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Best Bets for Contender Series Week 4: Back Big Underdog Thomas Paull in Tuesday Night’s MMA Headliner

Best Bets for Contender Series Week 4: Back Big Underdog Thomas Paull in Tuesday Night’s MMA Headliner article feature image
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Amy Kaplan/Getty Images. Pictured: MMA lightweight Thomas Paull

Dana White’s Contender Series is back in our life to punctuate UFC 278 fight week with some early-week violence to get the party started.

Only one fight on this DWCS Week 4 lineup is being priced to go to a decision. The other four bouts are all slated to end inside the distance at a greater than 2-1 clip, so expect some volatility in these matchups.

As always, Contender Series streams on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. PT) from Las Vegas, and most major US sportsbooks now offer betting markets on all of the fights, which serve as auditions for possible UFC contracts.

Let’s jump into the five-fight card and look at betting angles for each matchup.

(Don’t forget that you can track your DWCS bets in the Action App.)

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Lightweights: Nazim Sadykhov vs. Ahmad Hassanzada

We begin in the talent-rich lightweight division, where New Yorker Nazim Sadykhov will look to run his professional record to 7-1 with a victory over a tough and game Ahmad Assanzada.

Sadykhov likes to bully his opponents backward, dominate them physically, and wing big power shots that can hurt them and earn respect. His opponent, Hassanzada, is a bit more wild and not afraid to leap into the pocket with big shots.

When Hassanzada gets taken down, he is constantly looking for elbows from his back, submission attempts, and opportunities to sweep into top position. Sadykhov opened -150, and he has been bet to a market average of -170. The comeback on Hassanzada opened +130 and has been bet up to as high as +165 at some books.

This should be a gritty, spirited contest in which the athlete who is able to secure more advantageous time in the grappling positions should be more likely to win the fight. Sadykhov may have a slight edge in natural power, but he makes some questionable choices in the grappling exchanges while on top and in bottom positions. I think the constant pressure style that Hassanzada brings to bare from all positions may be too much for Sadykhov.

Prediction: Ahmad Hassanzada def. Nazim Sadykhov via submission – Round 2

The Bets: Hassanzada ML (+165) | Hassanzada Wins Inside the Distance (+300)


Women’s Bantamweights: Hailey Cowan vs. Claudia Leite

Next up we have a women’s bantamweight contest pitting Hailey Cowan against Brazil’s Claudia Leite.

Cowan looks like the more visibly impressive athlete, sporting big muscles and anthropomorphic advantages over her opponent. Cowan will possess three inches of reach and a 2-inch height advantage against Leite.

That being said, Leite is 25 compared to 30 for Cowan, so the former is the fresher fighter. Plus Leite has one more professional bout than Cowan despite being the much younger woman.

Cowan opened a -155 favorite, and the action has been steadily coming in on Leite on most sportsbooks. Cowan can now be found as high as +111 on the moneyline, and Leite can be found for as high as +120, so beautiful arbitrage options exist if you have access to multiple sportsbooks in your area.

I expect Cowan to be the bigger and more physical woman in the early going, but her career to this stage has been defined by boneheaded decisions in the grappling, too much reliance on strength/physicality, and an inability to properly measure distance on the feet. Leite, on the other hand, has been slowly but surely improving her physique over time, and she has demonstrated an ability to hurt women on the feet and to mix in takedowns and grappling attacks of her own – both standing and on the ground.

Cowan makes too many mistakes to be favored in this fight. I think at best this is a pick’em situation, but I expect Leite to find her way to a dominant position and a subsequent finish in this bout.

Prediction: Claudia Leite def. Hailey Cowan via submission – Round 2

The Bet: Leite ML (+120) | Leite Wins Inside the Distance (+333)


Bantamweights: Jose Johnson vs. Jack Cartwright

Jack Cartwright and Jose Johnson are two very serious fighters who seem like they can fit right into the crowded UFC bantamweight division.

Cartwright established himself as a regional star by dispatching two men in one night to claim the Cage Warriors bantamweight title. His opponent, Johnson, has never backed down from a challenge in his career, and he’s secured impressive victories over the likes of Mo Miller (DWCS alum), Pipe Vargas (win over Saidyokub Khakromonov), and Dulani Perry (win over Mana Martinez). Johnson has also fallen short against several UFC-level talents, including Ronnie Lawrence and the aforementioned Martinez.

Both of these men show wisdom and talent beyond their years of competing.

This fight is favored to end inside the distance for good reason. Cartwright has seen the scorecards only once in 10 professional bouts, while Johnson has more than 70% (10/14) of his wins inside the distance – and more than 50% (4/7) of his losses took place inside the distance.

The fighters were in each other’s faces with bad intentions at the weigh-in face-offs. If you want to absolve yourself of picking a side, I think violence is the answer here as both men will look to put it on the line for a contract, and either man could theoretically fall.

I have to back Cartwright here after digging into the tape. He is undefeated, highly aggressive, and talented in all areas of the fight. His power is hard to deal with, and his opportunistic submission grappling and offensive wrestling will serve him well throughout his career.

Prediction: Jack Cartwright def. Jose Johnson via KO – Round 1

The Bet: Under 2.5 Rounds (-188) | Cartwright ML (+102) | Cartwright Wins Inside the Distance (+225)


Middleweights: Claudio Ribeiro vs. Ivan Valenzuela

With all due respect, the next contest between middleweights Claudio Riberio and Ivan Valenzuela seems far and away the sloppiest fight on the card.

Riberio is a fairly basic fighter in that his skill set is having huge, fight-altering power as he tries to wing big shots at his opponent’s chin because he knows it may take only one clean land to end the night. Natural power is something of a cheat code in MMA.

Valenzuela, meanwhile, is also a striker at his core, but he is more interested in throwing technically correct strikes as opposed to winging hammers from his hips. That’s one reason this seems like the most volatile fight on the slate: Riberio has huge winging power, and Valenzuela has secured seven of his eight career victories inside the distance, including four wins by KO/TKO and three via submission.

Ribeiro opened a +165 underdog for this bout, but he has been bet all the way down to a slight favorite. You can still find Riberio +100 on many books while Valenzuela is best available at -105 on sharp markets. This fight is nearly 3-1 to not go the distance, according to bookmakers, so expect violence here.

Ribeiro seems like the more potent and dangerous finisher of the two, but he is also the more limited party, having no wins by decision or submission. I think this turns into a wild brawl in the early going, and if so, that style of fight will favor Ribeiro’s reckless offense.

Prediction: Claudio Ribeiro def. Ivan Valenzuela

Lean: Pass (if pressed for action, Ribeiro Inside the Distance +175 or ML +100 are the best options)


Lightweights: Esteban Ribovics vs. Thomas Paull

Bookend lightweight bangers are the way Contender Series Week 4 will be remembered.

We began with Nazim Sadykhov vs. Amhad Hassanzada, and we shall end with Tommy Paull vs. Esteban Ribovics in the main event of the evening.

Paull is hardly a very technical fighter, but he is extremely aggressive, game as can be, and he has a terrifying natural power in his hands that has crumpled many men in his path. His opponent, Ribovics, is an undefeated Argentinian prospect with a lot of hype behind him.

Ribovics’ moneyline opened -250 and got as wide as -350 before plummeting back down to the current market average price of -263. Paull opened up at a +215 comeback on the moneyline, but at the time of this writing, he can be had for +230 if you shop around.

Ribovics is favored on paper because Paull is a horrific grappler who makes terrible mistakes on the mat, and he has shown in previous fights he can be hit and hurt. Ribovics has an equal share of his 10 wins by knockout and submission, so he has proved to be a dual finishing threat on an admittedly lower level of competition.

Ribovics may have the skills to be a UFC fighter, but I’ll have to believe it when I see it; I think Paull represents the stiffest challenge of his young career, and I expect this to degenerate into a wild brawl at some stage. I also trust Paull to fight for my money and swing absolute hammers in the pocket until he can no longer do so physically.

Prediction: Thomas Paull def. Esteban Ribovics via KO

The Bets: Under 1.5 Rounds (-182) | Paul ML (+230) | Paul Inside the Distance (+375)


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