This article is part of our Handicapping the Octagon series.
It ran into a few snags along the way, but it looks like UFC 249 will go on with a full 12-fight card in Jacksonville, Florida on May 9. There can be discussions as to whether a card should be held during this time, but as long as it's going to happen anyway, why not try and make some money? That is the impetus for the four plays (including the first prop bet of this series) I have lined up for this week. 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 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.
Ryan Spann (17-5-0) vs. Sam Alvey (33-13-0)
Weight Class: Light Heavyweight
As I mentioned above, this is my first pick in four installments of this article that includes a prop bet. The reason for this is pretty simple, as I generally feel that MMA is too unpredictable to know exactly how a fight will end. So, what makes this fight different?
Alvey has (justly) gained a reputation as a boring counter fighter over the last few years, but we have seen him fight much more aggressively in his last three bouts. Perhaps uncoincidentally, two of these fights ended with Sam being stopped by strikes. This may be because, despite having power, Sam is very slow and mechanical in his movements, which has left him open to brutal counter shots from both Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Jimmy Crute. Enter Spann, a strong athletic fighter with quick hands and big power. We saw the combination work Spann used to send Nog to the land of wind and ghosts in their fight, and it seems likely that the same speed and power will be on display in this bout.
There are a few caveats here, namely that Spann is hittable and seems to want to grapple to a fault, but I think the speed differential here is really going to be something to behold, making it less likely that Spann will be caught. As far as the grappling goes, Alvey has a grand total of one submission loss (which happened almost a decade ago) in his 46 professional fights, as well as an 82 percent takedown defense rate in the UFC, which should leave Spann with only one option. There is a chance that Spann is simply unwilling to throw his hands, which could render this fight a sticky three-round decision (making the Spann WBD at +260 an interesting play) However, I feel very comfortable getting what would be a -420 line at this price, particularly when I believe a stoppage by strikes is Spann's best path to victory.
The play: Spann wins by KO/TKO +163
Yorgan de Castro (6-0-0) vs. Greg Hardy (5-2-0 1 NC)
Weight Class: Heavyweight
One could argue that de Castro was losing his UFC debut against Justin Tafa before a counter hook from hell shut the lights off, but one thing I absolutely loved seeing from the 33-year-old in that fight was his composure. When he didn't like what was happening in space, he clinched. When his opponent got sloppy entering the pocket, he was ready to plant and throw an accurate kill shot. Aside from that, he has shown the ability to wrestle a bit on the regional scene, as well as do some work to the body.
All of these things should come in handy against Hardy, who has gotten extremely tired in fights, struggled with takedown defense, and seems to do his best work when he is able to intimidate his opponent. Many looked at Hardy's fights with Ben Sosoli and Alexander Volkov and lauded how patient and relaxed he looked as opposed to previous fights. While I agree with this assessment, I wonder if the new approach has come at the expense of technique. In both of those bouts (the Sosoli fight in particular), it seemed like Hardy did more evading than actually throwing, as the step-back cross that led to the finish of Austen Lane on the Contender Series was nowhere to be found. If Hardy can't make de Castro pay for entering the pocket, he is going to have an awfully hard time keeping the athletic heavyweight off of him.
At the end of the day, I am forced to ask the same question I posed when Juan Adams was a sizable favorite over Justin Tafa at UFC 247: what has Hardy done to earn this status? When we take out the win over Sosoli (which, it can easily be argued, should have been a disqualification) his only UFC victories have come against Dmitrii Smoliakov (remember him?) and Adams. He may have a good straight and some powerful leg kicks, but I think de Castro is the more complete martial artist here, and I'm willing to take the plus money to find out.
The Pick: Yorgan de Castro: +165
Michelle Waterson (17-7-0) vs. Carla Esparza (15-6-0)
Weight Class: Women's Strawweight
I think it's perfectly reasonable (if arguable) to say that Esparza is a deserving favorite here, but to suggest that this is a slam-dunk fight for her seems strange to me. For all her wrestling prowess, Esparza has two basic modes of operating when she gets a takedown: stall out in guard, or become manic trying to pass, which creates a scramble. Either of these scenarios can work wonders for "The Karate Hottie," who has shown herself to be lightning quick in transitions on the ground. It's also worth noting that she had a tough time keeping up with Virna Jandiroba in spots when that fight hit the ground.
On the feet, Waterson has some of the fastest kicks in the UFC and has been sitting down on more of her punches of late. This could result in Ezparza getting cracked, as she keeps her head way up in the air, and is fairly mechanical in her movements. This has already caused serious problems for Esparza, who was nearly finished in the third round of her fight with Alexa Grasso when Grasso landed a big shot.
Can Esparza control Waterson for three rounds or find a big shot like the one that almost put away Claudia Gadelha? It's possible. But Waterson has been stopped by strikes only once in her 24 fights (in 2009), and she is active enough on the ground that I don't think she will give Esparza time to rest. The broader MMA community may see a line that is too close, but I see one that may be going a bit too much on fighter reputation. We'll see who has the right read.
The Pick: Michelle Waterson +135
Jacare Souza (26-8-0) vs. Uriah Hall (15-9-0)
Weight Class: Middleweight
A few years ago, I would have taken Souza in this spot without so much as a hesitation, but these men have diverged wildly from their previous selves, which as me confidently picking Uriah.
First, let me note what's a bit more obvious: Hall's striking advantage here is massive. He has a clear edge on speed and fluidity, whereas Jacare is yet another striker on this card who plods and has a swing that more resembles the opening of a gate. Hall also possesses a hammer-like jab, which should help him keep distance while inflicting damage.
Now the tricky part: why am I so confident "The Crocodile" won't get his hooks in Hall like he has so many others? It must be noted that Jacare hasn't had a submission win since 2017. I am also reminded of Jacare's fight with Kelvin Gastelum, wherein he had Kelvin in full mount in the middle of the cage in Round 1 and could not secure a submission. In short, I think there is ample evidence that Souza has lost a step on the ground and in the wrestling department, as he has landed two takedowns in his last six fights (he lost both of those contests).
As I alluded to earlier, however, it's not just the decline of Souza I am interested in but the growth of Hall. It's easy to remember a beleaguered-looking Hall essentially quitting as soon as he hit the mat against Gegard Mousasi in their rematch, but since then, he has fought through compromising positions on the ground against Krzysztof Jotko and Antonio Carlos Junior. The ACJ fight is the one that really sold me on the improvement, as he calmly scrapped a multiple-time BJJ champion blackbelt off his back and went on to take over the fight.
Can Jacare still get this done? It certainly can't be ruled out. But if Hall can survive and win against Carlos Junior, I have to favor his chances here, particularly as their careers seem to be on very different trajectories.
The Pick: Uriah Hall +105