The UFC has been on a bit of a rough stretch this month with back-to-back main events ending anticlimactically due to injuries.
Fans and fighters are hoping for better luck this Saturday at UFC 277 in Dallas. The pay-per-view card features two title fights – both rematches – plus a handful of fights that could see the winner move into title contention.
The main event has women’s bantamweight champion Julianna Pena and the woman she took the belt from, Amanda Nunes, go at it in part two of their 135-pound rivalry.
Pena shocked the MMA world by withstanding a first-round barrage from Nunes, who remains the UFC women’s featherweight titleholder, before submitting her in the second round in the biggest championship upset in women’s MMA since Ronda Rousey was felled by Holly Holm.
Pena closed as high as +700 back at UFC 269 in December and rewarded her backers. The defending champ is once again a heavy underdog in the rematch.
An interim flyweight belt is on the line in the co-main event between 125-pounders Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France.
Here’s a closer look the UFC 277 main card and a handful of preliminary bouts in which the underdog could shine, plus some picks and prop bets.
AMANDA NUNES vs. JULIANNA PENA
Pena +200 | Nunes -250 | Draw +8000
Pena by decision +500 | Nunes by decision +333
Pena by stoppage +450 | Nunes by stoppage -120
Nunes won the opening round in the first meeting on all judges’ scorecards before the tide quickly turned in the second round. Nunes seemed overconfident early, and as her gas tank waned began to fight sloppy. Once she was fatigued and Pena kept attacking at a high pace, Nunes looked unprepared.
If Nunes can’t put Pena away in the opening round don’t be surprised at a repeat result. Nunes only has one stoppage win outside of the first round since 2011. In her past nine fights that made it out of the opening round, Nunes is just 5-4 and faded in a handful of those wins that ended up going the distance.
Also, history is not on Nunes’s side. There have been 13 immediate title rematches in UFC history; the champions who lost the title in the first match are just 2-11 in the immediate rematch. That’s to say the value is still on Pena’s side in the rematch even though the odds have tightened.
Pena’s best weapon in her first meeting with Nunes, besides her determination, was her jab – specifically a dipping jab as Jack Slack explains here – that disrupted Nunes’s rhythm and added to her frustration.
Technique for technique, Nunes has the edge on Pena in most areas but cardio and heart were legit factors in the first fight. Do you remember how quickly Nunes tapped once Pena had her arm around the neck? Will “The Lioness” be her usual fierce self or once again look like a fatigued cub?
Odds indicate likeliest outcome is: Nunes by stoppage -120
My pick (and preferred prop bets): Pena +200 (by stoppage +450), Pena in Round 3 (+2800), Pena in Round 4 (+3300), Pena in Round 5 (+3300)
If you side with Nunes, her Round 1 (+300) and Round 2 (+500) finishing props will be popular plays. There is a great deal of value on a Nunes submission win, in my opinion, and those props should not be overlooked either. Nunes by submission odds are: Round 1 +1800, Round 2 +2800, Round 3 +5000, Round 4 +8000, Round 5 +10000
BRANDON MORENO vs. KAI KARA-FRANCE
Moreno -210 | Kara-France +175 | Draw +8000
Moreno by decision +140 | Kara-France by decision +300
Moreno by stoppage +225 | Kara-France by stoppage +500
Kara-France closed as roughly a -150 favourite in their first meeting in December 2019 yet Moreno had his hands raised that night following a unanimous decision win. Moreno eventually went on to win the flyweight title. He is 1-1-1 in his rivalry with reigning 125-pound champion Deiveson Figueiredo, losing the title in January when he dropped a decision. Figueiredo is injured and unable to defend the title, which is why the UFC introduced this interim belt.
The first fight took place on the feet and the rematch could too. Moreno should have a wrestling and grappling advantage and is the more likely fighter to incorporate takedown attempts. Moreno hasn’t fought anyone besides Figueiredo since 2020, however, and I like the improvements Kara-France has made on his current winning streak that includes a first-round KO of former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt.
Moreno lands 3.54 significant strikes per minute and has a 57 per cent significant striking defence in his fights compared to Kara-France’s 4.84 significant strikes landed and 65 per cent defence. I see those stats essentially as a microcosm of how this close fight plays out over 25 minutes.
Odds indicate likeliest outcome is: Moreno by decision +140
My pick (and preferred prop bet): Kara-France +175 (by decision +300).
Derrick Lewis (+110) vs. Sergei Pavlovich (-138)
The Texas crowd will be fired up for this heavyweight showdown between fan favourite Lewis and rising Russian contender Pavlovich. This one is not expected to go the distance – if it does, that prop would cash at +400 – with over 1.5 rounds seeing +110 odds while the under is the -163 favourite.
Lewis is always live for the KO and will have the home crowd support but how much did his most recent loss take out of him? He was knocked out by Tai Tuivasa less than five months ago. Lewis loses exclusively to champions or top-five contenders and dispels of anyone else. Pavlovich failed his first big test when he lost to Alistair Overeem in 2018. This encounter with Lewis will determine whether he has improved enough to break into the top tier of big fellas.
This line opened with Lewis as the favourite but has swung to Pavlovich’s side during fight week. Pavlovich is younger and faster with a reach advantage. If he risks eating punches from Lewis he may go night night rather quickly but I’m choosing to trust his hand speed.
Likeliest outcome according to odds: Pavlovich by stoppage -105
Pick (and preferred prop bets): Pavlovich -138 (by stoppage -105), Pavlovich in Round 2 (+500)
Alexandre Pantoja (-175) vs. Alex Perez (+150)
Another meeting of top-10 flyweights with No. 4 Pantoja facing No. 6 Perez, who returns to action following a 20-month layoff. Pantoja has a win over Moreno, earned Fight of the Night when he went the distance with Figueiredo and has been the more active fighter. This fight, like most three-round flyweight bouts, is expected to go to the scorecards, and in what I anticipate being a tightly contested matchup, I often will side with whoever holds the wrestling edge – in this case I believe it’s Perez.
Likeliest outcome according to odds: Pantoja by decision +187
Pick (and preferred prop bet): Perez +162 (by decision +333)
Anthony Smith (+400) vs. Magomed Ankalaev (-550)
The first fight on the PPV main card has Ankalaev seeking a statement win over a former light-heavyweight title challenger. Ankalaev, ranked No. 4 at 205 pounds, is a legitimate title threat on an eight-fight winning streak. He has knockout power but has out-pointed his past three opponents. Smith is a finisher, yet to do that against Ankalaev he’ll need to venture into dangerous waters. Ankalaev has been content to go the distance lately and these odds suggest this fight is likely to play out similarly to Smith’s lopsided loss to Aleksandar Rakic.
Likeliest outcome according to odds: Ankalaev by decision +105
Pick (and preferred prop bet): Ankalaev by decision +105
PRELIMINARY CARD QUICK PICKS
This event is chock full of live dogs, but how many will be barking Saturday night? Below are four underdogs on the prelims I think each has a decent chance at pulling off the upset.
Drew Dober (-188) always puts on a show. He’s more well-rounded and his resume is superior to Rafael Alves (+162) who isn’t a household name. Dober has lost two of his past three and was in trouble against Terrance McKinney in his most recent outing before an impressive comeback TKO win. Dober has been submitted four times in his UFC career and Alves is dangerous, especially early, so I wouldn’t put it past him to catch Dober with something.
Hamdy Abdelwahab (+140) is making his UFC debut on short notice versus Don'Tale Mayes (-170). His resume is not impressive, although his wrestling credentials are. I could see him using brute force to smother Mayes in a potentially ugly fight the longer it goes. Hopefully for his sake he isn’t overwhelmed by the atmosphere in his debut because Mayes throws heavy leather and has a significant reach advantage.
Texas native Alex Morono (+137) meets the explosive Matthew Semelsberger (-163) in the featured prelim and it’s a fan-friendly style matchup. Both welterweights land at a high rate and don’t mind standing and trading. Semelsberger has an edge in power but I’ll side with Morono who’ll be fighting in his home state.
Ji Yeon Kim (+110) is on a three-fight skid, is smaller than Joselyne Edwards (-138) and I think it’s resulting in people overlooking her. I’m siding with Kim’s volume in a fight likely to require all 15 minutes.
-- Julianna Pena (+200) vs. Amanda Nunes (-250)
-- Brandon Moreno (-210) vs. Kai Kara-France (+175)
-- Derrick Lewis (+110) vs. Sergei Pavlovich (-138)
-- Alexandre Pantoja (-188) vs. Alex Perez (+162)
-- Anthony Smith (+400) vs. Magomed Ankalaev (-550)
-- Alex Morono (+137) vs. Matthew Semelsberger (-163)
-- Drew Dober (-188) vs. Rafael Alves (+162)
-- Don'Tale Mayes (-170) vs. Hamdy Abdelwahab (+140)
-- Drakkar Klose (-210) vs. Rafa García (+175)
-- Michael Morales (-600) vs. Adam Fugitt (+450)
-- Joselyne Edwards (-138) vs. Ji Yeon Kim (+110)
-- Nicolae Negumereanu (-125) vs. Ihor Potieria (+100)
-- Orion Cosce (-188) vs. Mike “Blood Diamond” Mathetha (+162)
(Betting odds via Bet365 as of Friday morning and subject to change)