In the past 10 days, UFC 294 has gone from a dual headliner of lightweight champion Islam Makhachev vs. Charles Oliveira and Khamzat Chimaev vs. Paulo Costa to Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski and Chimaev vs. Kamaru Usman. It was a wild and sudden shift to the card that may have actually set up more compelling matchups.
From a gambling perspective, the changes have resulted in much more information to parse through. Are Volkanovski and Usman, two of the best fighters of the era, going to be able to handle the complications of short notice against elite opponents? Will Chimaev and Makhachev be able to adjust their gameplan for entirely different challenges?
Ultimately, we won’t know the answers to these questions until Saturday night when the fights go down at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi. But that won’t stop gamblers from trying to find an edge and produce a bit of profit.
As with every UFC pay-per-view event, there will be plenty of action at sportsbooks around the country. As always, we are looking at each main card fight to identify the “best bet” for each bout. After a 2-3 result at UFC 293, our record for the year now stands at an even 26-26.
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Let’s take a look at what we’ve identified as our choices for the best bets on the UFC 294 pay-per-view main card.
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov
Fight to go the distance: Yes (+110)
These two bantamweights have a combined eight career losses, all of which have come via decision. Nurmagomedov is the better fighter, which is why he’s a -225 favorite heading into the bout. Nurmagomedov also has eight career decision wins to nine stoppage wins, keeping a fairly low finish percentage. While Gafurov only has one decision in 18 career victories, 10 by knockout, he’s +460 to get that stoppage against Nurmagomedov. There’s some temptation to go with Nurmagomedov via decision at +165 but that’s not so much more juicy than the +110 for the fight to go the distance that it’s worth giving up the little security against Gafurov pulling off the upset.
Ikram Aliskerov vs. Warlley Alves
Ikram Aliskerov via KO/TKO/DQ (+125)
I don’t love this fight from a gambling perspective. Alves is 2-4 in his six most recent fights and the first win in that stretch was in May 2019. Alves is also coming up from welterweight for the first time since May 2014. Aliskerov is a good middleweight prospect whose lone career loss came against Khamzat Chimaev, so no shame in that stumble. Aliskerov is -600 to win so unless you’re trying to beef up a parlay, there’s not much value there. It feels like a crapshoot whether Aliskerov takes a submission or knockout victory, as he has an equal amount of wins by both methods and Alves is susceptible to both. Since we need a pick for every fight on the main card, we’ll go with Aliskerov being too big and too strong for Alves coming up to 185 at 32 years old and on a bad run of results, setting him up for the knockout.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
Fight to go the distance: No (-200)
Betting on a Johnny Walker fight is the behavior of a true degenerate. Walker is chaos personified in the Octagon. Will he bomb out an opponent with strikes or crumble as things start to not go his way? It’s almost impossible to know. That said, it’s a fairly safe bet that a Walker fight won’t hit the scorecards as 86% of his fights have ended before the final bell. Ankalaev isn’t quite the sure-fire “finish or be finished” fighter Walker is and could decide he wants to grind the fight out, but the chance of a finish feels higher than the implied odds (66%) of -200.
Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
Over 1.5 rounds (-145)
The sheer number of “big questions” heading into this fight is a little overwhelming. Usman is taking the fight on short notice and at middleweight. There was some concern that Usman said “something popped” in his knee during open workouts, which he vehemently denies having said. Chimaev, meanwhile, has not fought in over a year and even that fight — a submission win over Kevin Holland — was somewhat strange given Chimaev badly missed weight for what was supposed to be a welterweight fight against Nate Diaz and instead was slotted in against Holland as the card was reshuffled. Usman is a crafty fighter with a ton of high-level experience. Even if he has faded a bit, as shown more in the rematch with Leon Edwards than in the first fight, which he was winning handily until Edwards’ Hail Mary head kick, you have to ask if you think that, even on short notice, Usman is better than Gilbert Burns, who gave Chimaev some trouble and lasted to the scorecard. I believe Usman can survive more than 1.5 rounds here.
Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski
Islam Makhachev via decision (+145)
There’s a part of me that is leaning toward picking Volkanovski in the CBS Sports staff picks based on little more than “vibes.” That’s not a good way to approach gambling advice, though. Volkanovski is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, in my opinion, but he’s taking the fight on short notice and that sets up less-than-ideal circumstances heading into Saturday. Makhachev is good enough to finish anyone, but the first fight showed that Volkanovski may be the more dangerous finisher. Makhachev has to respect that Volkanovski hurt him in that first meeting and that likely produces a much more calculated approach. Volkanovski’s cardio is always on point and even out of a full camp, I expect him be be good for five rounds. Winning the fight, though? That’s a big ask, so we roll with Makhachev taking the decision.