The UFC welcomes in the New Year with an exciting but largely inconsequential event in St. Louis this Sunday, January 14th. The young Doo Ho Choi returns from a yearlong layoff to take on the hard-hitting Jeremy Stephens in the main event. Choi’s fight against Cub Swanson was deemed the Fight of the Year in 2016, and the upcoming headliner has all the ingredients for another eye-watering slugfest.
Also on the card, a 40-year-old Vitor Belfort returns to the cage to face Uriah Hall, and the very popular Paige VanZant makes her flyweight debut against Jessica-Rose Clark. Let’s cut to the chase and preview the fights in light of the odds provided by Bet365.
Doo Ho Choi (-162) vs Jeremy Stephens (+138)
This is an example of great match-making by the UFC. Neither Doo Ho Choi (14-2) nor Jeremy Stephens (26-14) is a household name, nor is either one a big-time player in the featherweight division. But they are both high-pressure fighters, most comfortable when moving forward. Throw the two in a cage together and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster fight.
Choi lost his last fight against Swanson, but he won the hearts of fight fans around the world in the process. The back-and-forth brawl, which saw Choi endure an unbelievable amount of punishment, won Fight of the Night honors and went on to be declared the Fight of the Year — and rightly so. Since the loss, which ended a 12-fight winning streak, the 26-year-old has been inactive. We don’t know how ring rust and the damage from the Swanson fight will affect him on his return.
Stephens last fought in September, outstriking Gilbert Melendez and wearing him down with an onslaught of leg kicks. Prior to that, he lost five of prior seven fights. His hyper-aggressive style has won him four Fight of the Night honors and three Knockout of the Nights, but it has also cost him quite a few decisions. His ability to move forward and eat punches is popular with fans, but it often reflects poorly on the scorecards.
Choi is the favorite heading into St. Louis, but I’m not so optimistic about his chances. His tendency to press forward makes him vulnerable to Stephens’ leg kicks, which could wreak havoc over five rounds, and his willingness to stand and bang could result in eating some very heavy blows. Stephens is a tough stylistic match-up for the young Korean; there’s a lot of value in picking the underdog.
Pick: Jeremy Stephens (+138)
Paige VanZant (-110) vs Jessica-Rose Clark (-110)
Former model Paige VanZant (7-3) has decided to stop killing herself to make 115 pounds and is finally making the leap to flyweight. Jessica-Rose Clark (8-4) will welcome her to the division on Sunday. The bookmakers have the two fighters neck-and-neck, both at -110 odds.
It’s easy to forget that the 23-year-old VanZant is no longer a rookie. She’s been fighting professionally for almost six years and has ten fights to her name. Still, she’s billed as a prospect in the UFC despite her lackluster resume. She was inactive for all of 2017, focussing instead on her autobiography and television appearances.
Jessica-Rose Clark scraped out wins in her last two fights, both by split decision. Her UFC debut against Bec Rawlings was largely unimpressive, and she failed to make weight. Clark has long struggled to make 125 pounds and may soon be forced to move up to the inactive women’s bantamweight division if she misses weight again. As far as division gatekeepers go, VanZant could do a lot worse than Clark.
I can’t help but feel that VanZant’s odds are inflated by her fanbase, which extends well beyond the UFC. The following she’s picked up with her appearances on Dancing with the Stars and Chopped is likely pumping her numbers. The UFC is hellbent on making her a star, but all their help won’t be worth a damn once the cage is locked. Jessica-Rose Clark is far from the best of the flyweight division, but she deserves to be favored over VanZant.
Pick: Jessica-Rose Clark (-110)
Uriah Hall (-333) vs Vitor Belfort (+250)
The middleweight division is filled to the brim with exciting fighters deserving of a title shot … and then there’s Uriah Hall (13-8) and Vitor Belfort (26-13). Both fighters are in a kind of division-limbo, outside of the top ten and a few notches below the best middleweights, yet still able to sell a fight.
A win would not significantly impact either fighter’s standing within the middleweight division, and a loss wouldn’t have too much of an effect either. Hall has lost three of his last four fights and so has Belfort (if you include his fight against Gastelum as a loss). Expectations are quite low.
Hall is rightly the favorite in this match-up. He’s younger, fresher, faster and his recent knockout of Krzysztof Jotko was a great confidence boost after a three-fight losing streak. However, placing him at -333 is a little too generous. Belfort may be long past his prime, but he’ll still be able to provide Hall with a few problems.
This will likely be Belfort’s last fight in the UFC, so here’s to him leaving with a win.
Pick: Vitor Belfort (+250)