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Bellator MMA on Saturday will counterprogram the Ultimate Fighting Championship with a tentpole event, as Julia Budd defends her women’s featherweight title against Cristiane Justino in the Bellator 238 headliner at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Two bouts draw our gaze in this edition of Prime Picks.
Julia Budd (+355)
Much like the unsuccessful upset pick at UFC 246, the ability for the favorite to finish the fight in devastating fashion cannot be ignored. However, the value in this pick is too strong to pass up, with the only Bellator featherweight champion facing the toughest test of her career in Cristiane Justino. While a striker of Justino’s caliber can put a violent end to Budd’s title reign, we believe the champion can deny her opponent in dramatic fashion.
The lion’s share of Justino’s recent opponents not named Felicia Spencer have spent most of their careers at bantamweight, while “Cyborg” often laments that making 145 pounds is difficult and making 135 is impossible. Infrequent have been her natural featherweight opponents since her time in Invicta Fighting Championships, and the last three women to give Justino her most difficult tests in years were larger women who could comfortably compete at 145: Spencer, Amanda Nunes and Holly Holm. Budd’s size and strength will almost certainly surprise Justino, almost as much as Spencer's durability and willingness to continue fighting despite being battered.
Gone should be Justino’s capability to outmuscle her opponent, as Budd has displayed time and time again her ability and predilection to ragdoll the women put in front of her when she chooses. If there is a knock against the champion, it has been that she can stall out when facing opponents who do not fall to the ground on early takedown attempts. On two separate occasions against Arlene Blencowe, the bouts turned into “somnambulant”—to quote commentator Mauro Ranallo—striking contests in which the Canadian landed sporadic takedowns mixed in with slow-paced kickboxing. If Justino stuffs a takedown and makes Budd pay for it in the early going, it could damper the champion’s morale and put her at a severe disadvantage.
Getting out of the first round—both of Budd’s losses came in under a minute—would allow the champion to press the pace and tire out “Cyborg” against the fence while testing the feared striker’s gas tank. It might turn into a grueling affair, but tying up Justino and putting her back against the cage wall is almost certainly in Budd’s best interest, so long as she does not absorb powerful knees and elbows flying in her direction. While “Cyborg” has a much clearer path to victory, Budd as a major underdog play is an appealing prospect. No matter how this bout plays out, it will almost certainly answer the question about whether or not Justino can truly escape the stench of her UFC departure.
Adam Borics (+105)
Since bursting onto the major MMA scene in 2017, Borics has looked nothing short of spectacular, finishing each of his first five opponents inside the Bellator cage. Most recently, Borics earned the most significant win of his career by stopping former champion Pat Curran after landing a veritable smorgasbord of leg kicks to slow his movement. The path to victory for Borics could reside in those leg kicks again, but he has a stiff test in front of him in Darrion Caldwell. The American began his career at featherweight before dropping to 135 pounds to eventually vie for and capture the bantamweight strap. Along the way, he returned to 145 to starch Noad Lahat and most recently stepped into the Bellator featherweight grand prix to grind out Henry Corrales over three rounds to advance in the tournament.
This bout can play out two distinctly different ways. Borics, who loves to time a flying knee up the middle when a fighter changes levels, could catch Caldwell and put him out during his inevitable takedown attempts. Alternatively, Caldwell could just as easily grab the undefeated Hungarian, tire out the high-flying striker and rack up rounds with ease. “The Wolf” has seen five rounds multiple times, while Borics has never competed beyond the fourth. Most likely, if Borics wants to come out on top, he will have to do so by stoppage. Caldwell, a former NCAA wrestling champion, will look for takedowns early and often, and he has the cardio to fuel a long performance. We see Borics being able to score that finish, improving his record to 15-0 and moving on to the semifinals at the expense of the former champ. If he fails to do so, he could be in for a very long night.
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