Best Value Bets for UFC Fight Night
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
The UFC’s first event of 2018 sees the octagon land in St. Louis, Missouri, for UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi. The Fox Sports 1 card features a host of exciting matchups, topped by a featherweight battle between two of the most exciting 145lb fighters in the world.
With the main and co-main event matchups featuring a quartet of fighters with a staggering 56 knockout finishes between them, the big question heading into this weekend is whose punch power will pay — both for them and for bettors?
The Main Event: Jeremy Stephens vs. Doo-Ho Choi
It seems Doo-Ho Choi is everybody’s second-favorite UFC fighter these days. The baby-faced South Korean looks like a middle-school pupil, but hits like a middleweight world champion. Considering he plies his trade at featherweight, that’s not a bad attribute to have.
The soaring popularity of “The Korean Superboy” has been such that he’s managed to pick up even more fans in defeat than he managed in his succession of UFC victories. His last outing, against seasoned veteran and perennial contender Cub Swanson, saw Choi edged out by unanimous decision in 2016’s Fight of the Year. But injury has kept the 26-year-old from Busan from competing in the octagon since.
This weekend, he’s back, as he takes on one of the most explosive 145-pounders in the world, Jeremy “Lil Heathen” Stephens, the No. 9 contender in the division. The San Diego native’s most recent performance suggests he may be ready for a run at title contention in 2018.
Choi is the coming man at 145lbs, an exciting blend of effortlessly smooth striking, superb footwork and a fearlessness that separates the great fighters from the good. But in his last outing, he came up against a man who was every bit as gritty and determined as he was — Cub Swanson.
This time around, he’s facing another opponent with renowned staying power. Stephens hasn’t been stopped in a contest — by KO/TKO or submission — in FIVE YEARS, and his losses have mostly been in highly competitive battles. If Choi can put “Lil Heathen” away, he’ll make a huge statement in the featherweight division.
But Stephens has been in the octagon with a who’s who of the lightweight and featherweight divisions in the UFC, and he hasn’t looked out of place against any of them. His most recent performance, against returning former Strikeforce lightweight world champion Gilbert Melendez, was evidence of that. Stephens was able to execute a solid game plan throughout, as he systematically dismantled the former champ with brutal leg kicks, taking all of Melendez’s power away from him in in the early going and rendering him a less mobile target for the later rounds.
Don’t be surprised to see Stephens go back to his kicks this weekend against Choi. The American holds the edge in strength, experience and aggression. Provided Stephens’ aggression remains under control and he doesn’t get caught standing in front of Choi’s lightning hands, he has all the tools in his locker to score what would be an underdog victory.
Stephens is best priced at +143 (SportBet), with other notable outlets (5Dimes, SBG Global) not far behind at +140. But the best value will be in the method of victory. Both men have demonstrated their ability to absorb inhuman amounts of punishment and come storming back in previous contests, so backing the fight to go to the scorecards seems the smart move here.
Stephens by decision is available at as high as +500 (William Hill), which is a considerable upgrade on the +405 offered by 5Dimes and SportBet. In what looks set to be a back-and-forth slugfest, that looks like an excellent value pick to me.
The Co-Main Event: Uriah Hall vs. Vitor Belfort
Vitor Belfort is in the twilight of his career, and there’s been the suggestion that the Brazilian legend could hang up the gloves after this weekend’s event. One thing’s for sure: He’s a pale shadow of the man who terrorized the middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions a few years ago.
Increased drug testing and the withdrawal of easy-to-obtain therapeutic use exemptions for testosterone replacement therapy have coincided with Belfort’s dramatic dip in form. Indeed, he looks — and performs — noticeably differently these days. His advancing years and the sheer number of bouts he’s had (this weekend’s bout will be his 41st) have also taken their toll.
He still poses a real threat in the opening exchanges, but if his opponents successfully negotiate the first 60-90 seconds, the fights tend to sway dramatically in their favor, and away from “The Phenom.”
In St. Louis Belfort takes on Uriah Hall, a spectacular striker and one of the biggest enigmas in the UFC. On his day, he’s a serious problem for anybody at 185lbs with his prodigious knockout power and penchant for the spectacular. But he’s had issues in the past with pulling the trigger in fights, and it remains to be seen whether he’s over those problems yet.
Against Belfort, however, he should have the perfect dance partner to showcase his skills. The Brazilian knows his only serious chance of victory is early on, where he has to push the pace. And that should fall perfectly into the wheelhouse of Hall, who loves nothing more than countering opponents with devastating strikes.
Hall produced a thrilling come-from-behind performance to knock out Poland’s Krzysztof Jotko in his last outing, snapping a three-bout losing skid in the process. If he keeps his guard up and fights smart in the opening exchanges, he has all the aces and should be able to score another stoppage win to give him back-to-back stoppage wins for the first time since 2015.
Hall is a sizable favorite to win the bout, and is a -147 shot (5Dimes, SportBet) to finish Belfort inside the distance by KO or TKO, and that’s our pick for the co-main. There’s always the possibility Belfort goes banzai and catches Hall early, and that’s temptingly priced at +474 (5Dimes, SportBet)
The Best of the Rest
The opening main card bout between rising welterweight contenders Kamaru Usman and Emil Meek should produce a fascinating clash. Usman has looked particularly impressive in recent outings, and after his knockout victory over former BJJ world champion Sergio Moraes last time out, he declared himself “a problem” for the rest of the 170lb division. He’ll likely use his dominant wrestling to tame the Finnish wild man Meek, who has looked like an exciting prospect himself. But Usman’s wrestling looks like it could be a major problem for all but the very best in the division, and a decision win for Usman looks like the smart pick. At time of writing, William Hill offer the best odds, at +120.
Jessica-Rose Clark was superb in her UFC debut last time out, and the gritty Aussie is reasonable value at +150 (5Dimes, SportBet) to score a decision victory over UFC poster girl Paige Van Zant in their women’s flyweight clash.
UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi – Featured Picks
- Jeremy Stephens to defeat Doo Ho Choi by decision @ +500 (William Hill)
- Uriah Hall to defeat Vitor Belfort by KO/TKO @ -147 (5Dimes, SportBet)
- Kamaru Usman to defeat Emil Meek via decision @ +120 (William Hill)
- Jessica-Rose Clark to defeat Paige Van Zant by decision @ 150 (5Dimes, SportBet)