There aren't too many live underdogs in the Octagon for UFC 189, but the injury to John Hathaway could make it worth taking a gamble on Gunnar Nelson with your UFC picks.
Looks like we might have dodged a big one. Jose Aldo's rib injury isn't quite as bad as we'd feared – assuming everything's on the up-and-up, of course. Aldo reportedly suffered a bruised rib, not a fracture as first reported, and he intends to defend his Featherweight title against Conor McGregor in two weeks at UFC 189. However, the MMA odds continue to move toward the challenger; at press time, McGregor was the new favorite at –135 over at 5Dimes.
Meanwhile, another injury has thrown a bit of a wrench into Dana White's plans. John Hathaway was forced to withdraw from his welterweight fight against Gunnar Nelson, so instead, Nelson (+145) will be fighting Brandon Thatch, while Thatch's original opponent, John Howard (+110), will face Cathal Pendred instead. On an undercard that looks very chalk-friendly to us here at the home office, this shuffle opens up some betting value for your UFC picks.
Only Time Will Tell
Since Howard is barely an underdog to begin with, we're focusing on Nelson here. You may know the Icelandic native as one of McGregor's closest allies in MMA; they met through John Kavanagh, the head coach at SBG Ireland where McGregor, Nelson and Pendred all train. Nelson (13-1-1 lifetime) has black belts in both Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he earned from Renzo Gracie, and a style of karate known as Goju-ryu. If you've read this space much, you know we have a thing for fighters who can throw down in different styles.
Nelson can definitely throw down. One of the hardest-working practitioners in the sport, Nelson earned Performance of the Night honors in back-to-back victories over Omari Akhmedov (+236) and Zak Cummings (+420) before suffering his first MMA defeat, a split-decision loss to Rick Story (+300) last October at Fight Night 53. That loss has people wondering if Nelson should drop down to lightweight, where the competition isn't quite as fierce.
He's not interested. And we're not about to push the panic button; we'd rather credit Story for rejuvenating his career by making the move to MMA Lab, home of former Lightweight champ Benson Henderson. But Story did expose Nelson's relative weakness against strikers. This isn't something we can just brush aside with Thatch (11-2 lifetime) next up on the dance card.
Ah, yes, Brandon Thatch. We had the Colorado native in our MMA picks when he faced Henderson (+155) in the latter's welterweight debut. That didn't go exactly the way we hoped; Thatch had his moments in a back-and-forth affair before tapping out to a rear-naked choke in the fourth round. Back to the ol' drawing board.
As a striker, Thatch presents many of the same problems in the Octagon that Nelson does. Both men can switch stances from southpaw to orthodox, and Thatch comes from a karate background. But Thatch doesn't compare when it comes to the ground game. While Story, a star wrestler at Southern Oregon University, was able to stuff three of Nelson's four takedown attempts, Thatch has just a 55-percent takedown defense rate according to FightMetric. Henderson landed three of his five takedown attempts in their bout and was able to pass Thatch's guard five times.
This is where we see Nelson's betting value in this matchup. And with this fight getting switched around on short notice, that should provide something of a leveling effect against the UFC odds. Nelson's intelligence and versatility give him a leg up in this situation, and on the whole, we think he's got more upside as a fighter – perhaps as much upside as McGregor, at least from a technical standpoint. Just don't expect Nelson to be starring in any multi-million-dollar extended fight trailers anytime soon.
Free UFC Pick: Take Nelson +145 at 5Dimes