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UFC Fight Night: Expert picks, best bets for Ankalaev-Walker 2

UFC Fight Night: Expert picks, best bets for Ankalaev-Walker 2



Light heavyweight contenders Magomed Ankalaev and Johnny Walker will square off in the main event of the UFC's first fight card of 2024, UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas on Saturday night (4 p.m. ET on ESPN+). This bout is a rematch of their fight at UFC 294, which was ruled a no-contest following an illegal knee from Ankalaev.


Ankalaev (18-1-1, 1 NC), who fought to a draw against Jan Blachowicz in a title fight in December 2022, has had his last two bouts end without a winning fighter. He is ESPN's No. 5 ranked light heavyweight. Walker (21-7, 1 NC), ranked No. 9, was on a three-fight winning streak before the fight vs. Ankalaev.


Brett Okamoto spoke to former UFC welterweight and ESPN MMA analyst Alan Jouban to get his perspective on the UFC main event. ESPN's betting experts Reed Kuhn and Ian Parker add their insights and analysis on the main event and other intriguing bets they like on the card.



Light heavyweight: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker


Alan Jouban, former UFC welterweight and ESPN MMA analyst

How Ankalaev wins: First, watch the leg kicks. Walker is good at chopping the leg, and Ankalaev has that wide boxing stance that leaves the front leg out there. So, don't get the 

legs in trouble. Second, work the body. This is one of my favorite things Ankalaev does. In the last fight, the whole final sequence started with a body punch Ankalaev threw that hurt Walker. So, continue going to the body. Walker is such a tall guy at 6-foot-6, meaning there's more real estate to land to the body if Ankalaev can close the distance. And finally, just keep the pressure up. That's Ankalaev's style, but it will force Walker into bigger mistakes. If he backs Walker up the whole time, it will force Walker to throw something big, and that's where Ankalaev will capitalize. He pressures opponents, makes them swing, and then evades and comes back with counters.


How Walker wins: Land the kicks. That should be his main weapon. I would go into this fight thinking, "If I kick a knee or a shin, it doesn't matter. I just have to do damage at that longer range and deter him from walking me down." Walker also has to be defensively sound. He's such a surprise attack guy. If you look at his record, he has 21 wins, and 17 are in the first round. That's unheard of, but it's because of his fighting style. You can prepare for a tall guy, but not many have the athletic movement he does -- throwing flying knees eight feet into the air. When you haven't seen that, it surprises you. But that also opens Walker up to getting caught, so he has to be defensively sound. In his past two fights, he's had a more patient approach, which I like, but there needs to be a balance. Be smart, but also remember what got you here. You're not a deep-water fighter. Play to your strengths.


X-factor: The rematch. The deck is stacked against Walker here. His surprise attack style isn't favorable for rematches. The element of surprise is gone. Now, Ankalaev knows he'll still throw a flying knee, even when he looks hurt. When he looks off-balance, that's when he'll throw a spinning attack. It won't catch Ankalaev off-guard. And now it's a five-round fight, which doesn't favor Walker either.


Prediction: Ankalaev wins. I see him keeping the hands up and steadily applying pressure -- he'll find the mark on Walker.


Betting analysis

Kuhn: Ankalaev to win (-550); fight does not go the distance. Both fighters here are dangerous strikers, each with knockdown rates way above the UFC average and a combined 10 knockdowns scored.


Ankalaev's power comes with a heavy mix of kicks and unusually high power-strike accuracy. He might need that kicking game against Walker, because he's giving up a massive reach differential. Walker is among the rangiest fighters in the UFC.


Ankalaev is more likely to take the fight down to use his wrestling and ground and pound, though Walker does have submissions in his back pocket. But as long as it stays on the feet, Walker's poor strike defense and meager chin rating suggest Ankalaev will be the first to land a damaging blow. And it doesn't take many shots in this weight class to end the fight.


To hedge against a Walker upset, consider taking the fight to end inside the distance and pairing it with another lopsided favorite, heavyweight Waldo Cortes-Acosta.


Parker: Ankalaev to win inside the distance. This could be a No. 1 contender fight for the next shot at the light heavyweight title. Ankalaev is currently a 5-to-1 favorite, as he should be. He is the better striker, with a higher fight IQ, and has a high-level ground game. Being so outmatched on the mat, Walker can only hope to contain and prevent as much damage as possible if the fight goes there.


Two plays stand out here. First, Ankalaev to win inside the distance. He hasn't been a consistent finisher, but Walker has been knocked out plenty of times. Second, add Ankalaev to your parlay as the anchor. Unless Walker lands a miracle strike, this is Ankalaev's showcase fight, hoping a second title shot is on the horizon with a victory.


Best bets on the rest of the card

Men's flyweight: Matheus Nicolau vs. Manel Kape

Kuhn: Kape to win (-275). This will be a must-watch rematch. Nicolau won a split decision in their first meeting, notably securing takedowns and control time in the first round, but giving a slight edge in striking to Kape in the following two. Both men have worked well into the ranks of the flyweight top 10, collectively going 7-1 since their first fight.


However, the same dynamics remain. Nicolau has far better ground metrics, while Kape has incredibly precise striking. If Kape can establish his takedown defense sooner, he knows he can edge out a striking duel. Historically, Kape has managed to keep fights at a distance for 86% of his Octagon time, higher than any established fighter on the card.


Notably, Nicolau's three career losses came via TKO, which is Kape's most common method of victory. However, there's been a lot of steam on Kape so far -- be careful not to overpay on what is still a close matchup.


Lightweight: Jim Miller vs. Gabriel Benitez

Parker: Miller to win (-135). Benitez started as an almost 2-to-1 favorite, but the odds have shifted, and now he is an underdog in this matchup. Fandom aside, Miller's past four wins, as impressive as they were, came against opponents who were either retiring or inexperienced fighters who took the bout on short notice. Against Benitez, if Miller can't get it to the ground, it will be a closely contested fight. Benitez has fallen in love with taking a shot to land one, but in most cases, it hasn't worked in his favor. If Miller can avoid the kicks, he can control the narrative of the fight and tire out Benitez as the fight goes on.


Men's bantamweight: Ricky Simon vs. Mario Bautista

Kuhn: Simon to win (-185). Bautista has often leveraged his wrestling to weather the storm against strikers and get better positioning on the mat. Most of his wins have come by submission. Yet Simon has better wrestling metrics, with more frequent takedowns, better takedown defense and more dominant ground control.


Should it turn into a slugfest, Simon boasts much greater power and slightly better defense. And if that forces Bautista to lean on his grappling, Simon appears well-positioned to handle it and possibly get the better of control time. There are enough statistical advantages here to lay some juice on the favorite.


Parker: Simon to win. This could be a fight of the night contender. Both fighters are tremendously skilled, but there is a reason why Simon is so heavily favored, depsite coming off a TKO loss in his last fight. Before losing to Song Yadong, Simon was on a five-fight win streak with finishes in three of those bouts. He has good striking, but excels at wrestling and top game. If you don't catch him early, Simon is constantly moving and puts on a pace that is hard to keep up with. After suffering a TKO loss to Trevin Jones in 2021, Bautista has been on a tear, racking up five wins in a row while showing serious submission skills.


However, Bautista has not fought anyone near Simon's skill level. Look for Simon to turn this into a wrestling match while landing some ground and pound along the way.

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