This article is part of our Handicapping the Octagon series.
The UFC returns to Fight Island in Abu Dhabi this Saturday for UFC 253, a card featuring two five-round title fights. While our plays won't touch on either of those fights, I have once again scoured a pay-per-view card looking for the best plays possible, including a promising young veteran at nearly 3-to-1 dog odds and a returning heavyweight with a big size advantage. 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.
Alex da Silva (21-2-0) vs. Brad Riddell (8-1-0) Weight Class: Lightweight
I have been as impressed as anyone with the skillset of Riddell in his short UFC tenure, but this line is far too wide. Although he is younger, Da Silva will enter this fight with a massive experience edge, as he has had 23 professional fights to Riddell's nine. Records certainly aren't everything, but when I see a fighter with this much experience it at least makes me confident that he will stay composed in the Octagon and won't fold in the face of the power someone like Riddell carries.
Moving on to breaking down the actual fighters, I think we saw both the strengths and weaknesses of Riddell in his last fight with Magomed Mustafaev. The Kiwi fighter raced ahead with a beautiful leaping left hook to knock Mustafaev down but fell victim to the same single leg takedown for what basically amounted to the rest of the fight. Mustafaev couldn't hold Riddell down in these spots, but Da Silva is an excellent grappler who can find the back at a moment's notice and can expertly float on top of his opponent in scrambles. I would also argue that Da Silva is the most athletic fighter Riddell has been matched up against in the organization to date, and his speed and hard kicking game should both be factors in getting the victory.
To be clear, this fight is not without risk, but Da Silva has never been stopped by strikes in his lengthy career, and I expect that Riddell will have to deal with his opponent setting the pace if he can't get him out of there early.
The Play: Alex da Silva +260
Sijara Eubanks (6-4-0) vs. Ketlen Vieira (10-1-0) Weight class: Bantamweight
What a difference two weeks makes. Hype had all but fizzled on Eubanks after she took a surprising loss to Bethe Correia last year, but all of that changed when, after a fairly standard win over Sarah Moras, she upset Julia Avila on short notice. This now has the makings of a real contender fight, as Vieira was earmarked for the top of the division before taking a knockout loss to Irene Aldana in her last bout.
While that bout may be the most notable example, we can go back further to see the kind of striking Vieira employs, which is to swing big overhands when leading and flail wildly when attempting to counter. Neither of these approaches seems like a good idea against Eubanks, who may not quite have the hand speed of Viera, but throws tight, crisp punches with power. In the grappling department, there is no doubt Vieira is highly skilled, but Eubanks' credentials include four medals at the BJJ World's at both black and brown belt, so I have complete confidence that she will be able to hang on the ground.
Throw in what looked to be improved cardio after multiple rounds of grappling with Avila, and what emerges is a fighter with far too many advantages to be this big of an underdog. All of Vieira's wins in the UFC to this point have represented the old guard. We will see what happens as she takes her second crack at the new breed.
The Play: Eubanks +155
Hakeem Dawodu (11-1-1) vs. Zubiara Tukhugov (19-4-1 Weight class: Featherweight
Never underestimate the importance of a first impression. The perception of Dawodu still appears to be informed by a bad loss he took in his debut to Danny Henry, when a perfectly thrown left cross counter led to a submission. Since then, Dawodu has won four in a row (including a victory over Julio Arce). Despite this, Dawodu doesn't seem to be getting much respect against Tukhugov. That's not to say I feel the line is way out of whack, but Hakeem does seem to be building momentum, while Tukuhov has fought just three times in the space of four years, going 1-1-1 over that span.
Dawodu looks to have everything we want in a prospective contender: he's lightning-fast, throws with power and has a strong 85 percent takedown defense rate in five fights. Tukhugov is quick and powerful in his own right, but a leaping left hook is about the extent of what he does on the feet. This can be devastating when landed (ask Kevin Aguilar), but I have to favor Dawodu as the fighter with the more diverse skillset, who should be able to stay on his feet if the opponent wants to change levels.
It feels like Dawodu is on the verge of putting everything together coming off that hard-fought Arce win, and while anyone can get caught, I like Dawodu to put his combinations together and use his footwork to make it six in a row.
The Play: Hakeem Dawodu +100
Juan Espino (9-1-0) vs. Jeff Hughes (10-3-0) Weight class: Heavyweight
It's not often I'm excited to recommend 39-year old fighters who haven't stepped into the cage in almost two years, but I've always thought Espino had qualities that made him likely to succeed as a heavyweight. Namely, that he is big and has a very strong wrestling/grappling game. There isn't much else Espino tries to do in his fights, but that singular focus should serve us just fine against Hughes, who has yet to find a win in the organization.
Generally, I like the speed afforded to guys who come in a bit smaller at heavyweight. The problem for Hughes, though, is that he doesn't throw particularly hard, isn't a strong technical boxer and doesn't have a committed wrestling game to speak of. This means he is going to be at a deficit with just about every kind of skill set he will be up against and he can't use his speed to create any kind of discernable edge.
I don't actually like going "submission-only" when playing mat wrestlers, for the simple reason that in a compromising position, ground-and-pound is just as available as a choke (if not more so). In this case, though, the difference in price between any stoppage (-120) and submission only (+150) is too significant to pass up, as all but one of Espino's seven finishes have come via submission.
The Play: Juan Espino by submission: +150