Saturday, 12 May 2018

UFC 224 Picks & assorted sports musings

There are some stories out there this week I'm curious to take a look at - but mostly just a look for now because they involve an element of wait and see. We'll wait and see if the rumors of Manchester United's Anthony Martial being traded to Dortmund in exchange for the |American forward Christian Pulisic are true. Pulisic is a gifted talent with a high ceiling. If he reaches his potential his nationality will grant him an easy path towards becoming a global superstar. He is already under a lot of pressure with the hopes of an embattled soccer federation on his shoulders and seems to handle it well. He was a United fan as a young boy and would be an ideal fit for the club in all facets. As good and beloved as Martial is, it's clear he is not in Jose Mourinho's plans or heart so I would do this deal. We'll see.

Meanwhile Petra Kvitova is one match away from back to back titles for the second time this year. Her opponent in the Madrid final is Kiki Bertens, very much a confidence player. She is very comfortable on clay and has been slowly building on her form year after year but when Petra, a momentum player, is on a roll she is incredibly difficult to stop and has an excellent record in finals. I would make her a slight favorite against Bertens who has been known to choke against mentally stronger players.

Yair Rodriguez has apparently been cut by the UFC due to inactivity after refusing a fight with Zabit Magomedsharipov. According to Dana White he had also previously turned down a fight with Ricardo Lamas. It's quite a dramatic fall from grace for Rodriguez. At the start of last year he was fed BJ Penn to put him over and then jumped the line to face Frankie Edgar which would have cemented him as a star in a key demographic.

We thought he would lose that fight but the way in which he got battered was eye opening. It's possible the beating he took broke his spirit a little. If he truly was dodging his obligations as a healthy, ranked fighter to perform then I can understand the move but the problem is not everyone who holds out waiting for the ideal opponent is held to the same standard. It's not just the Conor McGregors and Nate Diazs of the world picking their spots, we frequently hear stories and he said/she said of this fighter refused that fight and so on. Jimmie Rivera springs to mind in that regard. So whether this is a new UFC policy moving forward or just Dana being capricious once again we will have to wait and see. So far it is also not completely official so I'm also not certain that Dana's anger won't subside and he will reconsider dumping a very exciting guy to watch over a logistical squabble.

A $150m deal was announced for fifteen live UFC events to be streamed on
ESPN+, ESPN's new over the top service. I said before that ESPN and the UFC were not a brand fit and it would be a bad move but since then the President of the company got fired/resigned and there be an understanding developing at the executive level that they need to rein in some of their more obnoxious personalities.

What they definitely are is desperate for content to make yet another paid subscription service in the world viable. From the UFC perspective, it is unclear whether the Endeavor people know anything about sports whatsoever so they probably just looked at the documents and said "ESPN? They do sports, right?" and signed off. Dana for his part seems to perpetually think it's ten years in the past and it has always been his wet dream to be officially associated with ESPN so I am not surprised.

There is still no word on where the rest of the live shows will be broadcast meanwhile. The rumor previously was that rights would be split between ESPN and their existing home at FOX who I think the UFC has good synergy with. It may take some time for that situation to be figured out though as FOX is in flux with the Murdochs breaking up and selling off parts of that empire and FOX Sports also working on acquiring WWE rights.

I saw something grumbling about how hiding content behind an ESPN paywall would not help the sport grow. I actually think this kind of initiative, spreading out rights across multiple platforms is not a bad strategy in such a fragmented media environment. What this is though is a middle finger to existing die hard fans who will be expected to pay for every service and also have their fight pass subscription rendered effectively pointless. We'll have to wait and see where the rest of the rights migrate to assess and pass judgement on the UFC's broadcast future.

Picks after the jump.

[C] Amanda Nunes vs [2] Raquel Pennington

There's a narrative out here this week being pushed by an online LGBT publication that the UFC has not given Amanda Nunes 'the push' so to speak. While it's true that the UFC is abysmally poor sometimes in th‏eir promotional efforts, I don't think that is necessarily the case with Nunes. Twice she was on the main card on a PPV with Conor McGregor. She headlined UFC 200, a grand marquee event above Brock Lesnar. She headlined the marquee year end event against Ronda Rousey. She was booked to headline International Fight Week for the second year in a row at UFC 213 before 'the incident.'

That is a great deal more opportunities to leave a lasting mark in the minds of casual viewers than many other fighters receive. It's fair to say she was grossly under-promoted before UFC 207 where 101% of the focus was on Rousey. It's true also that Dana White tore into her after the sinusitis episode last July. But he treats many of his top ranked fighters very poorly. Just ask the likes of Tyron Woodley, Stipe Miocic and Demetrious Johnson. Nunes has had her chances. I rather suspect the same thing is true of her as for Rose Namajunas. She is just not the type of personality to chase that exposure.

It's a shame in the end they couldn't put Nunes vs Cyborg together for this card because I think there is a real risk that Pennington could win this and kill the division for good. "Rocky" hasn't fought since November 2016 but was making steady improvements up until then particularly in her ability to just survive and scrap. Nunes as we know has a cardio problem and can wear herself out quickly. She countered this in her last fight against Valentina Shevchenko by doing nothing for all five rounds but at home hoping to please the crowd against a brawler she won't get that luxury.

I envision Nunes being on top early, perhaps as long as the third round. But if Pennington can walk through the hard shots, I'd be very curious to see what happens late. I think the adrenaline dump for Nunes could be very bad and I am surprised the betting is so heavily in her favor. She might be able to survive the late rounds to win on points but there is no value in it. I like Pennington here.

[2] Jacare Souza vs [5] Kelvin Gastelum

After taking out Tim Kennedy, Vitor Belfort and Michael Bisping, Gastelum gets another grandpa of the middleweight division to build him and I expect that this fight will look a lot like what happened to Jacare when he fought Robert Whittaker. Regardless of what happens at UFC 225 I would love to see Whittaker vs Gastelum. That would be an incredible fight and I have no idea who I'd pick right now.

The odds slightly favor Jacare perhaps considering the size difference - Weidman threw Gastelum around like a bean bag and Souza is as large. He looked very fit and strong in his last bout, a main event on FOX in January. However despite the power of the opponent that day, Derek Brunson, Gastelum is more dangerous as a boxer and faster. If he can't get the finish I certainly think Gastelum takes the third round for sure.

Mackenzie Dern vs Amanda Cooper

Dern took a lot of crap after her UFC debut at UFC 222 where her striking was I would say, at best, Rousey-esque. Once she got the fight to the ground it was sublime but she has no techniques to force it there. Fortunately her opponent is prone to making a lot of head-scratching mistakes and I'm sure will dive right into her guard without an invitation. Dern was heavily criticized for requiring an interpreter to wade through her thick Brazilian accent which seems out of place given she grew up in Arizona. She must've been home schooled like a tennis player, forced into the jiu-jitsu life by her heli-dad.

Notably, Dern missed weight by an astonishing 7lbs for this fight. It suggests to me she didn't even really try with her cut and does not take this lifestyle choice very seriously. She should be able to get away with it against someone like 'ABC' who has been brought over to make her look good but she will never ascend to the highest level of the sport with this mindset. It's a shame because the natural talent appears to be there.

[6] John Lineker vs Brian Kelleher

I think Lineker wins this. Kelleher is a very good finisher but those opportunities are very scarce against a guy like Lineker who you have to keep your distance from on the feet because he hits with power and doesn't flinch whenbhit back. Kelleher is a more fun and varied fighter to watch though so I hope I'm wrong. I find Lineker very basic.

[9] Vitor Belfort vs [12] Lyoto Machida

Both these guys are so washed up. I had actually forgotten Machida "won" his last fight against Eryk Anders because that's not the fight I watched but that's judging in Brazil for you. Belfort claims this will be his last fight but then again he said that last time before he "won" against Nate Marquardt. Hopefully Machida wins and takes on Michael Bisping next in London or Manchester. I think he is slightly less of a faded force than Belfort who in his current existence won't be missed.

I pick: Pennington, Gastelum, Dern, Lineker, Machida

Chris picks: TBA

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