A look at some betting angles on Saturday night’s Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier UFC 264 undercard:
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson -160 vs. Gilbert Burns +135, welterweights (170 pounds), co-main event
Thompson, ranked fourth, is perhaps the most overlooked and underrated fighter in the welterweight division. At 38, he holds previous championship-level, five-round experience and has faced the best of the division without absorbing a lot of damage. Thompson’s karate base, fluid movement, length and height allow him to effectively evade incoming strikes and kicks while simultaneously positioning himself to counter any attacker with refined precision fists, elbows, feet, shins and knee strikes.
Thompson’s experience, athleticism, precision striking, innately evasive defensive skill and unorthodox kicking game are fueled by his diverse combination of fighting specialties. He is a fifth-degree black belt in Tetsushin-Ryu Kempo, a first-degree black belt in jiujitsu and a black belt in American kickboxing, and finally, he sports a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Carlos Machado.
Thompson is the most competitive threat to champion Kamaru Usman, and with a decisive victory against No. 2-ranked Burns there would be few arguments against Thompson being next in line for a crack at the belt.
Burns is as gifted a Brazilian jiujitsu artist as there is in the UFC. Though his reach is unusually short, he packs fight-ending power with his fists. He is explosive on his feet and as comfortable and dangerous rolling on the floor as any man alive. His TKO loss to Usman in February and his drive to get another title shot immediately is what has driven Burns to this most competitive and dangerous battle. This quick return to the cage may or may not be such a great idea.
How Burns is able to penetrate his opponent’s dynamic range and mobility will be key to his success in this fight. Just as Thompson must control distance and keep Burns at the end of his strikes, Burns must play the bob-and-weave in order to penetrate Thompson’s defenses. Once inside the pocket, Burns’ plan will be to soften Thompson with strikes then ASAP clasp onto and drag the longer, stand-up-based combatant to the mat, where Burns’ prowess is unmatched.
Burns seems a favorable stylistic opponent for Thompson in that he must manage his way inside Thompson’s striking range in order to be effective. This is an approach Thompson has seen and defended throughout his career. Thompson’s ability to move and evade the pressing Burns while countering him in precision fashion will be his plan, and it’s my judgment that he’ll carry it out effectively over three rounds.
Tai Tuivasa -145 vs. Greg Hardy +120, heavyweights (265 pounds)
The winner of this fight will propel himself into the top 15 of a division thin on talent. Tuivasa is a former rugby player who is relatively deliberate in his striking and has little cardio. Though he has been working on developing his fight game, improvement seems to be coming to him at an evolutionary rate and his last couple of wins were over competitors of dubious stature.
Hardy, the former defensive end for the Panthers and Cowboys, is the much more athletic man, though many believe he has hit the ceiling for his fighting ability. I’m not certain I agree with that. Hardy will have a 3-inch height advantage, 5-inch arm and leg length advantages while holding superior athleticism and power.
Tuivasa may struggle trying to haul the physically more structured and athletic Hardy to the floor, where his advantage lies in gaining top control in order to both negate Hardy’s striking and rain ground and pound on the former NFLer.
Hardy needs to make this a stand-up fight and press the smaller, less physically impressive Tuivasa backward and keep him at the end of his strikes, knees and elbows. Lean to Hardy.