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UFC 224: Picks and Predictions

Amanda Nunes demonstrates her power at a UFC media workout.
Amanda Nunes demonstrates her power at a UFC media workout. Photo by MMAFighting (Youtube) [CC License].
  • The UFC heads to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 12th
  • For the main event, Amanda Nunes defends her women’s bantamweight belt for the third time
  • The rest of the card is lined with Brazilian fighters, both young and old

It sounded so good: a double-champion showdown between two Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro. The UFC initially planned for women’s bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes and featherweight champ Cris Cyborg to face in front of an all-Brazilian crowd for a blockbuster UFC 224. But Cyborg instead fought the little-known Yana Kunitskaya at UFC 222 and so Nunes will now take on the third-ranked Raquel Pennington in Rio.

Also on the card is a fight between Jacare Souza and Kelvin Gastelum, an important fight for the busy middleweight division. Mackenzie Dern and Amanda Cooper look to make their mark on the women’s strawweight division. And two ageing Brazilian legends, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort, will put on a show for their countrymen.

Let’s make some picks!

Amanda Nunes (-500) vs Raquel Pennington (+350)

The fact that Raquel Pennington (9-5) is the second-ranked women’s bantamweight challenger shows just how shallow the division is. Pennington hasn’t fought since November of 2016, yet she remains next in line to face the champ. Don’t get me wrong, she’s nothing to scoff at. She’s currently riding a four-fight winning streak and holds notable wins over the likes of Miesha Tate and Bethe Correia. But she may be a little out of her depth when she faces Amanda Nunes (15-4).

Nunes wins out when it comes to almost every conceivable metric. She’s taller, with a longer arm and leg reach. She boasts a better fight record, has fought tougher opponents, and is the more well-rounded fighter. She lands more significant strikes per minute (4.28 to 3.8), with higher accuracy (51.9% to 51.55%), and absorbs fewer shots (2.89 per minute to 2.92).

Add in 15 thousand roaring Brazilian fans, and you’ve got a match-up that heavily favors the champ. You just need to take one glance at the odds to figure that one out. With the line so thoroughly skewed towards Nunes, we should probably try to find a few reasons to pick Pennington. I’m going to try to do just that.

Nunes only narrowly beat Valentina Shevchenko in her last fight. The Kyrgyz fighter took a cautious approach against the champ, picking her strikes very carefully and remaining on the back foot. It was a mind-numbingly boring way to fight, but it was somewhat effective. While Nunes was correctly awarded the decision, Shevchenko showed some real flaws in her game. At times Nunes was impatient, which led to her taking unnecessary risks.  At other times she was a little too aggressive for her own good.

Pennington seems quite adept at controlling distance, and that could really work to her benefit if she’s able to last the opening rounds.

Pennington seems quite adept at controlling distance, and that could really work to her benefit if she’s able to last the opening rounds. If she takes a cautious approach and keeps the fight upright, she stands a decent shot. At such long odds, there’s actually value in picking Pennington.

Picks:

  • Raquel Pennington (+350)
  • Raquel Pennington by Decision (+500)

Ronaldo Souza (-140) vs Kelvin Gastelum (+110)

It’s been decided that the next middleweight title will be between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero. But who’s next?

Both Ronaldo Souza (25-5) and Kelvin Gastelum (14-3) hope to be the answer to that question. Souza is nearing the end of his fighting career, and it’s about time he’s given a shot at the middleweight strap. His only two losses in the UFC have been to Whittaker and Romero, and he holds wins over some of the biggest names in the division. Gastelum has found new success since returning to middleweight in late 2016, and managed to crack the top five after he knocked out the battle-worn Michael Bisping.

Souza completely annihilated Derek Brunson earlier this year, proving beyond all doubt that he’s still one of the best fighters in the division.

Souza completely annihilated Derek Brunson earlier this year, proving beyond all doubt that he’s still one of the best fighters in the division. Even at 38, he was able to out-strike one of the heaviest hitters at middleweight.

His greatest advantage, however, is on the ground. He’s one of the best submission grapplers the UFC has ever seen, and there’s little chance Gastelum will last if he allows Souza to take him down. Gastelum was exposed by Chris Weidman last year when he was submitted via an arm-triangle choke. Souza will look to end the fight in a similar fashion, and I really like his chances.

Picks:

  • Ronaldo Souza (-140)
  • Ronaldo Souza inside the distance (+150)

Mackenzie Dern (-280) vs Amanda Cooper (+220)

The UFC needs a new female star, and Mackenzie Dern (6-0) ticks all the right boxes. She’s undefeated, she’s young, she’s marketable, and, most importantly, she’s shown a ton of potential. She faces Amanda Cooper (3-3) in Rio for a fight that seems tailored for her to win.

Cooper has three losses to her name, all by way of submission. Dern is a World Jiu-Jitsu champion with three submission victories to her name. That’s probably not a coincidence.

I’m not sure if there’s much else to say. The UFC is building up Dern’s resume by pitting her against a fighter with a huge stylistic disadvantage. They’re banking on Dern to remain undefeated, and so should we.

Picks:

  • Mackenzie Dern (-280)
  • Mackenzie Dern by Submission (+110)

Lyoto Machida (-250) vs Vitor Belfort (+195)

Here we have two legends who probably should have already retired. Lyoto Machida (23-8) and Vitor Belfort (26-13) are two of the biggest names in Brazilian MMA, and they’ll face each other in front of adoring fans. Both have only won two of their last six fights, so a win would be a welcome change of pace for the aging fighters.

Machida ended a three-fight losing streak earlier this year with a sketchy win over Eryk Anders. Likewise, Belfort ended his three-fight losing streak last year with a win over an already-broken Nate Marquardt. Both fighters are so far beyond their prime that this may actually be kinda competitive.

While both fighters are well past their golden years, they’ve continued to fight high-level opponents.

While both fighters are well past their golden years, they’ve continued to fight high-level opponents. Machida’s last four losses were all to top-ten fighters — Derek Brunson, Yoel Romero, Luke Rockhold, and Chris Weidman. Belfort took losses from some notable opponents as well — Kelvin Gastelum, Gegard Mousasi, Ronaldo Souza, and Chris Weidman.

This fight seems a lot closer than the line suggests. Valuing Machida at -250 places far too much confidence in the 39 year old. The value is with Vitor Belfort.

Picks:

  • Vitor Belfort (+195)
  • Vitor Belfort inside the Disance (+300)
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