The UFC returns to Madison Square Garden, with a highly anticipated middleweight title fight. Israel Adesanya defends his belt against long time foe Alex Pereira. We also have another title fight, fan favorites Dustin Poirer and Michael Chandler squaring off, and the retirement fight of UFC legend Frankie Edgar.
Lineups lock at 6:00 p.m. eastern time for the 14-fight card.
We have built out a full player-projection model using the FantasyLabs Tools and Player Models to help put together some winning DFS lineups in UFC. You can use our optimizer to build optimal lineups using these projections.
The model, created by our own Sean Koerner, is based on 10,000 simulations of all the fights. He then pulled the DraftKings score from each bout to create floor, median and ceiling projections for every fighter. Here is how he defined each projection:
- Floor: Fighter has an 80% chance of going over this score, 20% chance of going under
- Median: Fighter has a 50% chance of going over this score, 50% chance of going under
- Ceiling: Fighter has a 20% chance of going over this score, 80% chance of going under
These should give us a better sense of which fighters we should target based on the game type – maximizing ceiling in GPPs, for example. We’ve also added ownership projections by yours truly, to help find leverage spots for GPPs.
You can check out the projections for every fighter on Saturday’s card in our UFC Models.
Israel Adesanya ($8,600) vs. Alex Pereira ($7,600)
The much-anticipated middleweight bout between longest-reigning male champion Israel Adesanya and his former kickboxing foe Alex Pereira is finally here. Adesanya’s last few bouts have disappointed from both a DFS and entertainment standpoint. Will this be any different?
There’s reason to think so, with Pereira holding two wins (one knockout) over Adesanya in kickboxing matches. It’s unlikely we see Adesanya suddenly become a grappler, so this one should be a stand-up war. None of Adesanya’s recent opponents have been able to keep up with him in the striking realm — Pereira has shown he can.
Which isn’t to say the wrong man is favored. Striking with MMA gloves is a different art, one that Adesanya has mastered. Pereira has looked good so far but has neither the quality nor quantity of experience in that area.
With that said, I prefer Pereira from a DFS standpoint for a couple of reasons. Their salaries mean Adesanya could win without ending up in the optimal lineup — that’s unlikely to happen with Pereira. Additionally, even if this is a fun real-life fight, a close striking match isn’t guaranteed to produce a ton of points for the winner.
You need a stoppage for that, and Pereira is certainly likelier to pick one up. He’s proven to be the bigger hitter in both MMA and kickboxing.
For cash games, I’ll likely still double up on this fight. Not because I think the aggregate scoring will be worth it, but because I’m not especially confident in who wins it. If I was going to fade one, it would be Adesanya, though — the extra salary freedom allows for builds with a more DFS-friendly favorite.
Weili Zhang ($9,400) vs. Carla Esparza ($6,800)
After “winning” the title in what was quite possibly the worst UFC fight of all time, Carla Esparza now puts it on the line against Weili Zhang.
The DFS salaries and betting lines tell you all you need to know about how this is likely to play out. Zhang is quite possibly the better fighter in all areas here, and the question is whether she does enough to pay off her salary.
Unless we see another extremely cautious game plan from Esparza, I think she does. Zhang could possibly force the issue even if Esparza doesn’t. She’s a great DFS fighter, with at least 100 points in all of her five-round wins — and 81 points in a loss.
Zhang will be hard to get away from in contests of all types but is a near-lock for cash games. I’ll be passing on Esparza for cash, but she’s not a terrible play there. The salary saved opens up a lot in the rest of your lineup. However, both of the other sub-$7,000 fighters project for more points in our models.
The Easy Chalk
Chris Gutierrez ($9,100)
Chirs Gutierrez is fighting UFC legend Frankie Edgar ($7,100) in the latter’s retirement fight at MSG. This one is more “put the young guy over” than “fitting send-off for a legend,” with Gutierrez a -230 or so favorite. Edgar has just one win in his last five, with the three most recent losses being knockouts.
Since losing in his UFC debut, the 31-year-old Gutierrez is unbeaten (one draw) in his last seven fights. He’s an active striker with decent power — his knockdown rate is more than twice the divisional average.
Gutierrez has a fantasy-friendly style and should eventually find the chin of Edgar. The big question is whether or not he can put “The Answer” away. If he can, his $9,100 salary isn’t a problem. If he can’t, he could disappoint even in a winning effort.
“El Guapo” is +150 or so to finish Edgar, but I believe those odds should be shorter. He’s a strong cash game play either way.
His GPP outlook depends on whether you agree with my assessment of the inside-the-distance odds.
Montel Jackson ($9,000)
Jackson leads our median projections for UFC 281, thanks to a combination of solid betting odds (-200) and tremendous takedown upside (over four per 15 minutes.) He’s fighting Julio Arce ($7,200) in bantamweight action.
Arce has shown very strong takedown defense in the UFC, with a 94% defense rate. However, he hasn’t fought many aggressive wrestlers in his tenure. Jackson will put that takedown defense to the test. Jackson has landed takedowns in all but two of his seven UFC bouts, with the exceptions both being quick wins for Jackson.
His floor/ceiling combination is also excellent. His two UFC losses produced 31 and 51 DraftKings points, and he’s topped 100 points in his last four wins.
He’s an excellent play in all contest types.
The Value Plays
Silvana Gomez Juarez ($8,000)
The line for SGJ’s bout against Karolina Kowalkiewicz ($8,200) has jumped around a bit this week but seems to have settled on the cheaper fighter being a slight favorite. That makes her a reasonable value play even before we begin to analyze the fight.
Personally, I’d make Juarez a heavier favorite than the lines indicate. While she’s roughly the same age as Kowalkiwicz, Juarez has just three UFC fights and is still growing as a UFC fighter. Kowalkiewicz is almost certainly on the downswing of her career.
She fought for the UFC title way back in 2016 but has been trending downward ever since. She’s 1-5 in her last six, with the only win coming against Felice Herrig — who immediately retired following the fight. It wouldn’t shock me if we were at or near the end of the road for Kowalkiewicz as well.
All of which is good news for Juarez. She brings some upside as well, with her lone UFC win — and seven of her 11 professional wins — coming via knockout. With that said, she’s still a better cash game option than GPP play. Her likelier outcome is a relatively low-scoring decision win.
Ottman Azaitar ($7,700)
Ottman Azaitar has seen some extreme line movement this week. He was a slight underdog on Sunday night at +105 but is now all the way down to -150. That makes his $7,700 price tag a massive bargain.
Azaitar is fighting Matt Frevola ($8,500) in what will be Azaitar’s first bout in over two years. That layoff explains the initial odds on Azaitar. He’s 2-0 in the UFC with two first-round knockouts and 13-0 as a professional. He would certainly have opened as a favorite over Frevola — who’s lost two of his last three — were it not for the layoff.
The market has rightly corrected, though, with money coming in all week on Azaitar. Besides the significant win equity value, he also brings a ton of upside to the table. All but one of his professional wins have been finishes.
Frevola has also shown a questionable chin at times, with two first-round knockout losses. That’s beside the point, though. The real key is that we’re getting Azaitar about $1,000 too cheap. He’s a must for cash games and strong GPP play as well.
The Contrarian Approach
Ryan Spann ($6,900)
While Spann isn’t getting a ton of love from the betting markets, he’s still far too cheap for his +180 odds. That’s the same line as main event underdog Alex Pereira, who costs $700 more. Spann is fighting former title challenger Dominick Reyes ($9,300). Reyes fought Jon Jones to a fairly close decision in Jones’ last UFC fight but has dropped consecutive fights since.
Spann is certainly less impressive in the resume department than Reyes, with alternating wins and losses against mid-level competition over his last five fights. With that said, Spann and Reyes seem to be trending in opposite directions. Spann looked very impressive in his first-round guillotine win over Ion Cutelaba in his last time out.
While I don’t want to discredit Reyes too much for his losses — all three came against former or current champions — he didn’t look great since fighting Jones. He was knocked out in both fights, and Spann certainly has the ability to put anyone’s lights out. Spann also has the physical tools to excel here, with a 4.5-inch reach advantage.
Most importantly, at -330, this is the fight likeliest to end inside the distance on the card. Reyes hasn’t made it out of the second round since fighting Jones, while Spann has four straight first-round endings on his record. Spann is a boom-or-bust option, but his odds of a boom are bigger than the field is giving him credit for.
The Upside Plays
Michael Chandler ($7,300)
“Iron” Michael Chandler is a fairly heavy underdog in his lightweight bout against Dustin Poirer ($8,900) at +185 or so. However, he has the ability to change things with just one punch or kick. His last four professional wins (including in Bellator) have all been by knockout.
At his salary, that obviously would pay off handsomely for DFS. Both of his UFC knockout wins produced over 100 points. He could get to an even bigger score, though, if he chooses to use his wrestling offensively. That’s a choice he rarely makes, but he should be the better wrestler in this fight.
When we’re hunting for DFS upside, the two things we want are takedowns and finishes. Chandler provides a clear path to both. He also has a quietly reasonable floor for his price. He scored 46 points in his decision loss to Justin Gaethje and 23 against Charles Oliveira.
That makes Chandler a reasonable cash game play as well since Poirer’s win condition is more based on decisions than Chandler’s is.
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The Swing Fight
Carlos Ulberg ($8,400) vs. Nicolae Negumereanu ($7,800)
Israel Adesanya’s training partner Carlos Ulberg continues his tradition of fighting on the undercard of Adesanya bouts, this being his third time doing so in four UFC fights. He’s opening the event against Nicolae Negumereanu, a Romanian-born fighter currently training at team Couture.
Like Adesanya, Ulberg is a former high-level kickboxer who’s transitioned to MMA. He’s 2-1 in the UFC after dropping his debut fight. Negumereanu is 4-1 in the UFC … after dropping his debut fight.
This one should be explosive, with two dangerous strikers facing off. It’s -225 to end inside the distance, so one of these fighters should end up with a big score.
I’m leaning fairly heavily toward the underdog Negumereanu myself. He has a wrestling background — and trains with Xtreme Couture — which could be a problem for Ulberg. Even if Negumereanu doesn’t attempt any takedowns, the threat should open things up in the striking.
Ulberg has a 77-inch reach, which generally gives him an edge. Both of his UFC wins came against fighters with less reach than him, and his lone loss came against Kennedy Nzechukwu — who has an 83-inch reach. Like Nzechukwu, Negumereanu has a slight edge here.
While that could be coincidental, Ulberg does a lot of hand-trapping into elbows and punches — much like Adesanya (and Jon Jones before him.) That’s a great strategy when you have the reach but difficult to implement when you don’t.
Therefore, I’ll be leaning fairly heavily toward the underdog in this one — but certainly want exposure to both fighters.