UFC 271 expert predictions, in-depth analysis, odds: Why Adesanya vs. Whittaker rematch could be more competitive

GLENDALE, AZ - JUNE 12: Israel Adesanya (red gloves) during UFC 263 on June 12, 2021, at Gila River Arena in Glendale, AZ. (Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
By Brett Appley Feb 9, 2022 25

We have UFC 271 on tap for this weekend, which features a thrilling rematch for the middleweight championship between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker. I’m going to take a deeper look into a few of my favorite fights from the slate, but before I do, let’s briefly recap last weekend’s UFC Fight Night.

UFC Fight Night: Hermansson vs. Strickland Recap

The main event between Sean Strickland and Jack Hermansson played out mostly as expected, and the most shocking aspect was that one judge awarded the fight to Hermansson, though most thought it was a decisive victory for Strickland.

From my eye, Strickland earned that victory with his defensive skills, which we touched on in the breakdown last week. Strickland landed 153 significant strikes at a 46 percent rate, meaning Hermansson was able to defend at 54 percent.

On the other side, Hermansson landed 137 significant strikes at a 38 percent rate. In addition, Hermansson failed on all eight of his takedown attempts, which allowed Strickland to keep the fight upright and edge out exchanges with his effective boxing.

Hermansson fought hard but Strickland is a really tough fighter to beat, and I still believe he can contend with most in this division. I wish I’d see a bit more urgency from him at times, and a bit more killer instinct, but there was very little to complain about from the performance of Strickland. There’s a real possibility we see Strickland compete for a title this year and I’m looking forward to future tests from him.

In the co-main event, I was thrilled by the performance I saw from Nick Maximov. It was a tough test for him and he was underrated by the public, but his ability to shoot relentless takedowns earned him a decisive victory as well, and cashed a bet for us at +160.

As we talked about last week, Maximov is a highly intelligent grappler and he was prepared for Soriano’s attack. Outside of one knee that opened a cut in Round 1, Soriano wasn’t able to land anything of note, while Maximov racked up a record 11 takedowns against an opponent who many thought couldn’t be taken down.

While there’s still more to see from Maximov, he’s a prospect you need to keep your eye on in this middleweight division. Having cardio and the ability to grind out takedowns for three rounds is an extremely effective tool, and he’ll continue to pose a threat against the majority of his competition.

UFC 271: Adesanya vs. Whittaker

Our main event this weekend is a rematch for the middleweight title between Robert Whittaker and the man who took his belt, Israel Adesanya.

Whittaker has only lost one fight since 2014, and has been a fighter I’ve been high on for years and years. I’ve bet on Whittaker more times than nearly anyone else in the sport, and he’s made a career of using effective defensive wrestling, and pairing it with a high-volume striking attack.

Israel AdesanyaRobert Whittaker
Odds
-300
+240
SSLpM
3.94
4.68
SApM
2.59
3.34
Striking Defense
62%
61%
Takedowns/15 min.
0
0.64
Takedown Defense
80%
83%

The majority of Whittaker’s competition won’t excel in striking exchanges, and would have much more success if they could take him to the ground. Opponents like Yoel Romero, Derek Brunson and Jacare Souza all aimed to outwrestle Whittaker. Whittaker was shockingly an underdog against the majority of them.

However, his takedown defense and scrambling ability has always been underrated, and he defends takedowns at a career rate of 83 percent. He is very difficult to take down.

On the feet, Whittaker lands 4.68 significant strikes per minute, while only absorbing 3.34 per minute at a 61 percent defensive rate. Those are extremely strong metrics, and showcase his ability to land effectively while avoiding damage in return.

With that said, he has gone through some wars, and it’s taken a toll on his body throughout the years. The last and only time I’ve picked Whittaker to lose was in the first bout against Adesanya. Unlike other opponents, Adesanya isn’t looking to take Whittaker down. Adesanya is a world-class kickboxer with some of the best striking mechanics in the sport.

While Whittaker can still contend with his striking volume, he doesn’t hold the advantage over Adesanya that’s been typical of his matchups throughout the years and it resulted in a tough defeat for Whittaker in 2019. Whittaker was knocked down at the end of Round 1 and was knocked out early in Round 2 as Adesanya became the middleweight champion.

Since that time, Adesanya has defended his belt on three occasions and has only lost in a step up to light heavyweight against Jan Blachowicz. Whittaker has won three consecutive bouts against top contenders in Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum, and he’s looked great doing so.

Whittaker is actually coming off one of the best performances of his career against Gastelum, landing 150 significant strikes and four takedowns over 25 minutes in a one-sided victory. The same Gastelum who came closest to knocking Adesanya out in his own title shot, when the pair squared off in 2019.

I was happy to see Whittaker wrestle against Gastelum because it hasn’t been a tool he’s needed to use often in his career. In fact, Whittaker only lands 0.64 takedowns per 15 minutes, which is not nearly enough to be effective in this sport. But it’s never been a lack of skill that’s prevented him from wrestling, and rather a tool that was unnecessary in most matchups.

Against Adesanya on Saturday, I think it would be wise for Whittaker to try and wrestle. Granted, Adesanya does defend takedowns at 80 percent. It would not be a surprise to see Whittaker fail in this regard. I still think it’s necessary for him though, because it gives Whittaker one more path to victory, and one more tool for Adesanya to think about during the fight.

Adesanya has actually been taken down seven times in his last two matchups, and it cost him a win against Blachowicz. It’s still the weakest part of his game, and the most likely area where he could be exposed. It’s much less likely that an opponent will expose Adesanya in striking exchanges, which is to state the obvious.

And if Whittaker cannot land takedowns, he’ll be stuck attempting the same feat he tried in 2019, which is beating Adesanya at range. Whittaker does land strikes at a higher rate, as Adesanya has never been a super high-volume striker, and lands only 3.94 significant strikes per minute. But he’s so defensively sound, only absorbing 2.59 sig. strikes per minute with a 62 percent defensive rate.

Whittaker was caught trying to close distance in the first matchup, and his chin could not hold up. I ultimately would not be surprised to see the same result on Saturday.

From a betting perspective, even though I am forced to favor Adesanya again, I wouldn’t be looking to play him at a -300 betting line on BetMGM. That’s an implied percentage of 75, which may be correct, but doesn’t indicate any real value to my eye.

Adesanya is more technical, yes, and does have a better chance to win by knockout, but striking exchanges are very high-variance. In the first matchup, there wasn’t enough to separate the pair besides the two knockdowns, and I would expect the same in the rematch.

Essentially, if Adesanya doesn’t knock Whittaker down, I have no reason to believe this fight won’t be competitive. If either side lands a takedown, I would expect it to be Whittaker. Whittaker only landed eight fewer strikes than Adesanya in the first fight, and still does attempt strikes at a higher pace in general.

Volume and wrestling are two paths to victory for Whittaker in this matchup and I’m not counting him out personally. We’ve also seen Adesanya hurt at times, especially by Gastelum, and it’s not impossible a high-level talent like Whittaker could land something effective that changes the dynamic of the fight.

My gut also says we could see a slower paced matchup on Saturday than we did in 2019. Coming off a KO loss, I highly doubt Whittaker runs chin first into Adesanya’s range without hesitation. Feinting a wrestling attack could also keep Adesanya more defensively minded than usual.

So if I had to play a prop, I don’t mind Adesanya by decision at +170. I see him lined at +165 to win ITD as well, which is not a bad line, but it’s a result more dependent on variance and durability, so I tend to shy away from those personally.

Whittaker at +240, or 29.41 percent implied feels like a slight value in my opinion, if you’re looking to chase an underdog. Even in a disadvantageous matchup, Whittaker has the tools and multiple paths to victory, and I would not at all be surprised to see this fight play out more competitively than the one in 2019.

Moicano vs. Hernandez

One of my favorite preliminary fights is a matchup between Renato Moicano and Alexander Hernandez, both of whom I consider to be real talents.

Moicano was a top contender at featherweight, but eventually moved up to the lightweight division in 2020 after suffering a first-round knockout loss to Chan Sung Jung. Hernandez was considered a blue chip prospect after he burst onto the UFC scene with a quick KO against Beneil Dariush in 2018, but has been forced to develop since that time.

Renato MoicanoAlexander Hernandez
Odds
-175
+145
SSLpM
5.12
3.79
SApM
3.43
3.82
Striking Defense
65%
59%
Takedowns/15 min.
1.96
1.57
Takedown Defense
78%
62%

Moicano rates out better technically for me and I do have to favor him in this matchup. He’s a more efficient striker, and lands at a high rate of 5.12 significant strikes per minute.

Defensively, Moicano only absorbs 3.43 per minute with a defensive rate of 65 percent. It’s quite good and he’s outstruck the vast majority of his UFC competition, including guys like Brian Ortega in 2017.

Moicano is also a black belt in jiu-jitsu and very dangerous on the mat. He lands 1.96 takedowns per 15 minutes and each of his last three wins came by submission.

Here’s the problem: Moicano doesn’t wear damage well. He’s been knocked out in each of his past three fights, and has been badly hurt in each of his four UFC losses, including that bout against Ortega.

Moving up to lightweight has benefits. He’ll cut less weight so his brain will be healthier on fight night. It also has a downside in that he’s facing off against bigger and more powerful strikers.

We’ve already seen him knocked out once at lightweight, against Rafael Fiziev in 2020. Fiziev is a super technical striker himself, but it doesn’t help ease my mind about Moicano’s durability.

Hernandez does not rate out as well on paper. He lands 3.79 significant strikes per minute, while absorbing 3.82 per minute, at a 59 percent defensive clip. That’s a low output and a negative ratio, which I tend to bet against.

Hernandez is quite good on the mat, a solid wrestler and grappler, but not necessarily an overwhelming presence. He’s still landed 1.57 takedowns per 15 minutes and competed with black belts, so it’s a path to victory for him against any opponent.

The matchup itself is interesting because Moicano is technically better both on the feet and on the mat. He lands strikes in higher volume. He’s a better submission grappler.

Over three rounds, I have to favor Moicano to produce more effective offense that the judges will award.

However, I am legitimately terrified that Moicano gets his chin checked and gets knocked out again. Hernandez, for what he lacks as a top-end talent, is a super physical athlete with real punching power.

Hernandez already has three first round knockouts in the UFC. I don’t think he can land strikes consistently on Moicano, and I don’t think he can take him down and hold him down for long stretches of time. I would not be shocked, however, to see Hernandez land a couple big strikes throughout the fight and put Moicano away.

Although Moicano has skills at range, he’s really relied on his grappling in recent bouts. His last three wins all came by submission and he landed seven takedowns in those fights combined.

Hernandez has a small sample, but I’m not convinced Moicano easily takes this fight to the mat and dominates. If he does land a takedown or two, I expect Hernandez to survive and scramble well. I actually think Moicano needs success on the feet here to earn the win, which will also put him in danger.

From a betting perspective, Moicano is the favorite on BetMGM at -175, which is an implied percent of 63.64. I think it’s far more likely that Moicano wins by decision than inside the distance, and that’s the line I’d prefer to play if I was supporting him in this matchup.

On the Hernandez side, I think it’s far more likely that Hernandez wins by KO than by decision or submission, so that’s the line I’d prefer to take a shot on if I was supporting him (ITD works too). Both Moicano by decision and Hernandez by KO or ITD should be favorable plus-money lines, depending on what book you use.

Modafferi vs. O’Neil

Roxanne Modafferi, one of the last OGs of the sport and a pioneer of women’s MMA, will make one last walk to the Octagon on Saturday against a young prospect in Casey O’Neil.

Casey O'NeilRoxanne Modafferi
Odds
-400
+300
SSLpM
5.48
2.97
SApM
3.09
4.92
Striking Defense
37%
53%
Takedowns/15 min.
3.83
1.3
Takedown Defense
66%
25%

Modafferi has been competing professionally since 2003, which is astounding in many regards. For reference, Ronda Rousey won the UFC’s first women’s bantamweight championship in 2013.

Modafferi didn’t make her UFC debut until 2018, and I say this with absolute respect, Modafferi is completely outmatched from an athletic standpoint. She has little to no physicality in her game, not much power and is fairly dependent on grappling exchanges.

Modafferi has been a massive underdog for the majority of her UFC career, and to her credit, she’s won far more times than I’ve expected. She closed as a +240 underdog to Antonina Shevchenko, and dominated her to win a decision.

She then squared off against Maycee Barber, who closed as a -1000 favorite, and Modafferi beat her, too. Even in 2020, Modafferi closed at +230 against Andrea Lee, and pulled off another decision win.

The downside to her game still exists, but she is an underrated grappler and capable of winning exchanges in the clinch and on the ground. She falls as a +300 underdog on BetMGM against O’Neil on Saturday, and I’m very much looking forward to finding out if she has one more upset left in the tank.

O’Neil has won all three of her UFC bouts, and she’s won each of them impressively, earning two TKOs and one submission. She is largely grappling dependent herself. A relentless wrestler with a damaging game from top position, and a quality submission grappling skillset, O’Neil is a threat.

She’s also only 24 years old. She’s only 8-0 as a pro. She is not super experienced and she is not flawless.

O’Neil was taken down twice in one of her UFC fights by Lara Procopio, and was controlled for a couple minutes on her back. She was reversed by Antonina Shevchenko on the ground and gave up some punches to the head.

The fight is fascinating because O’Neil wants to take the fight to where Modafferi can succeed. I’d be far more nervous if Modafferi was facing a devastating power puncher, but O’Neil likely wants to clinch, land takedowns and dominante on top.

I still think she can do that. Modafferi unfortunately has trouble defending takedowns at this stage of her career, due to that lack of physicality. She’s been taken down by each of her last four opponents, and she’s given up 12 takedowns over her last three fights.

There’s no reason for me to believe O’Neil can’t take her down again here.

But Modafferi is still comfortable on the ground, and she’s extremely tough. She hasn’t lost by TKO or submission since 2013 in a TUF exhibition match.

Obviously I’m not itching to bet on O’Neil at -400, even though I expect her to win. She produces a lot of offense on the ground, and probably can earn top position in this matchup.

She is not a perfect fighter though, and Modafferi through her experience is absolutely live as an underdog. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her have success in the clinch and maybe land a takedown or two of her own. As a +300 underdog, it’s within reason that Modafferi could be a parlay-buster one last time.

That’s all for this week, and thanks for the support as always! I’ll be happy to touch on some fights or answer questions if you leave them in the comment section below. I’ll likely have next week off but if you’re looking for more breakdowns, and fantasy content, that’s always available on my site DailyFanMMA.

(Photo of Israel Adesanya: Louis Grasse / PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; The Athletic may receive an affiliate commission if you open an account with BetMGM through links contained in the above article)

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Brett Appley is a contributor for The Athletic covering the UFC from a betting and daily fantasy perspective. Brett has been a full-time MMA analyst since 2017, formerly the Lead MMA Analyst at RotoGrinders, and now runs DailyFanMMA.com. Follow Brett on Twitter @BrettAppley.