This article is part of our FanDuel MMA series.
We are back to Fight Island for UFC 253 this Saturday on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Aside from the bubble making it less likely that fights will fall through at the last minute, the island also provides us with a regulation-sized cage, which could work to deemphasize quick finishes and advantages for wrestlers. It's important to note that we will see two five-round title fights on this card, giving DFS players a few more options when it comes to who can rack up the most points. As always, fighters in this article will be listed in order from most to least desirable among the given choices.
One final note before we begin: here's a refresher on the scoring. If you're looking for general strategy tips, I wrote a FanDuel 101 article prior to UFC Brasilia on March 14, though there have been a few minor scoring changes since then that I've noted below.
Moves Scoring (MVP 1.5X)
Significant Strikes (SS): +0.9 PTS
Takedown (TD): +9 PTS
Takedown Defense (TDEF): +4.5 PTS
Submission Attempt (SA): +7.5 PTS
Knockdown (KD): +18 PTS
Moves Scoring (Standard)
Significant Strikes (SS): +0.6 PTS
Takedown (TD): +6 PTS
Takedown Defense (TDEF): 3
Submission Attempt (SA): 5 PTS
Knockdown (KD): +12 PTS
Fight Conclusion Bonuses (MVP 1.5X)
1st Round Win (1stW): +150 PTS
2nd Round Win (2ndW): +112.5 PTS
3rd Round Win (3rdW): +75 PTS
4th Round Win (4thW): +52.5 PTS
5th Round Win (5thW): +37.5 PTS
Decision Win (DecW): +30 PTS
Fight Conclusion Bonuses (Standard)
1st Round Win (1stW): +100 PTS
2nd Round Win (2ndW): +75 PTS
3rd Round Win (3rdW): +50 PTS
4th Round Win (4thW): +35 PTS
5th Round Win (5thW): +25 PTS
Decision Win (DecW): +20 PTS
Without further ado, let's get to it.
Oh Captain, my Captain
Best Play: Paulo Costa ($19)
This feels like one of those cards where whomever you think wins the main event should get a strong look at captain, and I'm surprised so many people seem to be overlooking Paulo Costa in this spot. That's not to take anything away from Israel Adesanya: his movement and the way he angles off to fire quick strikes is second-to-none. I just think he can be frozen a little bit by the sort of smothering pressure Costa brings. We saw this most notably in the Kelvin Gastelum fight, but also in the Marvin Vettori fight to a certain extent. Strikers like Adesanya need space to perform at their best, and Costa's pressure will not be wild or erratic like Derek Brunson's and Robert Whittaker's were before him. This is a fascinating fight that I can't wait to see play out, but Costa is athletic, talented and hits like a truck. Adesanya can, of course, work his magic and clip his opponent with a sharp counter, but that will be harder to do with his back against the fence.
Brandon Royval was my best dog play for his fight with Tim Elliott in May. I noted in that review that, although Royval hangs his chin up high while entering the pocket, he shouldn't have to worry about that against a grapple-centric fighter like Elliot. That's not the case with Kai Kara-France, who has finished nearly half of his wins by strikes. It's genuinely surprising to me that Royval hasn't been made to pay for leaving himself so open yet, but he'll need to be careful against Kara-France, who will look to pressure immediately and throw big shots on the counter in combination. Royval could certainly look to wrestle and grapple again, but we saw Kara-France do quite well scrambling against both Elias Garcia and Mark De La Rosa. He also holds a 90 percent takedown defense rate in The Octagon.
At 39 years old with just 10 professional fights to his name, Juan Espino is old to be relatively new to MMA, even for a heavyweight. That said, his size and strength helped him put on clinical grappling performances throughout his season of The Ultimate Fighter before having to take time away to correct a pre-existing hand injury. Jeff Hughes is undersized at heavyweight, but his quickness is unlikely to save him here, as I expect Espino to be the far stronger party. It's also notable that Hughes hasn't really shown himself to be a big puncher at this level, which leads me to believe Espino will get this fight to where he wants it fairly quickly. I generally don't like strength-based submissions, but Espino is so much more imposing that a kimura or Americana shouldn't be out of the question.
Best Option: Dominick Reyes ($22)
I was having a bit of a hard time deciding whether to put our second five-round fight winner here or in the captain's section. I finally decided Dominick Reyes is a cash play due to the fact that Jan Blachowicz is legendarily tough, having only been stopped three times in his 36-fight career. Blachowitz has rebuilt his boxing game behind a stiff jab and strong counter hook, but Reyes is simply going to have too many advantages here. Whether it be height, athleticism or kickboxing, it seems clear that Reyes will have the necessary tools to get this done. That's not to say there is no danger for him, though, as we saw Reyes get tired in the waning rounds of his title fight with Jon Jones, and Jan will have a wrestling game in his back pocket if he chooses to use it (though he often doesn't). This fight could look a bit like Blachowicz's loss to Thiago Santos, in which he becomes frustrated by his opponent and decides to recklessly crash the pocket. More likely, though, Reyes perpetually picks Jan off from range en route to a high-scoring decision.
I'll be blunt. There is no telling what we are going to get from Diego Sanchez these days. In the past (even the recent past), you could count on the veteran to relentlessly pressure and look for takedowns. That wasn't the case in his last outing against Michel Pereira, in which Diego backed himself to the cage almost immediately and didn't do much aside from occasionally crash the pocket with strikes. If it is the case that Sanchez feels outgunned against stronger opponents (as was the case in a more spirited effort against Michael Chiesa), then he should have a similarly hard time with Jake Matthews, who is strong as an ox and likes to play a wrestling/grappling game but can also throw big shots on the feet. This means that Matthews can certainly knock Diego out if it comes to that, but something tells me this will turn into a wrestling match. One that Matthews should win rather handily.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll start this breakdown by saying that I am a big fan of Shane Young. His pressure, boxing fluidity and power make him a fantastic addition to the featherweight landscape. He will need to be careful, though, because newcomer L'udovit Klein is a powerful kickboxer and grappler in his own right, hiding a lights-out head kick behind feints and combinations. At the end of the day, however, I expect Young to close much of Klein's offense down with the aforementioned pressure and volume, as the 25-year-old can be caught waiting for his opponents.
Best Option: Paulo Costa ($19)
Sijara Eubanks gets the quick turnaround after cashing as a significant underdog against Julia Avila two weeks ago, and I'm rolling with the BJJ black belt to pull the upset yet again. In certain respects, Eubanks and Ketlen Vieira are fairly similar. They both like to pressure forward and throw in combination and they both have excellent grappling games to fall back on. The ace in the hole for Eubanks here is that she throws much crisper, tighter shots than Vieira, who was countered over and over again by Irene Aldana before she finally found the off switch with a left hook. Eubanks likes that hook counter, too, and should be able to land it if/when Vieira starts throwing wild in the pocket. I will be very curious to see what happens if this fight hits the ground, as both these women are highly credentialed jiu-jitsu practitioners, but my hunch is that Eubanks has enough to stay with Vieira, if not outright win the day on the mat.
Brad Riddell is a slick kickboxer from the wildly successful City Kickboxing gym that also trains Adesanya. We remember his war in his UFC debut against Jamie Mullarkey, but he didn't quite have as much success in his second outing against Magomed Mustafaev. That seems odd to say, as he scored a knockdown very early in that fight, but after he got his wits back, Mustafaev was able to easily control Riddell in clinch situations while lighting him up from distance with body kicks. This resulted in a close split-decision victory. Alex da Silva's hype was cooled after he took a submission loss against perennial tough out Alexander Yakovlev, but I think he can replicate a lot of what Mustafaev was able to do after the knockdown. He's extremely quick and athletic and has a devastating kicking game. He also likes to work his own takedown and grappling game, which he should have much more success with here than he did in the Yakovlev fight.
To his credit, Khadis Ibragimov fought in a much more composed and measured manner against Roman Dolidze than the wild man we saw literally windmilling punches in his first two fights, as he committed himself to open up on the counter. While we did see Danilo Marques get laid out with a counter shot in his only stoppage loss, I still can't trust Ibragimov to land accurate shots when he does attempt to throw, which should open him up to Marques's wrestling game. The other thing to note about Marques is he's an athletic guy who is generally good about keeping range, which should make it less likely that he gets nailed by another big shot.
Neither Fish nor Fowl
Aleksa Camur ($17) vs. William Knight ($16) is going to be incredibly fun for as long as it lasts, as it features two incredibly athletic light heavyweights who are known for looking for big shots to end a fight. The two look for offense in different ways, however, with Knight throwing bombs in the pocket, while Camur opts for spinning kicks and explosive maneuvers. I picked Camur in his fight against Justin Ledet earlier this year, but I just saw too much indecision and a lack of structure from the young fighter, which makes me hesitate here. We saw in his Contender Series fight just how susceptible Knight is to wrestling and grappling, though, which could represent a path of least resistance for Camur. Flip a coin on this one, but I'm going to give a slight edge to Knight for being able to pour on offense a bit more consistently.
Hakeem Dawodu ($16) has gone on a tear since a fluky club-and-sub loss to Danny Henry in his UFC debut, having won his next four fights. Dawodu brings a lot to the cage, including blinding speed, good combinations, and strong defensive instincts. Zubaira Tukhugov ($17) is an expert at covering distance with powerful hooks, which most recently meant an early night for Kevin Aguilar. He will go to his wrestling when he feels like he has to, but Dawodu boasts a robust 85 percent takedown defense in the organization, and I think he will keep his distance well enough to avoid being surprised by the big shot from Tukhugov.