The middleweight division can’t seem to shake off the need for an interim title. 185-pound champion Robert Whittaker was installed as the undisputed champion when Georges St. Pierre vacated the belt, but a nasty staph infection cause him to withdraw from his first scheduled title defense this Saturday against Luke Rockhold.
It’s a sad turn of events for Whittaker, who was expected to make a hero’s debut in his home country of Australia. Beyond that, he was just starting to show the world how special he can be.
Now, Yoel Romero, who Whittaker beat to win the interim strap that later became the real strap, will step up to face former champion Luke Rockhold…with a new interim title on the line. And the winner of that will face Whittaker at a later date in a unification bout.
Frankly, we’re as tired as you are of interim belts, but despite all that you should be stoked about this matchup. At worst, Romero and Rockhold are both top 3 middleweights, and they’ve got exciting styles that should produce some exciting exchanges.
In the co-main event, Mark Hunt, local fan favorite and walk-off KO king, will meet the blue chip heavyweight prospect Curtis Blaydes. A Hunt fight is not to be missed, as the potential for a nuclear punch is always high. But Blaydes is young, hungry and quickly becoming a force at heavyweight.
The rest of the card is filled with promising Aussies defending home soil: undefeated heavyweight slugger Tai Tuivasa, rising light heavyweight Tyson Pedro and the gritty Jake Matthews will all hold court on the pay-per-view portion.
There are a lot of betting options to cover here, so let’s jump right into it using the UFC odds at BookMaker.eu for reference. As usual, we’re breaking our recommendations into Cherry Picks – safe chalk plays, Savvy Risks – smart underdog plays and Lottery Tix – high-risk bets with huge payouts.
Luke Rockhold -143 vs Yoel Romero +113
Over/under 1.5 rounds, over -172, under +120
A late surge has pushed Rockhold into clear favorite territory, but it’s so easy to play devil’s advocate against either guy. Romero’s a monster that can end the fight at any time, but his explosiveness is the cause of recurring cardio issues that can be exploited by the better conditioned Rockhold. The wrestling advantage belongs to Romero, a former Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, but Rockhold is an excellent submission wrestler.
Rockhold is the taller, rangier man with a dynamic kicking arsenal, but has a tendency to get caught, which is a huge no-no against a knockout artist like Romero. Every time you talk yourself into picking a winner, it’s easy to talk yourself out of it. Without a clear underdog to guide us towards a picking a winner, we look towards the other bets you can make here.
Cherry Pick: Over 1.5 rounds at -158
There is some risk here as all three of Rockhold’s losses have come by early knockout. But AKA will likely come up with a gameplan to draw Romero into deep water, considering the faulty gas tank. Romero has only been finished once in his career, and has never been stopped in the UFC despite having faced some heavy hitters like Derek Brunson, Ronaldo Souza and Chris Weidman.
Savvy Risk: Romero inside the distance at +179
10 of Romero’s 12 wins have come by way of knockout. Whether it’s an explosive outburst on the feet or a hellstorm of GNP from the top, he’s a threat to end this fight at any time.
Mark Hunt +130 vs. Curtis Blaydes -160
Over/under 1.5 rounds, over -195, under +155
At 43, Hunt will try and fend off a rising big man 17 years his junior. “The Super Samoan” has beaten more impressive fighters than Blaydes, but his age, the beatdowns he suffered and his recent admittal of suffering CTE problems give you pause. This isn’t the same guy in Pride, though he has aged slower than many of his counterparts.
The question here is whether the Kiwi can keep the fight standing. Blaydes is very good natural athlete, and a former junior college wrestling champion to boot. While he hasn’t been fighting very long, he has improved rapidly inside the octagon, going 4-0 since a loss to Francis Ngannou in his UFC debut. Training at Team Elevation alongside the likes of TJ Dillashaw is obviously doing wonders for his game.
Cherry Pick: Blaydes to win at -160
Big, well-conditioned athletes who can wrestle are Hunt’s weakness. As proven by Brock Lesnar and Stipe Miocic. If his coaches demand a gameplan built on opportunistic takedowns and top control, expect Blaydes to thump on Hunt.
Lottery Ticket: Bladyes by TKO/KO
Even with all of Hunt’s striking accolades, Blaydes has sneaky power of his own, with seven KO wins in eight career victories. If Hunt’s stamina is grinded down – and he’s getting up there in terms of fight miles – the 6’4”, 260 pound Blaydes could very well pick him off.
Tai Tuivasa -285 vs. Cyril Asker +235
Over/under 1.5 rounds, over +165, under -205
Tuivasa is basically a walking stereotype of the hefty heavyweight bomber: he hits extremely hard but tires very, very easily. It’s clear that he could shed a few pounds, as he’s always gassed past round one. Luckily for him, his killshot power usually ends a fight before it devolves into the sloppy mess.
The objectives are clear for both men: Tuivasa will want to starch Asker early, and Asker will want to grind. The Frenchman needs to punch his way into the clinch, press Tuivasa into the cage, chain together takedown attempts and do everything he can to ugly this up. At the very least, he’d have to get on his bicycle for at least a round.
Savvy Risk: Asker to win at +235
Though Asker is shorter and paunchier than Tuivasa, but cardio-challenged heavyweights are always a target for an upset. Asker lands 5.1 takedowns per 15 minutes at a 62.5% clip, and he will test Tuivasa’s grappling. That puts this in 50-50 territory.
Jingliang Li -185 vs. Jake Matthews +155
Over/under 2.5 rounds, over -215, under +170
Everybody wants a piece of the Chinese market these days, and the UFC is no different. Li Jingliang might just be the native star to crack open the nut. He’s certainly an entertaining fighter to watch, with an aggressive striking style based on head-and-body combinations, and a newfound appreciation for thudding leg kicks.
Matthews might not be able to hang with Li on the feet, but he might not need to. His natural strength is more suited to pressing opponents against the cage and cracking them from the top as a GNP specialist. Li’s Wushu Sandou background makes him a difficult to takedown, but by no means is his defense airtight.
Cherry Pick: Over 2.5 rounds at -215
As Li gets matched up with tougher opponents, finishes will be harder to come by. Matthews is an upgrade over the guys Li has been facing, and the Aussie’s clinch game will eat up clock.
Tyson Pedro -271 vs. Saparbek Safarov +221
Over/under 1.5 rounds, over +100, under -120
Pedro is a fresh shot of young blood in a light heavyweight division top-heavy with aging vets. The 26-year old is coming off his first career loss to Ilir Latifi, indicating he needs a bit more seasoning before he sheds the prospect level. Safarov is a step back in competition, yet a dangerous opponent nonetheless.
Safarov is coming off his first career loss as well, a beatdown at the hands of Gian Villante. It’s clear that his 8-0 record was the product of fighting lesser talent in regional competitions. His 75% KO ratio needs to be respected, but he’ll be fighting a taller, more athletic opponent here.
Cherry Pick: Parlay Pedro to win at -271
This is Pedro’s fight to lose. Safarov is exactly the type of midcard talent that the UFC needs to be feeding to him to build up his confidence.