This article is part of our Handicapping the Octagon series.
It's the first Pay-Per-View of the year, friends, which means it's time for the first installment of "Handicapping the Octagon." This week we focus on two plays where the line feels particularly off, have some fun with a prop, and recommend a veteran in a favorable matchup. As always, I have limited my looks to lines below (-200), as I feel that anything more expensive is supposed to come in, and doesn't really require a writeup. All lines are taken from the William Hill online sportsbook and are accurate as of the post date of this article. Without any further ado, let's get to it.
Makhmud Muradov (24-6-0) vs. Andrew Sanchez (12-5-0) Weight class: Middleweight
When we see a fighter with far more experience (and in his prime) set as an underdog or small favorite, it's generally because the opponent is a dedicated finisher or boasts a sparkling record. Neither of these things is true in the case of Sanchez, who is 5-3 in the UFC and has finished just one fight (his most recent bout against Wellington Turman) since 2015.
This being the case, it seems odd to me that Sanchez would be lined this closely with Muradov, who will be the much faster man and have an infinitely better sense of timing and range on the feet. It's natural for prospective bettors to question whether Muradov can defend the takedowns of Sanchez, but it should be noted that the 30-year-old was able to fend off attempts from a reasonably active shot-taker in Alessio Di Chirico, and Sanchez has completed less than 12 percent of his takedown attempts over his last four fights. There is a bit of a concern that Muradov may be vulnerable to counter punches on the way in. Still, I don't see Sanchez as skilled enough to time a counter on the Uzbekistanian, whose general defense is quite good.
Anyone can lose on a given day inside the cage, but Sanchez's striking is so rudimentary, and his wrestling acumen has been so lacking lately that I feel this is a bit of a steal at this price. It seems very much like Sanchez would have to show us a form that we haven't seen from him in some time to get his hand raised here.
The play: Muradov -140
Brad Tavares (17-6-0) vs. Antonio Carlos Jr. (10-4-0) Weight class: Middleweight
As a great admirer of Brazilian jiujitsu, I must say that I love watching Carlos Junior work on the mat. The problem is that his striking hasn't come along to match (or, at least, support) his tremendous ground skills. This is something a fighter like Tavares should be able to exploit.
We've seen the depth of ACJ's striking on display in the past. Generally, it involves throwing big hooks and leaning his head back in a straight line to evade punches. This should leave him open to the overhands of Tavares. The Hawaiian fighter should also be able to use feints to draw the big strikes out of "Shoeface" before countering. It goes without saying that stopping takedowns is integral to beating Carlos Junior. From the stats page, we can see that Tavares has a takedown defense rate of 79 percent, and we can see from his fight with Krzysztof Jotko exactly why this is the case. Tavares is very good at getting his hips back and away from his opponent in open space, and he is similarly skilled at digging underhooks and creating frames against the fence. All of these skills will be vital if Tavares hopes to stay on his feet and land shots.
Tavares has just two finishes in 18 UFC fights, so straight up is the only way to play this one. While it may not be sexy, I feel fairly comfortable that Tavares takes home a decision here, as he has never been submitted in 23 career bouts, while "Shoeface" has only two victories by way of decision.
The play: Brad Tavares -130
Editor's Note: We unfortunately lost two bets from Saturday's card after Nasrat Haqparast fell ill, and Ottman Azaitar was removed from the card (and the UFC roster) for violating health & safety protocols. Arman Tsarukyan will now be facing Matt Frevola in a 157-pound catchweight bout.
Arman Tsarukyan (15-2-0) Vs. Nasrat Haqparast (12-3-0) Weight Class: Lightweight
We return to our roots after two small favorites and close on a big dog play. This is another line I don't quite understand, as aside from a knockout loss against Drew Dober, Haqparast hasn't put a foot wrong in the Octagon. I can't think of many fighters I would make Haqparast this big of a dog against, and Tsarukayn is most assuredly not one of them.
That doesn't mean I think Tsarukyan is a bad fighter – he seems to flow between striking and grappling seamlessly and has a nice, accurate boxing game – but I do see a couple of things that I think will allow Haqparast to be successful. The first of these is Tsarukyan's willingness to let his opponent control the cage. The Russian fighter largely had his way with Davi Ramos in his last fight, but there were moments in that performance when he got clipped. This tended to happen when Ramos would come forward and throw more than one strike at a time. Haqparast has built his entire game on pressuring and throwing in combination. While he will need to watch that he doesn't overextend onto a counter, I think he will be able to cause Tsarukyan many problems by simply being in his face with volume. The other thing to note is I see Haqparast as the quicker man here. That means when they do come together in exchanges, I like Haqparast to come out on top more often than not.
The matchup is not a shoo-in, of course, as Haqparast is far too willing to let shots bounce off his guard and has a bad habit of throwing naked leg kicks, but there is no reason for him to be this big of an underdog in a fight where he has several advantages.
The play: Nasrat Haqparast +240
Ottman Azaitar (13-0-0) vs. Matt Frevola (8-1-1) Weight Class: Lightweight
Azaitar and Frevola are both tremendously exciting fighters in different ways. Frevolva gets into wars with his opponents to the point that you're not exactly sure if he's going to pull through, whereas Azaitar leaves twisted wreckage in his wake. To put a finer point on this distinction, Azaitar has had a total of nine strikes landed on him in two bouts as a member of the organization. Frevola has been rocked in each of his four UFC fights.
What should be made clear is that Frevola rarely ever starts fights with a wrestling game plan. With the exception of the Jalin Turner bout, Frevola spends the majority of the first round engaging his opponent in a firefight. If he follows that strategy here, he will likely wake up looking at the lights. From a striking perspective, Azaitar should be able to use his feints to draw out his opponent's shots and counter. He will also have faster hands, meaning Frevola will be in danger whenever this fight is in striking range.
Azaitar has won the overwhelming majority of his fights by stoppage (12-of-13), so it hardly makes sense to play him straight at favorite odds. What jumps out to me here is there isn't too much of a difference between "win by KO/TKO or DQ" (+130) and adding in the submission prop (+120). Even though his chances to tap the BJJ brown belt don't seem that high to me, I see no reason not to take the insurance when the lines are similar.
The play: Ottman Azaitar by KO/TKO/DQ/SUB +120