This article is part of our Handicapping the Octagon series.
Sometimes we just have to recognize the value spot and pull the trigger, even if it doesn't feel great. That's the situation we find ourselves in with the main event of UFC 254 when Justin Gaethje takes on Khabib Nurmagomedov. I may be going soft in my old age, as we've mixed two favorites into our plays this month, but as always, all plays fall below (-200). 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.
Joel Alvarez (17-2-0) vs. Alexander Yakovlev (25-10-1) Weight class: Lightweight
It's important to say at the outset that Alvarez opened as an almost (-300) favorite before the line was knocked down to its present state. While some might be alarmed at the shift towards Yakovlev, I don't see it as anything more than bettors noting the high-level UFC experience of the Russian fighter. In fact, the only thing I would say in response to the movement is "thank you," as it now fits the criteria to be a play in this article series. Why have I kept my confidence?
The first thing that caught my eye was how fluid and agile Alvarez moves around the cage as a tall fighter. Juxtapose this against the plodding, stiff Yakovlev and already we see a marked advantage. The next thing to note is we have an orthodox versus southpaw matchup, which means Alvarez will be able to really fire off those hard kicks to the body we saw against Joe Duffy.
Alvarez is by no means a perfect fighter: he hangs his chin in the air during striking exchanges and offers nothing in the way of takedown defense. But Yakovlev hasn't won a fight by knockout in over four years, and Alvarez has an incredible guard game that accounts for most of the 15 submission wins on his resume. I may look to fade "El Fenomeno" going forward, but I really think he's drawn a nice matchup here, leaving me no choice but to pay the juice.
The Play: Joel Alvarez -155
Da un Jung (13-2-0) vs. Sam Alvey (33-14-0) Weight class: Light Heavyweight
Alvey has lost four in a row (two by knockout), and it seems pretty likely that Jung will be the one to officially hand him his walking papers. While this line on its own is unquestionably too wide for the level of competition Jung has faced, the style matchup here seems particularly unkind to the smiling one.
Recall that the first fighter to corner and KO Alvey to start this recent losing streak was Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. If we wanted to be incredibly kind, we would say that "Little Nog's" best days were already behind him at the time (he recently retired), so how did he do it? He was still just as technical of a boxer as he had always been, and retained his power, along with some speed in his hands. Jung is also a technical boxer but will have a speed and athleticism advantage over Alvey (as most fighters at LHW do). He will also carry a three-inch reach advantage. Add all of this up and what you get is a fighter who should be able to find openings in Alvey's defense.
It's always a bit unnerving to pick Alvey to get finished, as he had been so durable for so long, but it just seems like he has a hard time dealing with the speed and power of the fighters at this weight class, and he will work slowly enough to let Jung sit behind his jab before finding the big shot.
The Play: Da Un Jung via KO/TKO/DQ -120
Nathanael Wood (17-4-0) vs. Casey Kenney (15-2-1) Weight class: Catchweight (140lbs)
I missed my guess on Kenney's last fight with Heili Alateng, thinking that hard counters alone would be enough to stop the smothering boxing game and hard body kicks of the 29-year-old. While Alateng didn't have a game well-rounded enough to stave off these attacks, I'm quite confident that Wood does.
The first thing that jumped out at me for this matchup is just how well Wood keeps range, which should leave him less available for the big strikes that reddened Alateng's frame in Round 1. It then becomes a question of whether Casey will be successful playing a kicking game against Wood, who looks to be a much cleaner Muay Thai striker. Lastly, we should note that Wood will have an inch of reach on Kenney, which should allow his accurate counters to find a home more easily. While Casey could fall back on his wrestling game here, Wood boasts a stout 83 percent takedown defense in his five fights and has notched three of his four UFC wins by submission.
At the end of the day, it's hard to see Kenney overwhelming Wood on the feet as he has done to recent opponents, and I think Wood is competent enough on the ground (if it gets there) to get back to his feet or potentially threaten off his back. If betting is about finding the value, it's hard to pass on this spot.
The Play: Nathaniel Wood: +150
Justin Gaethje (22-2-0) vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0-0) Weight Class: Lightweight
It's impossible not to respect the prowess and accomplishments of Khabib, but getting one of the elite fighters in this division at nearly a 3-to-1 price is too good to ignore. There are several questions hanging over this fight, but the most pressing one may be 'how will Gaethje deal with a fighter who commits to a wrestling game against him?'
We have seen other fighters try to get him to the floor, but he excels at rolling through and exploding back to his feet in order to resume striking. What we haven't seen is someone who will continue working after the initial resistance from Gaethje. Why do I think he'll be up to the task? Khabib has struggled with takedowns in open space for as long as he has been in the UFC and we have yet to meet the man who can consistently pressure Gaethje up against the fence. If Khabib can't accomplish this, then he'll have to stand for 25 minutes with the retooled striking of Justin and he just hits too hard and is too tricky for me to be confident that Khabib can manage.
To be sure, Khabib may just be able to latch onto him in a way that others couldn't, as fighters constantly report how heavy he feels in top position. I will take my chances all day with this line, however, as Gaethje has too many things going for him to be this big of an underdog.
The Play: Justin Gaethje +280