The spring season brought fight fans a brand new champion (Leon Edwards), one former champion reclaiming his old title (Israel Adesanya) and another former champion winning a new title in a different division (Jon Jones). Oh, and Aljamain Sterling defeated a future Hall of Famer to retain his title as well.
Spring was fun, but the summer schedule looks to be full of fireworks with big names squaring off for titles and history — but what does analytics behind the fights suggest about these marquee matchups? Using predictive models agnostic of betting lines, we examined how each champion’s matchup appears from a favorability view. Essentially, is this a good matchup for the champion or the challenger?
The inputs consider each fighter’s performance metrics inside the Octagon and select factors about the fighter outside the cage. The higher the score, the more favorable the incumbent champ matches.
These scores don’t indicate how to bet the fight, but just the relative favorability running from the riskiest to the best matchup.
Reed Kuhn and Ian Parker look at six future title fights that are scheduled this summer, including the sport’s pound-for-pound best as Amanda Nunes faces Irene Aldana at UFC 290 and Alexander Volkanovski takes on Yair Rodriguez at UFC 291. Kuhn provides the model projections for each fight, while Parker details the betting perspective.
Women’s bantamweight title: Amanda Nunes (c) vs. Irene Aldana, UFC 289 on June 10.
Analysis: +0.004, slightly favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: I’m surprised this isn’t a stronger lean for Nunes. The numbers reveal Nunes is the more accurate and powerful striker, despite finally facing someone of similar size. Aldana wants to stand and trade, and may well give Nunes some fair exchanges, but the ground game is still advantageous for the champ.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Aldana is an excellent boxer with well-rounded submissions — for most fighters in the division, she is a problem. However, her clinch game and takedown defense are still lacking. Against Nunes, if Aldana can’t keep it standing, I don’t see pulling off an upset. Per usual, Nunes is going to be a heavy favorite. So from a betting perspective, either look toward the over in rounds or a Nunes win by decision as Aldana has not lost by finish thus far in the UFC.
Men’s flyweight title: Brandon Moreno (c) vs. Alexandre Pantoja, UFC 290 on July 8.
Analysis: 0.0, toss-up fight.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Moreno is another champ who has arguably been underpriced, but this time he’s facing someone who looks nearly identical on paper as a dual-threat fighter. On the feet, Pantoja has several offensive advantages, but has looser defense and is now facing his toughest opposition. Their ground games are also very similar, and it’s tough to call who will have an edge there.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Currently the line on Moreno is -175, which is surprising as I expected him to be at best a 2-1 favorite. So if you were looking to bet Moreno, that line is fantastic. However, stylistically Pantoja is going to be a threat to Moreno in the first two rounds. Pantoja is the better submission artist, comes forward with heavy strikes and pressure early on, and has a good chin. Moreno is the better boxer and has the better gas tank over five rounds. There is an argument about the value to take a side here; however, I think the smart play is that the fight doesn’t go the distance.
Featherweight title: Alexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Yair Rodriguez, UFC 290 on July 8.
Prediction: +0.086, favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Volkanovski returns to featherweight where his tight, high-precision kickboxing should be more effective than the wily but loose striking of Rodriguez.
Volkanovski is durable and has the backup option of more effective wrestling — now battle tested by one of the elite grapplers at lightweight, Islam Makhachev.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Normally Volkanovski is a heavier favorite, but there might be a chance the line is closer for this fight because he lost to Makhachev and Rodriguez got a strong win in his last fight against Josh Emmett. If somehow the line is close to -200, I think the masses will, rightfully, go heavy on Volkanovski. As good as Rodriguez is, Volkanovski is one of the highest-IQ fighters out there, and I doubt Rodriguez could do anything that would throw Volkanovski off his game. Now if the line is way higher than -200, then I would look to the fight going the distance. Volkanovski has never been finished in the UFC. Rodriguez has only one loss via finish.
Men’s bantamweight title: Aljamain Sterling (c) vs. Sean O’Malley, UFC 292 on Aug. 19
Analysis: +0.152, strongly favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Sterling has been one of the most profitable fighters of the past two years, suggesting his odds are consistently underpriced. Meanwhile, O’Malley has enjoyed a size and striking advantage throughout his title run. Sterling will be able to match that size and pace on the feet, and then there’s a huge wrestling advantage favoring the champ.
Parker on where the bettors lean: After his impressive performance against Henry Cejudo, Sterling will be viewed in a different light coming into his next title defense against O’Malley. O’Malley will have the edge in boxing, but Sterling has shown his improved striking, which makes his wrestling and grappling skills an even bigger threat than before. Unless O’Malley is able to win by KO early, I think Sterling by decision will have great value. O’Malley is no slouch off his back, but Sterling’s control and position are some of the best in the game.
Strawweight title: Zhang Weili (c) vs. Amanda Lemos, UFC 292 on Aug. 19
Analysis: +0.132, strongly favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: While Lemos certainly has been successful with her sharp hands, Zhang has proven herself against more formidable talent while morphing into a dual-threat finisher. And luckily for Zhang, she’ll even be the younger fighter, without much of a size differential. She’ll be in the familiar position of a shootout with a striker, but this time with her ever-improving ground game to leverage. Zhang has fallen short only once, to former champ Rose Namajunas, and this matchup looks favorable enough for that to remain the case.
Parker on where the bettors lean: We’ve got a potentially fun fight on our hands as both fighters are talented strikers with plenty of power. As strong as Lemos is, she has an underrated submission game that will be needed against a well-rounded champ like Zhang. The difference between the two will be wrestling and cardio. Zhang is very tactical, so I expect her to set her wrestling up with strikes before getting the fight down and neutralizing Lemos’ power. Zhang’s cardio could also present a problem, as we have seen Lemos fade in the past as the fight lingers. The public will likely lean heavily toward Zhang, so picking Zhang to win outright is the play here.
Welterweight title: Leon Edwards (c) vs. Colby Covington, date TBD.
Analysis: -0.094, unfavorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Finally, one champ who isn’t showing up as well quantitatively.
Now with two wins over former champ Kamaru Usman, Edwards has twice done something Covington could not, despite two tries. But Edwards will be facing a huge volume disadvantage, as Covington typically outpaces him by more than 2-to-1 on the feet. Add in the challenger’s wrestling advantage, and suddenly the current champion could be facing uphill rounds on multiple levels.
Parker on where the bettors lean: In Covington, Edwards will have to fend off the high pace and relentless wrestling he puts forward, similar to Usman in the first fight. I see bettors looking for this fight to go into the later rounds. Covington is extremely durable, and Edwards could be spending all five rounds defending takedowns while trying to counter. Over 3.5 Rounds is a solid play, if the line is decent.
Heavyweight title: Jon Jones (c) vs. Stipe Miocic, date TBD.
Analysis: +0.076, favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Now beyond 40, the best days of Miocic are likely behind him, while Jones has now shaken off the cage rust from his long layoff. They’re now headed in different directions, with Miocic having to return from his own two-year hiatus. Miocic is a boxer-wrestler hybrid, but he’ll have trouble with Jones at a distance. And if the fight goes to the mat, Jones has the better finishing potential.
Parker on where the bettors lean: It likely won’t happen in Round 1, as I don’t see Jones tagging Miocic on the feet — and Stipe will be able to scramble initially — but I think Jones will get a finish against Miocic, similar to what he did against Ciryl Gane in his heavyweight debut. Over the course of the fight, the top pressure of Jones will eventually lead to a finish. Jones inside the distance looks like the play, but if you feel like getting a tad bit greedy, Jones by submission should have a fun number on it.