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Below, Matt Nelson and Charlie Mayer share their thoughts on the 10 questions in the UFC Fight Night free pool and break down the action, which includes five main card matchups.
Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till
The main event features former Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and brash up-and-comer Darren Till. Whittaker used elite striking and aggressive pressure to work his way up the middleweight rankings before claiming the belt in 2017. He was able to defend the belt once before injuries and Israel Adesanya derailed his title reign. His game plan on Saturday will consist of forward pressure, precision boxing and leg kicks to neutralize Till’s offense. As long as his striking is as precise as it’s been in the past, he should have no issues landing on an opponent like Till, who is nowhere near as mobile as Adesanya. Till and Whittaker have similar styles in that they both pressure forward and look to outstrike their opponents. It will be interesting to see how Till, formerly a welterweight who would use his size and length to overwhelm opponents, will fare against an elite middleweight like Whittaker. Till needs to win the fight standing if he’ll have any chance at pulling off an upset. I give Whittaker the slight striking edge and think he does just enough to win a close one on Saturday.
Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till - Winning Method
While both fighters are solid strikers, I think each is durable enough to avoid a knockout. However, that will depend on how the fight plays out in the first few rounds. If both fighters move forward aggressively and turn the bout into a brawl, it would not be surprising to see a knockout early in the fight. However, I think that both fighters will have a more calculated game plan, utilizing leg kicks and movement to avoid each other’s power, while counter striking when possible. Considering this may be a title eliminator fight, I can see each having a conservative game plan, with the aggression coming in spurts. Neither fighter has recorded a submission finish so far in their UFC careers, so I don’t anticipate a fighter to tap in this fight. And while both men will trade and land punches throughout, I think this fight goes to the judges’ scorecards and Whittaker wins by split decision.
Maurício Rua vs. Antônio Rogério Nogueira
This card also features a much anticipated Light Heavyweight bout between two UFC legends in Maurício “Shogun” Rua and Antônio Rogério Nogueira. This will be the third fight between the two, having previously squared off in 2006 and 2015, with Shogun winning both bouts by unanimous decision. Rua is the younger and more accomplished fighter, winning the light heavyweight championship in 2010, and will look to patiently outbox Nogueira over the course of three rounds. Nogueira, on the other hand, will look to unleash his power in the early rounds, seeking a finish by KO/TKO. If Nogueira goes with an aggressive game plan, I can see him tiring early and being unable to keep up with the more athletic Rua as the fight progresses. I think the winner of this fight will be Rua, whose patient approach will outlast Nogueira’s aggression en route to an easy win.
Maurício Rua vs. Antônio Rogério Nogueira - Winning Method
Both fighters have knockout punching power, although, not as much as each had back in the day. And while a knockout for either fighter is certainly viable, Rua has shown an incredible ability to absorb punches while still finding ways to win. I think Nogueira will come out swinging for the fences and look for a knockout from the start. But he’ll need to connect a few times in a row to put down Rua. If Rua can survive the early flurry, he’ll be able to tire Nogueira over the course of the fight. Once he’s realized he’s winning the fight, and that the older Nogueira can’t match his stamina or athleticism, I think he cruises to a unanimous decision victory.
Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson
Two more UFC veterans will clash on Saturday as former light heavyweight title contender Alexander Gustafsson moves up a weight class to take on former heavyweight champ and UFC stalwart Fabricio Werdum. Gustafsson’s arsenal consists of long-range striking, solid grappling skills and impressive athleticism. He’ll look to push the pace in this fight and capitalize on Werdum’s mistakes. While Werdum is a natural heavyweight with knockout power and a solid submission game, he is well past his prime and doesn’t have a motor like Gustafsson, who is nine years younger than him. I think Werdum will need an early finish in this one if he has any chance of notching any upset. However, I don’t think that’s likely and I think Gustafsson uses his superior striking and movement to dominate the fight.
Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson - Winning Method
Both fighters are knockout and submission artists who are each capable of a finish on Saturday. If Werdum wins, I think it will most likely be by submission, as he is the superior grappler. However, he may not like his chances if he’s wasting energy on the ground and could look for a knockout if the fight stays standing for long periods of time. I think Gustafsson’s elusiveness on the feet will prevent him from losing by KO/TKO, but he’ll need to prove his pace and athleticism are still there. And while I think there’s a small chance of a late Gustafsson KO/TKO, I ultimately think that this fight goes the distance, with Gustafsson controlling Werdum for all three rounds. My pick is Alexander Gustafsson by unanimous decision.
Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez
Carla Esparza, who moved to 17-6 with a recent win against Michelle Waterson, enters Saturday’s fight against Marina Rodriguez on a three-fight winning streak. She has already fought many of the big names in the division and will look to spoil the rise of the up and comer Rodriguez. Representing her home country of Brazil, Rodriguez has a record of 12-0-2. She’ll put that undefeated record to the test on Saturday as the betting favorite in this matchup, while Esparza comes in as a slight underdog. While Esparza averages 3.28 takedowns per 15 minutes, Rodriguez has a 70% takedown defense, which could certainly cause Esparza problems throughout the fight. It is worth noting that Rodriguez has produced a much higher striking output in her most recent fights, and her high volume striking should give her a distinct advantage in this matchup. Rodriguez will look to use her height and reach advantage to land at range and keep Esparza from closing the distance. Look for Marina Rodriguez to get the better of the exchanges, showing crisp striking on the feet as she decisively wins this matchup.
Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez - Winning Method
Carla Esparza’s past three fights, as well as all four of Marina Rodriguez’s UFC fights, have gone to decision, indicating that this matchup will most likely be decided by the judges’ scorecards. Both fighters have very low submission rates and will most likely avoid engaging in grappling exchanges in favor of trading strikes. Since Rodriguez has a clear edge in the striking department and neither has significant KO power, I believe this fight will most likely end with a Rodriguez win by decision.
Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta
Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira is known for an exciting and aggressive fighting style that has earned him multiple Performance of the Night bonuses thus far in his UFC career. He takes on Peter Sobotta, who is coming off a two-year layoff and will look to get back in the win column. Sobatta had a difficult outing in his last fight against top contender Leon Edwards and this is a great opportunity to rebound against a respectable name in Oliveira. Oliveira has the striking accuracy edge, averages more strikes landed and constantly advances and pressures forward when standing. On the other hand, Sobotta has demonstrated effective striking defense and a high fight IQ. Sobotta also has excellent takedown defense and I imagine Oliveira could tire if he repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempts takedowns. If Sobotta fights a smart match and is able to avoid engaging in wild exchanges with Oliveira, I think there is a strong possibility that he outperforms him, especially if Oliveira tires in the later rounds. However, as Oliveira likes to end the fights in spectacular fashion, he is a viable but risky choice to finish the fight early and get the win.
Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta - Winning Method
There will be plenty of attempts to end the fight since Oliveira always looks for the finish and has 12 previous KO victories. Sobotta has also shown he can finish the fight by knockout or submission and has 16 finishes in his MMA career. I expect Sobotta to be aware of Oliveria’s strengths, evade his grappling attempts and look to outpoint Oliveira on the scorecards. Sobotta has only been finished once by submission, so while Oliveira has strong Jiu Jitsu skills, Sobotta should be able to avoid these attempts and is more likely to get the submission here. Watch out for Oliveira to keep the pressure on his opponent and look for a knockout. However, Sobotta has all the tools to win this match and I predict the fight will go the distance in Sobotta’s favor. Sobotta will need to fight carefully for the duration of the fight but should be able to move up in the rankings with a win by decision in this one.
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