Best Bets for Contender Series Week 6: Picks for James Llontop vs. Malik Lewis, More (Tuesday, September 12)
Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images. Pictured: Dana White’s Contender Series at UFC Apex in Las Vegas
Contender Series Week 6 takes place on Tuesday night, and we have picks and leans for all five bouts, where UFC hopefuls look to earn their way into the UFC octagon proper.
Season 7 Episode 6 of Contender Series streams tonight on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. PT) from the UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas. New Contender Series events take place every Tuesday night through early October.
As with all UFC Contender Series events, some of tonight's DWCS winners — and even some of the losers — could earn a UFC deal. In fact, the Contender Series events have become one of the UFC's primary feeder systems.
UFC President Dana White is cageside for each show, and after each event, the UFC boss will determine which fighters have earned an official UFC contract.
As a reminder, some sportsbooks can be slow to open Contender Series odds and betting markets — though nearly every major sportsbook eventually does post them.
(Don't forget that you can track your Contender Series 6 bets in the Action App.)
Bantamweight: Kasey Tanner (-120) vs. Jean Matsumoto (+100)
Fighter Walkouts: Approx. 8:05 p.m. ET
The opening fight on Week 6 features two undefeated 135-pound prospects, with Brazil's Matsumoto (13-0) fighting the 6-0 American Tanner. Both fighters are primarily grapplers, with each holding brown belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Tanner also has a youth wrestling background, as we would expect from an American grappler.
On the other side, Matsumoto has solid Muay Thai. The Jiu-Jitsu/Muay Thai style also is somewhat stereotypical of fighters from Brazil.
Tanner has just one fight against an opponent with a winning record, and he won by unanimous decision. Matsumoto has the far stronger strength of schedule, finishing a 7-0 opponent in order to earn his way onto the Contender Series.
Both men are excellent when grappling from the top, mixing strikes with submission attempts while maintaining position. The winner of this one could be whomever is better off their back, as I expect both fighters to have success at various points in the grappling.
Unfortunately, there isn't much tape on either man working from the bottom.
Matsumoto is also the far more dynamic striker, with excellent leg kicks and flashy knees. Tanner's striking is mostly just a way to get into a clinch position, where he should have a wrestling edge — but could take a lot of damage from Matsumoto before getting his takedowns.
With the grappling extremely close, the strength of schedule and superior striking of Matsumoto is enough to break the tie for me.
However, I'm looking to hedge off live if Tanner moves to plus money. The more explosive style of Matsumoto could be taxing from a cardio standpoint, and this fight is close enough that I'd be thrilled to have plus-money tickets on both sides.
The Bet: Matsumoto +120 (DraftKings) | Tanner Live At Plus Money if Available
Strawweight: Julia Polastri (-535) vs. Patricia Alujas (+400)
Fighter Walkouts: Approx. 8:25 p.m. ET
Polastri is returning to the Contender Series after her first attempt at Jasmine Jasudavicius resulted in a unanimous decision loss. Like her countryman Matsumoto, she's an aggressive striker with excellent BJJ skills — but a massive wrestling-sized hole in her game.
She captured the LFA strawweight title in her last fight, but was taken down by her opponent in the opening minutes. From there, she showed solid composure from her back, attacking with submissions before eventually creating enough space for an escape.
Her top control was extremely impressive, patiently scoring points with strikes from the guard before passing, taking her opponent's back, then transitioning to an arm triangle rather than losing the position.
Alujas is 9-2 as a pro, but none of her fights were for major promotions. She was four knockouts and two submission wins on her record, and got her start in mixed martial arts through Muay Thai.
That's not an idea style to bring against Polastri, as even if she can keep things competitive on the feet, she's unlikely to find success on the ground.
I'm not in the business of laying more than five to one on Contender Series fights, though, so I'm passing on the moneyline here. If we can get Polastri to win inside the distance at -150 or better — or by submission at plus money — I may consider a sprinkle.
Otherwise, keep an eye on the live line. Polastri won the third round against Jasudavicius after getting dominated early, so if Alujas has early success and drives the line down, I'll consider a sprinkle there, as well.
The Lean: Polastri by Finish or Submission | Polastri Live
Featherweight: Steve Nguyen (-280) vs. AJ Cunningham (+230)
Fighter Walkouts: Approx. 8:55 p.m. ET
This is the third Contender Series appearance for Nguyen, who was finished in the third round in 2019, but picked up a unanimous decision win in 2021. He failed to earn a contract, and hasn't competed anywhere else since then — a curiously long layoff for the Fortis MMA representative.
He's very tall for the division, and used his length and striking to control the action in his second Contender Series fight. He was taken down twice, but was able to get up immediately both times, surrendering only 19 seconds of control time.
I'm very impressed by his ability to keep the fight at the perfect range, where he can land strikes but his opponent can't. It's probably not a coincidence that he was outstruck by a taller fighter in Aalon Cruz in his first DWCS fight, though.
That might be a problem against Cunningham, who's giving up only an inch in both height and reach. Cunningham is 10-2 as a professional, with three knockouts and four submissions among his victories.
He has a similar striking style, owning the center of the cage and keeping his opponents at range. He's a bit more dynamic with the striking than Nguyen, though, mixing in spinning attacks and knees.
Like Nguyen, he's struggled at time with takedown defense, but is generally able to pop back up or reverse position. I liked the toughness he showed in his last fight for Fury FC, working out of a body triangle from his opponent back to his feet.
Cunningham may have the offensive wrestling edge here, though I expect it to be mostly a standup fight until either fighter gets hurt.
The striking should be pretty close here, and I worry about both fighters' ability to adapt without having the considerable reach edge they both typically enjoy.
However, the combination of superior offensive grappling for Cunningham and the long layoff for Nguyen is enough to put me on the underdog at plus-money, with the best line at Caesars.
I'd take it down to +200.
The Bet/Lean: Cunningham +230 (Caesars)
Heavyweight: Jhonata Diniz (-148) vs. Eduardo Neves (+124)
Fighter Walkouts: Approx. 9:25 p.m. ET
Neves is the third fighter making a return trip to the Contender Series tonight, with a 7-1 professional record only marred by a first-round loss to Mick Parkin last season.
He was just 22 years old at the time with only five professional fights, so perhaps it was a bit too much too soon for Neves. He landed some good shots on Parkin, but got a bit overconfident, giving up his back on a spinning elbow.
His grappling game — especially defensively — leaves a lot to be desired. As does his cardio, as he burned through his gas tank in about two minutes.
However, I'm impressed by the improvements he's made since then. He defeated a previously undefeated opponent for the LFA title, and also picked up a second-round finish in his other post-DWCS fight. That's valuable experience for Neves, who had won three straight fights within 64 seconds before his initial DWCS fight.
That's especially true about his last fight, where he defended multiple takedowns and threatened his opponent with a foot lock before sitting up to a dominant position.
Diniz is in a similar position to Neves, with a perfect 5-0 record but no fights lasting longer than one round. However, he has more combat sports experience, with an extensive kickboxing record before coming into MMA. He's the far faster and crisper striker than Neves, but is extremely untested in the grappling department.
This is an interesting fight, as we haven't seen any heavyweights make the jump from kickboxing to MMA in a long time. While smaller fighters have had success, working up from your back against the big boys is an entirely different animal.
My favorite play here is round unders or the fight to end inside the distance, but I expect those to be heavily juiced when available. If the under 1.5 comes in at even money or better I'll take it, as this should be either a Diniz knockout or a Neves finish on the ground.
If I had to pick a moneyline side, I'd lean Neves based on his grappling improvements and experience. But I don't feel great about it.
The Lean: Under 1.5 Rounds (Even Money or Better)
Lightweight: James Llontop (-155) vs. Malik Lewis (+130)
Fighter Walkouts: Approx. 9:55 p.m. ET
Llontop hasn't dropped a fight since two weeks after his 20th birthday, going 11-0 over the past four years to run his overall record to 13-2 with eight finishes.
He's fought mainly in smaller promotions in his native Peru, but exclusively against fighters with winning records — often with far more experience. He's a dangerous striker, with good height for the division at 6-foot and fast strikes from a southpaw stance.
His quick feet and constant movement help him win the front foot battle against righties, and he has a great straight left hand when he gets the angle he needs.
He's comfortable striking from the clinch, but doesn't seem interested in takedowns from those positions. However, he's shown a solid top game when he finds himself on top of his opponents.
He also has impressive cardio and trains at high elevation in Peru.
He's taking on yet another DWCS veteran in Lewis. Lewis lost a brawl to noted crazy person Trevor Peek last season, though a fight against such a strange opponent doesn't give us a ton of information about how he'll do against more traditional opponents.
Lewis tried to grapple with Peek and picked up four takedowns in the first round of their fight — but just two minutes of control time. He should have the wrestling edge over Llontop, but I don't have a ton of confidence he'll be able to do much with the positions, should he get there.
Lewis also had some moments in the stand up, catching Peek at range from his southpaw stance. The damage he did might have felled a lesser man, but a more technical fighter probably doesn't take those shots in the first place.
Llontop is that more technical — and experienced — fighter.
If forced into a prefight bet, I'd lay the juice on Llontop, especially with DraftKings being a bit off market at -155.
However, my favorite angle is Llontop live, as Lewis has never been to a decision and is aggressive early.