UFC 271 is taking place on Saturday from the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. The event is headlined by a middleweight title rematch between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker. The co-main event is a heavyweight bout between former title challenger Derrick Lewis and rising heavyweight Tai Tuivasa. There is also another quality middleweight bout between Jared Cannonier and Derek Brunson, who both rank in the top six in the division according to the UFC rankings.
Stud to Pay Up For
Casey O’Neill ($9,500)
O’Neill has been an elite fantasy scorer due to heavy striking and grappling volume. O’Neill is landing 5.5 significant strikes per minute and is finishing nearly four takedowns per 15 minutes, both strong numbers. Because O’Neill has been so successful at converting takedowns, she has recorded solid control time, registering over five minutes of control time in each of her three UFC fights. O’Neill’s ability to record control time has limited the amount of significant strikes she absorbs, and her significant strikes landed to absorbed ratio is strong at nearly 2:1.
O’Neill has an excellent matchup against Roxanne Modafferi ($6,700), who has poor striking and grappling numbers. Modafferi has absorbed about five significant strikes per minute while landing just three significant strikes per minute, an ugly ratio. Modafferi’s takedown defense is also poor, stopping just 25% of opponent takedown attempts. O’Neill should be primed for takedowns, control time and volume in this fight, giving her a high fantasy ceiling.
O’Neill is also one of the biggest favorites on the slate on DraftKings Sportsbook, carrying a Moneyline of -380, making her an extremely safe play.
Robert Whittaker ($7,000)
Whittaker enters his rematch against Israel Adesanya ($9,200) as the underdog, carrying a Moneyline of +225 on DraftKings Sportsbook. Whittaker got smoked in the first fight, getting knocked down twice in eight minutes, with Whittaker getting bailed out by the end of the round on the first knockdown and the second knockdown serving as the finishing blow.
Adesanya has several advantages that will make this matchup tough again for Whittaker. Adesanya is an elite striker who is very tall and lengthy, which gave Whittaker problems in their first fight. Adesanya stands 6’4” with an 80-inch reach, which gives him a large length advantage over Whittaker. Adesanya has a seven-inch reach advantage over Whittaker, which is notable for distance strikes.
Adesanya has excellent striking defense from distance, which is due in part to his long limbs, which allows him to position himself just outside of his opponent’s striking range. 62% of Adesanya’s opponent significant strike attempts have not landed, the second best rate among active middleweights and the fifth best rate in the history of the division. Adesanya is also very quick and elusive, which he combines with his length to avoid being hit cleanly.
Because Adesanya has elite striking defense, Whittaker had a very difficult time landing striking volume in their first fight. Whittaker whiffed constantly on distance strikes, landing just 32 of 116 significant strike attempts from distance, which is an awful 27% rate. Even when Adesanya does get hit, it’s often at the very end of the strike due to his distance management, so he does not get hit with the full power of the strike. This is where Adesanya’s large seven-inch reach advantage really comes into play in this matchup.
Adesanya also has potent offense and ranks in the top 10 among all middleweights in knockdowns per 15 minutes. In the first fight, Adesanya recorded two knockdowns, the second of which finished the fight by KO/TKO. As long as this fight stays at distance, Adesanya will have a significant advantage due to his elite striking background.
Despite all of that, Whittaker has a legitimate path to victory with the right game plan. Adesanya has a weakness in his skill set, which is his bottom game. Jan Blachowicz took over late in Adesanya’s only UFC loss with takedowns and top control, leading two judges to give Blachowicz a 10-8 round in Round 5. If Whittaker is going to win the rematch, he likely has to put Adesanya on his back, or at least threaten to, which could open up gaps to land strikes on the feet from a close distance. Whittaker has not traditionally logged much takedown volume but has underrated wrestling, winning Australia’s national freestyle championship in wrestling in 2017. Whittaker has also been more aggressive with offensive wrestling recently and had a lot of success taking down Kelvin Gastelum in his last fight, recording four takedowns on seven attempts.
Whittaker did not attempt any takedowns in his first fight against Adesanya and should have a different game plan for the rematch. Whittaker has to fight inside against the lengthy Adesanya to have a chance, and he displayed several quality takedowns off body locks in his last fight against Kelvin Gastelum. If Whittaker can fight inside and get this fight to the ground, he has a realistic chance to pull off the upset.
Whittaker is a risky fantasy play because of how elite Adesanya’s striking is, but if Whittaker is going to win, it will likely have to be through a grinding method with control and takedowns over a prolonged period, which could lead to a lot of fantasy scoring. This fight is also five rounds, which potentially creates 10 extra minutes to generate fantasy scoring. Whittaker is worth considering as an upside play in DraftKings fantasy UFC tournaments, as Adesanya will likely carry high ownership levels.
Tai Tuivasa ($7,400)
Tuivasa’s fight against Derrick Lewis ($8,800) is not expected to go the distance, as DraftKings Sportsbook has pegged the Exact Method of Victory: Fight to end by KO/TKO at -550 odds.
It’s easy to see why—this is a fight between two large heavyweights with big punching power and subpar defense. Derrick Lewis holds the UFC record for most wins by KO/TKO (13) and has won three of his last four fights by KO/TKO. Tai Tuivasa also has big power. Six of Tuivasa’s seven UFC wins are by KO/TKO, including all four of his most recent fights.
Lewis has below average striking defense on a rate basis. Lewis has avoided just 41% of opponent significant strike attempts, which could be an issue against Tuivasa’s power. Poor striking defense makes it more likely that a power shot will land flush, which can end the fight in an instant. Lewis has been finished by KO/TKO five times in the UFC, so it’s realistic for Tuivasa to secure a KO/TKO win. Tuivasa has a legitimate path to victory in a fight that is probably closer than the salaries indicate, making him an appealing salary relief play at the ninth cheapest salary on the slate.
Jared Vanderaa ($7,900)
Vanderaa is 1-2 in his last three UFC fights and has poor striking metrics, which has contributed to him being the underdog against veteran Andrei Arlovski. Vanderaa has absorbed over five significant strikes per minute and has avoided just 39% of opponent significant strike attempts, which are both alarming statistics. Vanderaa also has a negative strikes landed to absorbed ratio, which is a red flag.
However, many of these significant strikes have been landed on the ground after Vanderaa was taken down in losses to Alexandr Romanov and Serghei Spivac. Arlovski is a striker who does not really go for takedowns, registering just 0.43 takedowns per 15 minutes in the UFC. This fight looks like it will take place on the feet, which should make it competitive. That could create some value for Vanderaa at $7,900, who has better striking stats from distance than his overall numbers indicate. Vanderaa has landed 137 strikes from distance and absorbed 103, a positive ratio.
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All views expressed are my own. I am an employee of DraftKings and am ineligible to play in public DFS or DKSB contests. The contents contained in this article do not constitute a representation that any particular strategy will guarantee success. All customers should use their own skill and judgment in building lineups.
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