The UFC 189 card is stacked and I’ve broken down the best plays for your DraftKings lineups. Below are my studs, mid-level and value plays for Saturday night’s match-ups:
Studs – Best plays on the card
Thomas Almeida ($11,200) vs. Brad Pickett
Almeida (18-0, 2-0 UFC) is the most expensive fighter on the board and for good reason. He’s a well-rounded fighter with 14 knockouts on his resume. Only 22, this will be Almeida’s third fight in the UFC after wins over Tim Gorman and Yves Jabouin.
Pickett (24-10, 4-5 UFC is a grizzled veteran with heavy hands. Pickett has lost his last two fights and four of six overall. This is a must-win situation for the 36-year-old but while Pickett has the experience edge over Almeida, that’s his only advantage.
Pickett has looked tentative and slow in his last two fights and those are signs of a fighter wearing down late in his career. Pickett is an exciting fighter who has been in some wars over the years but in his last two fights against Chico Camus and Ian McCall he’s been out-struck 127 to 75.
Some might argue that spending $11,200 on the 22-year-old Almeida is too risky but he’s simply too fast, too young, and too skilled for the fading Pickett. He’ll dominate with his striking and get a stoppage win. I see Almeida as being one of the top plays Saturday night. He’ll be on my card for sure.
Cody Garbrandt ($11,000) vs. Henry Briones
If you’re searching for a first-round finish, this is my pick. On paper, Garbrandt (6-0, 1-0 UFC) and Briones (16-4-1, 1-0 UFC) looks like a good match-up, but that’s why they don’t fight on paper.
Briones is from Mexico and came to the UFC from Legacy FC. He won his UFC debut by submitting Guido Cannetti. Briones is now undefeated in his last eight fights (7-0-1) and 14 of his 16 wins have come by stoppage. There’s no doubt Briones has an impressive resume.
So why is Garbrandt a -620 favorite in the fight? It’s because Briones hasn’t fought the toughest competition and now he’s facing a guy in Garbrandt who many believe is primed for big things in the bantamweight division.
The Team Alpha Male fighter won his UFC debut when he stopped Marcus Brimage with 10 seconds left in the fight. I believe fighters are nervous in their UFC debuts and Garbrandt still finished a pretty good opponent. I expect a much more impressive performance this time out.
Garbrandt has four first-round knockouts. Now that he has the jitters of his UFC debut behind him, you’ll see him go right after the overmatched Briones and look for a quick finish.
Alex Garcia ($10,900) vs. Mike Swick
I’m a big fan of going against fighters who’ve had long layoffs and Swick (15-5, 10-4 UFC) certainly fits that description. Swick will fight for the first time in two and a half years when he faces Garcia (12-2, 2-1 UFC) Saturday night. The last time Swick fought was against Matt Brown on December 8, 2012 when he lost by second round KO.
Since then Swick has spent most of his time in Thailand building an MMA gym for American Kickboxing Academy (AKA). Swick has 15 wins in career – 11 by stoppage – so he was once a dangerous fighter but he’s only been in the octagon twice in five years.
Now Swick has to come out of nowhere and face Garcia who had won six fights in a row before dropping his last contest to Neil Magny. Garcia’s game is built on strength and power. That’s bad news for Swick. He had trouble with stronger fighters back in his prime, so it’s hard to imagine him handling the younger, more powerful Garcia after two and half years away from the sport.
Everyone loves a comeback story but long layoffs are difficult to overcome in MMA because a fighter’s timing is impacted. Just ask Cain Velasquez. Both of his losses came after layoffs from injuries. Swick has a huge mountain to climb and unfortunately I see his journey ending with him on his back. I like Garcia to win by TKO.
Mid-Level – Strong plays to put on your card
Conor McGregor ($10,100) vs. Chad Mendes
McGregor (17-2, 5-0 UFC) was supposed to face Jose Aldo until Aldo bowed out with a controversial rib injury. The consolation prize of McGregor/Mendes is still a sensational fight. Some people loved McGregor when he was facing Aldo and are now switching sides to Mendes (17-2, 5-2 UFC). I’m the opposite. I didn’t like the fight before, now I’m on McGregor.
I agree that McGregor hasn’t faced a wrestler of Mends’ caliber. I mean, how often do you fight a former two-time Division I All-American wrestler? Certainly we won’t know how McGregor will fare against Mendes’ takedown attempts until we see it live but based on watching both fighters, I think their styles favor McGregor.
One thing people have to remember is McGregor is a big featherweight. He’s a tall lanky fighter who walks around at 170 pounds. McGregor is three inches taller than Mendes and has an eight inch reach advantage. McGregor has also never been taken down in his UFC career, thanks in large part to his aggressive style.
Another thing McGregor does well is box and circle away from his opponent. He stays outside and uses his reach well. This will help McGregor be in position when the smaller Mendes shoots in for his takedowns.
Mendes is no slouch at stand-up either. He has incredibly fast hands and good power. Mendes doesn’t just rely on wrestling, so if McGregor can stuff a couple of early takedowns, this will turn into a boxing match. Even though Mendes has dangerous standup, that’s advantage McGregor.
This is going to be a good fight but McGregor’s size will be the difference. His eight inch reach advantage will be a huge factor in the fight. McGregor owns an 88 percent KO/TKO rate, which is third-best in MMA history. That’s certainly appealing given the DraftKings scoring system. I think McGregor is patient, waits for Mendes to make a mistake and then gets the finish.
Dennis Bermudez ($10,400) vs. Jeremy Stevens
Here we have one of those wrestler vs. striker match-ups. Bermudez (14-4, 7-2 UFC) is one of the featherweight divisions best wrestlers, while Stevens (23-11, 10-10 UFC) is known for his punching power.
Stevens has the power to knock out any fighter in the division with one punch but I see complete domination by Bermudez in this fight. Bermudez was riding a seven-fight winning streak before getting caught in a guillotine versus Ricardo Lamas. He’s a fighter I believe that’s really peaking and a serious threat in the featherweight division.
On the other hand, Stevens has lost his last two fights, each by unanimous decision. They were against tough opponents in Charles Oliveira and Cub Swanson. However, he’s had trouble in the past with fighters that have been able to take him down and control him on the ground. Stevens only defends 62% of takedowns. That’s a problem against a strong wrestler like Bermudez.
Stevens’ best chance is to get an early knockout. If that doesn’t happen I think Bermudez dominates the fight with his wrestling and gets an easy win.
Best Value – Best value plays for the price
Gunnar Nelson ($9.200) vs. Brandon Thatch
I was surprised to see Thatch (11-2, 2-1 UFC) as such a big favorite in this fight but I’m going the other way with Nelson (13-1-1, 4-1 UFC).
Thatch will try to keep this fight standing and that makes sense. While I like Nelson I would prefer he take fewer punches to the face than he did in last fight. In his loss to Rick Story, Nelson was out-struck a ridiculous 168 to 53. I guess if you’re looking for a silver lining, Nelson didn’t get knocked out, so we know he has a good chin.
Nelson’s specialty is submissions. Nine of his 13 wins are by submission. He’s a bit unorthodox and often not very exciting but that’s the strategy I expect Nelson to employ in this fight after being a punching bag for Story. Thatch isn’t as accurate a striker as Story and Nelson should be able to get him on the ground and utilize his jiu jitsu.
This is a contrast in styles and in those situations, taking an underdog like Nelson is always worth a shot if you think he’s the fighter who will impose his style. I believe he will. If he doesn’t and the fight stays standing, Nelson is in for a long night.
Robbie Lawler ($9,100) vs. Rory MacDonald
Lawler (25-10-1), 10-4 UFC) isn’t getting much love from the betting public. He’s a pretty sizeable underdog in this fight and can be had for one of the lowest dollar amounts of any fighter on the DraftKings card for UFC 189.
Even with the tempting price, many are still picking MacDonald (18-2, 9-2 UFC) to become the new welterweight champion. I have no problem with that at all. MacDonald is a beast and I think this is going to win Fight of the Night honors, personally. I just can’t pass up Lawler at this price.
Lawler is getting better with age. He gets more impressive every time I see him. Lawler is 6-1 over his last seven fights and the loss to Johny Hendricks was so close it’s hard to even call it a blemish. The bottom line is Lawler is at the top of his game right now.
MacDonald is just as impressive. MacDonald is a technical striker and a beast on the ground. He’s won three fights in a row and eight of nine overall. His only loss over that span? Robbie Lawler.
This fight is a rematch of a closely contested battle in 2013 when Lawler won a split-decision. MacDonald had seven takedowns in three rounds. If he has the same success taking down Lawler Saturday night, MacDonald will likely become the new welterweight champion.
Lawler fought three five round fights last year and in my opinion he’s being overlooked and underappreciated heading into this fight. Again, MacDonald may win but getting Lawler at $9,100 in what I believe is the most competitive fight on the card is great value.
Tim Means ($8,900) vs. Matt Brown
I hate myself for going against Brown (19-13, 12-7 UFC) because he’s such a tough fighter but I think the Dirty Bird (24-6-1, 6-3 UFC) has a good shot to pull the upset here.
Brown is coming off two grueling losses to Lawler and Hendricks. He was also rumored to be fighting Nick Diaz but that fell through. Now Brown is on the Fox1 undercard against Means. I’m not saying Brown won’t be ready because I don’t try to predicted motivation but who do you think is more psyched that this fight is happening?
Brown is a precision striker who will stand and brawl with anyone. His fights are almost always a candidate for Fight of the Night but Means will try to make things ugly in this one.
Means has won four fights in a row and I think he’s getting Brown at the right time. Means excels in the clinch when he can rough up his opponents with punches, knees and elbows. I expect him to try to slow the fight down by clinching and using his reach advantage to keep Brown on the outside. It’s easier said than done but that’s what I expect Means’ strategy will be for this fight.
I have tremendous respect for Brown but I also see a lot of value in Means’ low salary. I see this being a very close fight. Using one of the lowest salaried fighters in your lineup that has a legitimate chance to pull an upset is worth a shot.