Much of the speculation about the main event of UFC 286 between champion Leon Edwards and former champion Kamaru Usman on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London centers around Usman's mental state.
He was knocked out by a perfectly set-up and executed head kick by Edwards at UFC 278 on Aug. 20 in Salt Lake City. That loss ended a 19-fight winning streak that extended over nine years, and not only cost Usman the welterweight championship but recognition as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world.
Seven months later, they're going to do it again, settling the score in the rubber match. Usman won the first meeting between them in 2015, but Edwards scored the more significant victory when he knocked out Usman at UFC 278.
Usman is a -250 favorite at BetMGM, but a lot of the pre-fight chatter centers around how Usman will react to having been knocked out.
Since it hasn't happened before — it was only the second loss of Usman's career, following a submission in his second pro fight back in 2013 — folks are right to question it.
Usman is the consummate professional who carries the attitude of a winner. He showed no signs of slippage due to his age prior to the fight, and after a back-and-forth first round with Edwards, he dominated Rounds 2, 3 and 4 and most of Round 5 until Edwards beat the clock with the head-kick KO from the heavens.
He understands the sport. So many of the sport's all-time greats lost by knockout while they were at or near the top, including Demetrious Johnson, Georges St-Pierre, Daniel Cormier and Anderson Silva. That should provide solace to Usman, who knows it's possible to recover from such a defeat.
The loss should, if anything, sharpen Usman's focus. Had he held on to defeat Edwards and retain the championship, he would have been pleased with the win but not with the performance. He was very good but is usually either excellent or overwhelmingly dominant.
He can get better and he knows it. The pressure is on Edwards fighting at home in front of a crowd that expects him to serve Usman's head on a platter.
Edwards is a world-class striker and he can never be discounted, but Usman has the tools to defuse Edwards and grind out a win. I'll lay the 250 and bet Usman to win.
O'Neill should continue ascent by defeating Maia
Alexa Grasso's submission of long-time flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko has opened things up for all of the UFC's 125-pound women. One of those who has the look of a serious contender is Casey O'Neill, who fights Jennifer Maia on Saturday.
O'Neill, who is 9-0, is a -185 favorite at BetMGM over Maia, who is +150. Maia and O'Neill seem to be fighters heading in opposite directions. Maia earned a title shot but was defeated by Shevchenko, and has gone 2-2 since. O'Neill simply keeps getting better.
O'Neill connects on an astounding 8.65 strikes per minute, which should be significant given Maia's striking defense is below average and seemingly on the downswing.
I'll lay two units on O'Neill at -185 and play her to win over Maia.
Other bets for UFC 286
The fight between Bryan Barbarena and Gunnar Nelson should come down to where it's fought. If it gets to the ground for any appreciable amount of time, Nelson should win it. If it's a stand-up fight, it heavily favors Barbarena. At BetMGM, Nelson is -450 and Barbarena is +325. I think it's a very close fight, but with the odds so heavily in Nelson's favorite, I'll take the plus money and play Barbarena to win.
I'll take Rafael Fiziev at -225 to win over Justin Gaethje.
I will lay the -300 and play Marvin Vettori to win over Roman Dolidze.