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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will return to Tampa, Florida, for the first time since 2016 with UFC Fight Night 161. Out of concern that the main event may be in jeopardy, we will skip past the Joanna Jedrzejczyk-Michelle Waterson clash and go straight to the rest of the event. If we had suggested a line on the headliner, Jedrzejczyk at -335 is a solid play, but Jedrzejczyk Wins by Decision is much more intriguing at -145. With that out of the way, let us begin the UFC Fight Night 161 edition of Prime Picks:
Kron Gracie (-150)
With one of the most daunting walkout tracks in the game, Gracie burst on to the United States scene by finishing the exciting Alex Caceres with a rear-naked choke in just over two minutes. Although Caceres has suffered many submission defeats in his career, he had only been tapped once before in the first round: by Mackens Semerzier at UFC Fight Night 24 in 2011. Unbeaten at 5-0 and with all five wins coming by submission, the Rickson Gracie’s youngest son has never been in danger in any of his fights. Before signing with the UFC, his three appearances in Rizin Fighting Federation were relatively one-sided grappling matches that ended with Gracie choking out his adversaries.
Cub Swanson has hit a rough patch since his victory over Artem Lobov at UFC Fight Night 108 in 2017. Since then, he has lost each of his last four bout, including submission losses to Renato Carneiro and future title challenger Brian Ortega. This is a crossroads fight for the +130 underdog, as the perennial featherweight contender may be at the end of his rope with the organization. In Swanson’s last appearance against Shane Burgos, he looked more in line with his competitive, high-volume self but came out on the wrong end of a close split decision.
Gracie will likely have no interest in keeping this fight standing and will do anything in his power to get it down to the canvas, where he has an overwhelming advantage. Not counting multiple submissions due to strikes, Swanson has four tapout wins to his name, although the last one came over John Franchi at WEC 44 in 2009. In the meantime, Swanson has dropped five fight by submission, although the names that have submitted him -- Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway and so on -- have all been top-flight competition. While Gracie is young in his career, he has the elite grappling chops to exploit those same holes in Swanson’s defenses.
Swanson, who has been lauded often for his volume and power, has not finished an opponent since he knocked out Dennis Siver at UFC 162 in 2013. With the potential to be overprotective about Gracie taking the fight to the mat, Swanson will not likely be able to commit to his strikes and put combinations together. The mere threat of the takedown could stifle Swanson’s best weapons, and Gracie will look to exploit that concern. To extend this prediction, we anticipate that the line of Gracie Wins by Submission will also hit -- it is currently at a tantalizing +115 line -- and sits as the most expected betting outcome of the fight. In his match with Caceres, Gracie only needed to land two significant strikes and hit one takedown to instantly take the back and secure the win. While he might not be able to secure the win as quickly, across 15 minutes, Gracie should get the tap before the final bell and put the rest of the division on notice.
Niko Price (-145)
James Vick is making the long-awaited leap to 170 pounds, with the 6-foot-3 lightweight realizing his weight cut had become too strenuous and that he needed to make a change. Although the former Top 15 lightweight may not receive a ranked opponent in his move to a new division, Price poses a serious threat. On the heels of three straight losses, Vick is looking to right the ship in a new weight class, where another loss might see his exit from the promotion he has called home for the majority of his career. In two of those three losses, however, he has tasted the power of a superior striker. Moving up a weight classes to face even heavier-handed strikers may not be the solution to his problems.
Price is an example of an intriguing competitor with a singular focus: knock your head off your shoulders. While his game planning and fight IQ can suffer while pursuing that devastating shot and a more technically-sound striker can beat him to the punch, his full-speed offense is a threat to anyone he comes across. When facing Geoff Neal at UFC 240 in July, we anticipated that Price would fail to come out on top but were cautious to remark that his power could be a game-changer. Price hurt Neal in the first round, but “The Hybrid” ultimately lost by knockout. It would serve Vick well to follow that approach, staying away from Price’s unorthodox striking to let off combinations and evade the counters. While Vick has the ability to do so, we do not expect that he will be able to stay out of harm’s way for long; he will find that the power he struggled against at lightweight will be even worse 15 pounds higher. Also of note: Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision is a significant -350, with oddsmakers barely even expecting this fight will go more than 1.5 rounds (-110). Like Price-Neal, we predict this fight will end violently, and it might be at Vick’s expense.
Mackenzie Dern (-135)
It is always a risky proposition to suggest a fighter will prevail after a lengthy layoff. While Dominick Cruz may not be a proponent of “ring rust” -- we prefer “cage corrosion” -- conceptually it makes sense. In her most recent appearance at UFC 224 in May 2018, Dern missed weight but won by early submission over Amanda Bobby Cooper. Her layoff was for a much more infrequently disclosed reason: Dern started a family with husband and pro surfer Wesley Santos. She gave birth on June 9, so between her maternal duties and training, she has been in the gym the last four months. Despite gaining weight for the pregnancy, Dern is confident weight issues will not play a factor, as she claimed on Thursday that she was a pound away from making the strawweight limit. Although unbeaten after seven fights, including four wins by tapout, she faces a stiff test in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo black belt Amanda Ribas.
Ribas was a bit of an unknown coming into her originally scheduled debut at “The Ultimate Fighter 25” Finale in July 2017. An unexpected suspension sat her out for 23 months before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency lifted it a month early out of concerns that she might have inadvertently consumed tainted supplements. Eager to finally make her promotional debut, Ribas submitted Emily Whitmire in the second round of their encounter at UFC on ESPN 3 in June after almost pulling off the choke in the opening stanza. A talented Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in her own right, Ribas may quickly encounter the oft-repeated adage that “there are levels to this” if this fight hits the canvas. Both women are skilled grapplers, so it is entirely possible this fight stays standing for the majority of three rounds as they try to find an advantage upon which to capitalize. As a result, we would not recommend a particular prop bet for a method of victory unless you are willing to roll the dice. Although both women are intriguing strawweight prospects, we see the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist and Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion in Dern maintaining the advantage on the ground and capitalizing on it on her way to victory.
Gerald Meerschaert (+140)
The theme of this event is grapping, with multiple picks going to fighters who will implement their game plans in the form of takedowns and potential submissions. This choice is much of the same, with the consideration that Meerschaert will drag this fight to the ground and take the upper hand. Much of his career has been along the lines of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” as he holds almost three-quarters of his wins and losses by submission. In his last performance, Meerschaert pulled off a sizeable upset by putting Trevin Giles to sleep with a guillotine choke at UFC on ESPN 5 in June. He did so by wearing down the former high school football player with takedown attempts and prolonged grappling exchanges. This is a strategy we fully expect the Roufusport product to implement on the way to another win as an underdog.
With impressive athletic skills as a former University of Alabama linebacker, Anders smashed through the competition in Bellator MMA and the Legacy Fighting Alliance to put together an 8-0 record and capture the LFA middleweight title. Although he looked solid against Rafael Natal in his UFC debut and was dominant in his sophomore effort against fellow former LFA champ Markus Perez, a controversial split decision loss to Lyoto Machida altered the course of his career significantly. Even though he won his next bout against Tim Williams with a soccer kick -- practically unheard of in U.S. promotions -- his confidence was in question several times in that bout. He then went on to lose three straight fights. A quick win over Vinicius Moreira Castro helped save his roster spot, but he will face a surprisingly effective grappler in Meerschaert, who will stop at almost nothing to latch on to his opponent and not let go. We anticipate that Meerschaert will grind out this fight, and although he might not pick up a finish, he should at the least take a decision.
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