With Pride no longer looming as a major rival, the UFC returns to Japan, the turf of Pride, for the first time since 2000. The UFC 144 card, which will be shown here Saturday night thanks to time zones, is unique for another reason — it features seven fights on the main card instead of the normal five. That means that the PPV will be four hours instead of three — great news for fans. Here’s a look at how the main card shapes up (all UFC 144 odds are from Bovada):
Lightweight Championship — Frankie Edgar (-130) vs. Ben Henderson (Even)
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Edgar has turned me from a skeptic to a total believer in his run as Lightweight Champion. This may be his biggest challenge yet, though, as he faces a former WEC title holder. Henderson lost his last fight in the WEC, but he has bounced back with three nice wins in his new home, and he’s ready for this one. His biggest challenge will be that Edgar is a far better striker than he has faced in a long while, and opposing strikers has not been Henderson’s biggest strength.
While Edgar has the clear edge when the fighters are on their feet, Henderson will have the advantage if and when he can bring the fight to the mat. He’s not a submission fighter — or at least he has decreasingly been one as his career has progressed — but he can frustrate and wear out opposing fighters as well as anyone.
The tone of this fight will be crucial. He who sets it will win. I expect that to be Edgar because his fists will make it harder for Henderson to get close and find holes. I expect this to go the distance, and I expect the champion to retain his title.
Pick: Frankie Edgar.
Quinton Jackson (-280) vs. Ryan Bader (+220)
Rampage is looking to pick up the pieces after his loss to Jon Jones. He was beaten badly, but he still did better against Jones than anyone else has. He won’t likely get another shot at Jones, but he needs to stay strong to be ready for his shot when Jones loses or is injured. That means he needs a decisive win here. I think he’ll get it.
Bader is coming off a nice knockout win last time out, but I can’t forget that he lost to Tito Ortiz last year. That’s ugly. Jackson is by far the more technically proficient fighter, and he’s far more patient than Bader. Jackson will wait for his spots, and then he’ll exploit them.
Pick: Quinton Jackson
Cheick Kongo (-300) vs. Mark Hunt (+230)
This one could be fun. Both guys have a brawler’s mentality and both are happy when a fight turns into a war. The difference here is that Kongo has evolved past that far more than Hunt has. He’s more patient, and much better at top control. This fight is likely to end via ground-and-pound, and Kongo is far more likely to be in position to come out on top.
Jake Shields (-300) vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama (+230)
Akiyama is the most popular Japanese fighter on the card, so he’ll have the crowd behind him. Unfortunately he has landed in a tough spot.
Shields is coming off of two losses, and he’ll be extremely hungry to get back on the winning track. Akiyama is an ideal type of fighter to get Shields back on track. The Japanese fighter has had stamina issues that Shields can exploit, and Shields is far more effective at getting his opponent to the ground and taking advantage once he gets there.
Akiyama’s UFC career has gone off the rails recently, and there is a good chance that a loss here will end that career for now.
Pick: Jake Shields
Yushin Okami (-450) vs. Tim Boetsch (+300)
The UFC likes to give home crowds in foreign settings a few fights to get excited about where their local hero comes out on top with style. This is one of those fights. Boetsch would need this to turn into a slugfest to win. Okami is too smart for that. Okami will overwhelm with his depth of skill.
Pick: Yushin Okami
Hatsu Hioki (-170) vs. Bart Palaszewski (+140)
Palaszewski deserves to lose for one reason alone — his nickname, Bartimus, is absolutely terrible. Even with that aside, he’s in a tough spot here. If Hioki can get in close he’s going to be able to take Palaszewski down and make him pay. Palaszewski is a good striker, but Hioki isn’t afraid to take a shot, and he’s hard to slow down. I don’t think this one is as close as the odds suggest — and they don’t suggest it’s really close.
Pick: Hatsu Hioki
Anthony Pettis (-240) vs. Joe Lauzon (+190)
Pettis is the last guy to beat Ben Henderson, and he did it with a kick that was absolutely incredible. He has lost to Clay Guida since then, but he’s shown some real versatility and improvement along the way, and he is a guy who should wind up with a title shot. This is a very important fight for him.
Lauzon is very dangerous, and can submit guys he shouldn’t be able to beat. Still, Pettis is a very alert fighter, and he has the ability to hurt Lauzon with one punch. That’s a big edge, and it should be enough here.
Pick: Anthony Pettis
I bet a mythical $500 on each card. This time around we’ll go conservative once, and very aggressive once:
$250 — Kongo/Hunt will go at least two full rounds — potential profit of $250
$250 parlay — Pettis, Hioki, Okami, Shields, Kongo, Jackson — potential profit of $1408.73
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