 2015. Those setbacks came against Jon Jones, Anthony Johnson, Daniel Cormier, and Anthony Smith. The Jones and DC fights were for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship. The most recent bout came against Smith is his native Sweden last June. Gus lost via fourth-round submission. He laid his gloves down in the Octagon following the fight, saying he was retiring. As expected, Gustafsson's time off lasted just a handful of months.
He will be welcomed to the division by a former UFC Heavyweight Champion in Werdum. The soon-to-be 43-year-old needs a win here in the worst way. Werdum is fresh off back-to-back losses to Aleksei Oleinik (split decision) and Alexander Volkov (knockout). Werdum better emerge victorious here if he wishes to continue to fancy himself a legitimate title contender. The Oleinik loss – which took place in early May – ended 26 months on the sidelines for the Brazilian. That hiatus was due to a two-year USADA suspension for a failed drug test.
I'm interested to see how Gustafsson looks at heavyweight. On the surface, this appears to be a good matchup for him. Gus is a inch taller than Werdum and has a two-inch edge in the reach department. He's also nearly a decade younger. I can see Gustafsson having issues with heavyweights who fight physically (think Curtis Blaydes), but that's not Werdum's game. His stand-up defense is questionable and the big Swede should be able to take advantage of that. Gus' takedown defense is 85 percent and Fabricio figures to have significant issues in an extended kickboxing match.
I really think the two-plus years on the sideline was essentially the end for Werdum. It's difficult for any fighter to bounce back after such a long time away, and nearly impossible for fighters in their 40's to regain their form. I'm assuming Gus is ready to go, and his decision to lay down his gloves following the Smith fight was nothing more than a spur of the moment, emotional decision. I don't love Gustafsson's odds of replicating his 205-pound success up a division, but I think he has enough to get by an aging Werdum. I'd be concerned if he didn't.
THE PICK: Gustafsson
Esparza, who recently signed a new multi-fight deal with the company, has won three fights in a row, all via decision. Her most recent bout was a split decision win over Michelle Waterson in May. Esparza has shown more good than bad during her time with the company, but she's extremely reliant on her wrestling. I was very surprised Carla was able to win the Waterson fight despite landing just one takedown throughout the course of the bout. On average, Esparza is good for 3.28 takedowns per 15 minutes. She is one of the division's better fighters and was the inaugural UFC Women's Strawweight Champion, but I never saw her as a top-tier talent.
Rodriguez has somehow fought to a pair of draws in four UFC bouts. In between, she scored easy unanimous decision wins over Tecia Torres and Jessica Aguilar. Rodriguez is the exact opposite of Esparza in the sense she does her best work on the feet. The fact she enters with a five-inch edge in the height department and a two-inch edge in the reach department over Esparza should help here. Rodriguez faded badly in her most recent fight against Calvillo, and that concerns me. Esparza is a fighter who relies on constant pressure, and that could cause Rodriguez issues in the later stages of the bout.
Our regular readers know I've been no great supporter of Esparza over the years, but this fight seems to set up well for her. I'm concerned about the cardio issues of Rodriguez and I love the break in salary you're getting by using her. Any Esparza victory will almost certainly be of the dull, grinding variety, but a win is a win. The discount was just too much for me to overlook given the fact there are few underdogs I like on this card. I expect a tight fight.
THE PICK: Esparza