This article is part of our MMA Best Bets series.
This edition of Best Bets doesn't have my typical number of underdog plays, but the matchmakers couldn't prevent me from delivering four reasonably priced spots ripe for the picking. This includes getting a rebate on a slick flyweight boxer by selecting her most likely method of victory. As always, 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 write-up. 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.
Jennifer Maia (18-7-1) vs. Jessica Eye (15-9-0) Weight class: flyweight
Unexpected wins against Viviane Araujo and Katlyn Chookagian resulted in something of a career resurgence for Eye, but we have seen in recent bouts what happens when "Evil" can't outbox or be more physical than her opponent. The question we have to ask ourselves, then, is whether Maia satisfies these criteria.
Maia came into the organization as a combination puncher with quick hands. This hasn't served her well in fights against opponents like Chookagian, who is adept at keeping range, but should work just fine against someone as flat-footed as Eye. As far as strength goes, Maia took down champion Valentina Shevchenko and controlled her for north of seven minutes in their five-round fight, which should settle most questions as to who the more physical presence in the cage will be Saturday.
The only snag that I can see here is the hefty price of (-180), but we can use the magic of props to turn that into dog money with some confidence, as Maia has only finished 50 percent of her 18 wins, and Eye has only been stopped twice in her 24-fight career. I expect Eye to make this fight sloppy to try and bridge the striking gap, but it would surprise me if Maia doesn't dictate where the bout takes place.
The Play: Jennifer Maia via decision (+110)
Trevin Giles (14-2-0) vs. Dricus Du Plessis (15-2-0) Weight class: middleweight
The only blemishes on Giles' record to this point are a TKO loss in a fight he was winning for over 10 minutes and a submission loss to a decorated grappler in a bout that featured many different momentum swings. Given that, it seems odd to me that Giles isn't the favorite here, as he seems to carry a few different advantages into the matchup with Du Plessis.
For starters, Giles will have much sharper, faster hands. He should also be the more athletic fighter here. Du Plessis throws hard kicks and can wrestle a bit, but he seems intent on backing himself against the cage in nearly every fight, which should be bad news against such a powerful puncher. We saw in his UFC debut against Markus Perez that Du Plessis likes to charge into the pocket with strikes. This would play right into the hands of Giles, who has a very good sense of range and loves to step back and throw counter hooks. While he has been taken down before, Giles was able to get sweeps on a high-level BJJ black belt in James Krause, which gives me confidence that he will be able to use his guard to take control of the fight if necessary.
If there's a major criticism of Giles, it may be that he can go through periods of inactivity, but he should be in control of the Octagon for the majority of this fight, which should allow him to put his striking skills to good use.
The play: Trevin Giles (-105)
Tai Tuivasa (12-3-0) vs. Greg Hardy (7-3-0) Weight class: heavyweight
Despite the fact that he is heading into his ninth fight in the Octagon, the jury is still out as to whether Hardy can compete at this level. If that seems harsh, consider that no fighter Hardy has beaten in the UFC is still with the organization. It should also be noted that the best win on his resume is arguably Maurice Greene, who currently holds a record of just 9-6 in professional MMA.
While Tuivasa's ledger isn't exactly that of a well-seasoned pro, we have seen the New Zealand fighter show up late in fights and overcome adversity, while Hardy's performances past the first round have all left something to be desired. It is because of this (and the general soft competition) that I can't confidently say how he'll react when Tuivasa starts bearing down and throwing big overhands at him. To his credit, Hardy has shown some slick round-one striking defense in the past, but I don't trust his ability to hurt Tuivasa, who has only been meaningfully stung to this point by Junior dos Santos.
Part of me wanted to pull the trigger on the KO/TKO prop, but Hardy has never been finished anywhere but on the ground, a place Tuivasa is unlikely to take things. While Hardy has shown small flashes of competence, the complete picture tells me that this is Tuivasa's fight to lose.
The play Tai Tuivasa: (-135)
Stephen Thompson (16-4-1) vs. Gilbert Burns (19-4-0) Weight class: welterweight
I want to be clear at the outset that this is not me holding Burns' loss to Kamaru Usman against him. Quite the opposite: he wobbled the champion with a punch and came closer to beating him than anyone we've ever seen. I do, however, think there are limits to his high-pressure, power-striking/wrestling style. Limits that Thompson will expose.
In deciding who to pick in this matchup, I couldn't stop thinking about how much trouble Burns had with the length of Dan Hooker. It took two solid counter punches – a hook and a straight – for Burns to lose that matchup, but not before he was chewed up by leg kicks. Thompson can do all of that at an accelerated pace and boasts a solid 78 percent takedown defense rate should Burns choose to go that route.
Thompson will still need to be wary of the big punches coming from Burns, but a surprise, leaping shot off the cage remains the only KO/TKO loss of his career, something I don't expect the Brazilian to replicate.
The pick: Stephen Thompson: (-155)