Welcome back to the MMA DFS Playbook. I’ve been away for some time due to a career move, but have found some time to get back to the UFC grind. UFC 224 goes down at the Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While the card lacks depth, there are still a few fights worth watching, and I’m excited to see how they play out. The headliner is a bantamweight championship bout, with Amanda Nunes defending her belt against Raquel Pennington. The co-main event sees Ronaldo Souza taking on Kelvin Gastelum at middleweight. Let’s get on to the picks, and let’s make some money.
Main Card (PPV)
Amanda Nunes ($9,500/-1300) vs. Raquel Pennington ($6,700/+800)
Fake Pigskin Exclusive: Join Monkey Knife Fight and Get an Instant 100% Deposit Match PLUS a Free $5 Game!
Amanda Nunes puts her bantamweight title on line agains Raquel Pennington, in a match that looks to be a mismatch on paper. Nunes is riding a wave of momentum coming into this one, having won 6 straight bouts, defending her belt twice. She was the recipient of a gifted decision in her last bout in my opinion, but has otherwise been fairly dominant with stoppage wins over women’s legends Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey highlighting her resume. She’s extremely well-rounded, owning a powerful and devestatingly accurate stand-up game to go along with elite jiu-jitsu and takedown defense. Pennington has been inactive since November 2016, waiting for her title shot that she earned by defeating Tate in impressive fashion. She surprisingly bullied the ex-champion, who retired in the cage in the post-fight interview with Joe Rogan. Pennington seems to be hitting her stride following a pedestrian start to her UFC career.
Nunes is a big favorite in this one for a reason, and I don’t think there’s any real path to victory for Pennington, outside of a major fluke upset. Pennington relies on a bullying style to grind out her opponents, and I don’t believe that she’ll have any success with that strategy against Nunes. Nunes is gigantic for the bantamweight division, and with her strong takedown defense, Pennington will have issues trying to tie her up and take her down. Nunes should rely on that takedown defense to keep the fight standing, and at a distance where she will be able to land crisp combos. Sooner rather that later I see Nunes landing enough to force a TKO stoppage, somewhere in the middle rounds.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza ($8,400/-145) vs. Kelvin Gastelum ($7,800/+125)
The co-main event is the fight that I’m looking forward to the most, as top-ranked middleweight contenders Jacare Souza and Kelvin Gastelum will both look to gain ground towards a title shot. Jacare will bring his dominant jiu-jitsu pedigree, having been arguably the most highly accomplished mma jiu-jitsu practitioner in history. He also has a competent striking game that makes his ground game that much more dangerous. He’s won 3 of his last 4 bouts, with only a loss to champion Robert Whittaker keeping him from fighting for a title. Gastelum is also on the verge of fighting for a title after knocking out Michael Bisping in devastating fashion in November. He’s been very competitive since moving back up to middleweight, only losing to Chris Weidman since the move in 2016.
This is an incredibly interesting fight to dissect, and either man could walk away with a victory here. Jacare is obviously going to do his best to get Gastelum into a compromising position on the mat, but he could run into issues trying to do so. Gastelum is a capable wrestler, with a takedown defense rate of 58%. He’s also shown marked improvement in his striking game, with some pundits crediting him with the best hands in the division. That could spell trouble for Jacare, who has shown a lapse in his striking defense in his fights with Whittaker and Yoel Romero. If he fails to floor Gastelum early, I think Kelvin could pick him apart and even finish him. I think that’s what happens here. Gastelum will stay upright throughout the fight, and will land at will with his crisp boxing. I’m taking Gastelum by dominant unanimous decision.
Mackenzie Dern ($9,100/-250) vs. Amanda Cooper ($7,100/+210)
Grappling ace Mackenzie Dern looks to build upon her debut in March, as she takes on Amanda Cooper in a catchweight bout. Dern weighed in at 123 lbs. for the 115 lb. strawweight bout, and forfeits a large percentage of her purse to Cooper. Dern won her debut with the promotion against Ashley Yoder, but could have easily dropped that bout, as the judges were split on the decision. Dern’s striking game was exposed, and she’ll have to show a vast improvement against Cooper, or make sure she takes her down quick. Cooper is a good opponent for Dern, as the UFC is clearly not rushing her into any big fights that she is obviously not ready for. Cooper is a capable opponent, but she doesn’t excel in any area.
Fantasy just got a whole lot better thanks to Monkey Knife Fight. With fast-paced games like Rapid Fire and Either/Or, it’s never been easier to play fantasy and win. New to MKF? Get Exclusive $100 Deposit Match + Free $5 Game
I think Cooper will test Dern early on the feet, and I’m very interested to see how she responds to getting tagged, should it happen. Specialists like Dern are fun to watch, because you really want to see if their one style is good enough to overcome well-rounded opponents. It’s a throwback to the early days of the UFC. I’m a big jiu-jitsu fan, so I’m rolling with Dern in this one. I think a more accomplished foe would run right through her at this point, but I think Cooper is a great test for her at this point. She’ll do enough to make Dern work, but shouldn’t truly threaten her. I think Dern gets an early takedown, and finishes the fight soon after. The pick is Dern by 1st-round submission.
John Lineker ($9,000/-240) vs. Brian Kelleher ($7,200/+200)
In a bantamweight bout, Brazilian slugger John Lineker battles American Brian Kelleher. Lineker has been nothing short of consistent since his UFC debut in 2012, going 11-3 with 7 wins in his last 8 bouts. The lone loss was by decision to current champion TJ Dillashaw. He’s shown crushing power in his boxing, living up to his nickname, “Hands of Stone.” It’ll be no secret as to what his strategy will be, as he looks to batter Kelleher inside the distance. A veteran of Bellator and Ring of Combat, Kelleher has transitioned well within the UFC, owning a 3-1 record, which includes his latest performance, a big win over former bantamweight king Renan Barao. He’s shown an ability to be elusive on the defensive end, owning a 54% striking defense rate, and defends the takedown at a 84% clip.
This should be one of the more competitive bouts on the card. Lineker is a nice step up for Kelleher, who proved that he belongs in the top 10 with his win over Barao. Kelleher is going to have to land a few takedowns to win this fight in my opinion. If it stays on the feet for too long, I don’t think Kelleher’s striking will look as good the judges (especially in Brazil). Lineker hits much harder than the average bantamweight, and with a “home-field” advantage, his wild striking will more than likely sway the judges. With that being said, I think Lineker defends enough takedowns to keep this one on the feet, and hits Kelleher clean enough over 3 rounds to take it on the cards. Lineker by decision is my pick.
Lyoto Machida ($8,900/-260) vs. Vitor Belfort ($7,300/+220)
The opener for the pay-per-view portion of the card is a good one, as fellow Brazilian MMA legends Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort finally face off. This should be a fun fight for long-time fans of the sport, as both men have been competitive at the highest level for quite some time, and it seems appropriate that they square off before retirement. Both fighters held the light-heavyweight championship in their tenures with the UFC, Vitor in 2004 and Machida in 2009-2010. This will hopefully be a nice send off for both guys, as I don’t think either has anything left to prove in the sport.
For the fight itself, it should be a good one. Machida and Belfort excel on the feet, but with different styles. Vitor relies on a standard boxing base with occasional kicks that have ended fights against Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold. Machida is the most successful karate expert to fight within the UFC, and he’ll likely use a counter-attack style here again. I think it’ll work well against an aggressive fighter like Belfort. I think the fight ends up fairly light on action, with both men respecting each other. Machida should land the cleaner shots on counters, and I think it leads to a clear-cut decision on the cards. Machida by unanimous decision.
Preliminary Card (FX)
Junior Albini ($8,200/-150) vs. Oleksiy Oliynyk ($8,000/+130)
On the FX prelim card, Junior Albini takes on Oleksiy Oliynyk in a heavyweight bout. Albini is a relatively unknown fighter to most, though you may recall his last appearance in the UFC against Andrei Arlovski, where Albini wore shorts that resembled a diaper. I think he’ll need a big win here to overcome the reputation as the “guy in the diaper.” He fights Oliynyk, who saw his momentum halted in his previous bout against surging contender Curtis Blaydes. Prior to the loss, Oliynyk choked out Travis Browne. This will be a clash of styles, with Albini relying on a striking game, and Oliynyk using an unorthodox submission game.
Albini is a big boy, and weighs in at the heavyweight limit, while Oliynyk is well under the threshold, so Albini will have a size advantage in his favor. If Albini keeps the fight standing, he’s more than likely going to be victorious, as Oliynyk has a limited skill set on the feet. However, if this fight hits the mat, I really like Oliynyk’s chances, even if he’s on his back. He’s shown an uncanny ability to finish fights with rare chokes from all sorts of positions, even mounted. I just can’t see that not happening here again. Oliynyk has a short time left in this game, and I think he staves off father time a bit longer with a win here. He’s submitted much tougher opponents, and I think he gets another choke here. The pick is Oliynyk by submission.
Davi Ramos ($8,500/-140) vs. Nick Hein ($7,700/+120)
Another grappling phenom takes the stage, as ADCC world champion Davi Ramos looks to take another leap forward in his UFC tenure against Nick Hein. Following a loss in his debut to another strong grappler in Sergio Moraes, Ramos put himself in the win column against Chris Gruetzmacher with a rear-naked choke submission. He’s another specialist who’s made the transition to MMA, looking to showcase his style. Nick Hein will do his best to not become a highlight-reel submission victim, and if he’s able to stay on his feet, he should have a shot at winning the bout. He’s 4-1 thus far in his UFC career, with only a loss to James Vick blemishing his record. While he’s a capable fighter, he doesn’t do much to wow you, with 5 straight wins coming by decision.
This is a pretty clear-cut fight to break down. If Hein manages to thwart the takedown attempts from Ramos, he’ll have a great chance at walking away with a win. So far, he’s defended the takedown at 90%, which bodes well. The problem is, if it goes to the ground, it’s more than likely over. I can’t pick against almost certainties. Dillon Danis was a perfect example of this in his recent Bellator debut. He was getting tagged on the feet, but as soon as the fight hit the mat, he dominated and won by submission quick. Ramos is on that level of grappling, so it’s the same scenario for me. I see Ramos grabbing a takedown or trip early, and ending it there. The pick is Ramos by submission early in the first.
Preliminary Card (Fight Pass)
Jack Hermansson ($8,300/-150) vs. Thales Leites ($7,900/+130)
Thales Leites will make his 20th walk to the octagon, as he takes on the unheralded Jack Hermansson in a middleweight contest. The Brazilian is 12-7 in his UFC tenure, and fought Anderson Silva for the middleweight title nearly a decade ago now. He’s looking to stay in good standing with the promotion, as he’s been on a bit of a slide in the last few years. He’s 2-4 in his last 6, with wins coming against lesser competition and losses coming against the elites of the division. He’s got great jiu-jitsu, as well as a competent striking attack that has evolved over the course of his long career. Hailing from Sweden, Hermansson has found relative success in his short UFC career, owning a 3-2 record. He’s a guy who will pick up wins over equal or lesser skilled opponents, but has yet to show anything spectacular against the more skilled guys at middleweight. He was throttled by Thiago Santos, and will look to get back some momentum with a win over a bigger name.
I haven’t seen anything from Hermansson yet that will lead me to believe he should be a favor here. Leites may have seen his better days pass him by, but he’s way more skilled than any opponent Hermansson was defeated thus far. The Swede has shown a propensity for being caught by submissions as well, which bodes well for Leites. I think the fight will be anything but exciting, but Leites should do enough on the floor to pick up a gritty win. I’m going safe and taking the vet to win a decision. Leites is the pick.