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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday rolls on at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas with a card that could bless fans watching from afar with a litany of dramatic finishes. While several favorites have relatively clear paths to victory, a few established underdogs could surprise. Three-quarters of the matches see one favorite as less than 2-to-1 odds, so let us attempt to pad our wallets with the UFC Fight Night 174 edition of Prime Picks.
Alexey Oleynik Wins Inside Distance (+180)
This headliner between Oleynik and Derrick Lewis is the kind of fight where two outcomes are practically the only ways this fight will go down. The first is that Lewis will knock out the Russian (-125), while the second is that “The Boa Constrictor” will earn his 60th career win and 47th by tapout when he submits (+220) Lewis. The notion that it reaches the scorecards after 25 minutes is so unlikely that Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision sits at -675, while Lewis is not going to tap Oleynik and Oleynik will most likely not crack Lewis’ chin. In this matchup between two heavyweights that may be exhausted partway through the second round, we predict that Oleynik will earn the finish. Instead of selecting Oleynik by submission, however, this route allows for Oleynik to control the fight on the ground and force a referee stoppage due to unanswered strikes without sacrificing much from the line.
“The Black Beast” has the chance to eclipse the all-time heavyweight knockout record against Oleynik, and he is favored to do so. For a full-sized 265-pound fighter with a knockout rate nearing 80 percent, Lewis does not usually spark opponents in the opening frame. Even though the New Orleans native appears fatigued in fights that stretch on, he has historically been able to find that fourth gear and explode into a finishing sequence. One has to look no further than Alexander Volkov. Lewis was losing handily until 15 seconds were left in the match, only to club his opponent with a few right hands to stage the unlikely comeback. When fighters typically get Oleynik out of the fight, they do so early—eight of his nine stoppage losses have come in the opening frame—and this is not something Lewis has done in recent memory.
The best submission grappler inside the Octagon that Lewis has faced to date is likely Gabriel Gonzaga, a man with whom he squared off in 2016. “Napao” had him down in the opening seconds, but Lewis managed to survive and clip Gonzaga with a right that shut out his lights. With a mediocre takedown defense rate of 53 percent, Lewis has found the ability to power out of most bad positions to get back standing again. Ilir Latifi grounded him on three occasions in February, and Lewis still managed to get topside and edge out a decision. Where Lewis will struggle, however, is when he faces a grappler who is searching for a limb or exposed neck instead of just trying to hold him down.
Throughout his many years in the sport, Oleynik has excelled at facing fighters who think they can simply muscle their way out of a bad position. “The Boa Constrictor” at 43 years of age is still quite capable of setting traps to force a fighter into making a mistake. Against a tiring Maurice Greene in January, Oleynik transitioned from choke attempt to choke attempt until he snatched an armbar when Greene got careless. While Lewis can possibly lift the Russian into the air to fight his way through a precarious position, he will not be able to do so as the time ticks off the clock and his gas tank runs toward E. Instead, Lewis will have to do everything in his power to keep Oleynik off of him and into boxing range, where he can unload with his deadly right hand.
The danger for Oleynik will be present until the final bell. Lewis is capable of ending fights late even after taking damage and becoming totally exhausted. Should one disagree with this analysis and believe that Lewis can indeed stuff the takedowns and get out of harm’s way long enough to land a bomb, we strongly advise Lewis by TKO/KO as the alternative pick. Oleynik’s chin has faded over the years to the point that he gets hurt in most of his fights, but he often wills his way back into his contests. As he grows older, this recuperative effect will be less prevalent and he will simply not have the wherewithal to come back. Think Matt Mitrione-Fedor Emelianenko in Bellator MMA, where the Russian simply did not have the same moxie to bounce back as he did in his early days.
Even though we expect Oleynik will almost certainly get clipped coming in and will have to avoid the unexpectedly expected flying knee from Lewis every so often, he can get the job done. Picking the underdog to win by finish instead of by submission or knockout allows you to have a slightly safer plan, in the event that Oleynik grinds his man out. Over a maximum of five rounds, we do not expect that Lewis will be able to stay mindful enough the whole time to not give up a limb or leave his neck out.
Darren Stewart (-145)
For the sixth time in nine fights, Stewart will take on a fighter coming from Dana White’s Contender Series, making him the de facto gatekeeper of that organization into the UFC. Trying to be the keymaster is Maki Pitolo, who rebounded from the first decision loss of his career by smashing fellow DWCS alum and former Stewart opponent Charles Byrd in June. Pitolo, whose nickname is a straightforward “Coconut Bombz,” largely prefers a brawl, and Stewart will almost certainly oblige him after getting grinded out by Bartosz Fabinski in March.
Mixed in with the hard-nosed, heavy-swinging style is an opportunistic takedown game through which Pitolo can chain together a series of strikes before hitting an unexpected trip or throw. Willing to land to the body or the head, his varying attack keeps his opponent guessing and not always prepared to get tossed to the canvas. Hurting Byrd on route to his first UFC win, Pitolo strung together several vicious body shots before hurling Byrd to the ground and finishing the job. Stewart, who has been put on his back 14 times in his last three appearances, will need to make sure that he pops right back up every time he goes down.
The British striker known as “The Dentist” has never even attempted a submission in his nine-fight UFC tenure, and he does not hold a victory by tapout on his ledger. Finding himself stifled against Fabinski on short notice after a shift to Cage Warriors Fighting Championship in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Stewart was overwhelmed. However, he had been preparing for a very different opponent in Marvin Vettori. This full fight camp for Stewart has been focused on Pitolo, and he should be well-prepared to avoid the brunt of the looping hooks, all while stuffing the occasional takedown. Of the two middleweights, Stewart should have the quicker hands, and if he can gain Pitolo’s respect in the early going, he should be able to emerge the victor.
Beneil Dariush (-175)
Even though he has finished his last three opponents, including the surging Drew Dober, Dariush’s four-fight winning streak has gone practically unnoticed in a sea of lightweight standouts. In divisions like lightweight and welterweight, a contender can amass a string of dominant wins over big names and still not receive the shine he deserves. Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos at 170 pounds strung seven wins together, including a few spectacular finishes, and all he earned was a disappointing match he lost against Jingliang Li. Unfortunately, a victory over Scott Holtzman, which we expect will happen on the current main card opener, will not propel Dariush that much higher in the division.
Each of the last four wins for the Iranian-born Dariush have seen him land at least one takedown as he worked his way towards victory. Even though he sports a low accuracy rate of 33 percent, it may not be the first or even second attempt that land, but the third, fourth and beyond. Setting them up with crisp striking, courtesy of his training at Kings MMA, Dariush has developed from a relatively one-dimensional grappler into a well-rounded combatant with surprising pop in his punches. In his last outing, he became the first fighter to stop Drakkar Klose when he shut the lights out with a devastating overhand left after taking some earlier damage.
After 10 fights inside the Octagon, the jury may still be out on Holtzman. His best win—arguably— was over a resurgent Jim Miller in February, as he lumped up the venerable vet with power shots from distance and in the clinch. No matter what happens for “Hot Sauce,” he should avoid the ground at all costs. While he has never been finished, the risk is too great to test his grappling chops against Dariush. On the other hand, this path is likely Dariush’s straightest to victory, so this bout could very well be decided by whether or not he can get the fight where he wants it. We expect before the night ends that Dariush will take control of the fight and take home a victory in such a fashion that any line below -200 is appealing.
Tim Means (+115)
The stoppage-minded “Dirty Bird” has alternated finish wins and losses in his last four appearances, recording first-round triumphs over Ricky Rainey and Thiago Alves while losing inside the distance to Niko Price and Daniel Rodriguez. Even as he has gotten older, the 36-year-old from New Mexico maintains a kill-or-be-killed mentality practically every time he steps in a cage. This aggression, which can sometimes be seen as reckless, has led to his disadvantage many times, but against Laureano Staropoli, his pressure and constant offense should make the difference.
Like Means, Argentina’s Staropoli holds a recent victory over Alves, albeit by decision and not with a quick guillotine choke. Although Means is not a household name or a ranked adversary, the longtime vet should serve as a solid litmus test for Staropoli’s place in the division. Looking to return to the win column after dropping the first decision of his career, Staropoli tried to go spin for spin with Muslim Salikhov and got a little dizzy. Although Means can get wild and spin with the best of them, he would vastly prefer to get up close and slam you in the face with elbows.
Staropoli, at least in his three UFC appearances, tends to get drawn into his opponent’s game while responding with flashy moves that have not succeeded in putting away higher-level competition. Means can do the same, and this fight could be a wild one for as long as it lasts. We expect that Means will keep his composure as he hunts for a finish the entire fight. We do not expect that the Argentinian will be able to crack the former King of the Cage champion’s chin, and his submission skills are virtually untested on opponents with records above 1-0. The same cannot be said about Means.