We are back for another exciting weekend of combat sports for UFC 296! We have a fun 14-fight slate on DraftKings and two title fights on the line. It also helps that on DraftKings we have another $100,000 to first place in the main contest!

As always, I give my analysis and DraftKings strategy based on how I see each fight matchup playing out. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter  with any questions that you have leading up until fight night Saturday.

Randy Brown vs Muslim Salikhov
Brown, -270; Salikhov, +220

Randy Brown is coming off a decision victory over Wellington Turman in June. He is a high-volume striker that likes to dance around the outside of the cage and use his length to his advantage. He is very long for the division and will be working with an eight-inch reach advantage in this fight. The issue that I have with Brown whenever he is a large favorite is that he does not separate in rounds so his margins are thin to cover his price tag. Additionally, he does not carry much finishing upside in most matchups either so you really need to be confident that he will be clearly winning the striking exchanges. Lastly, his durability is a concern as he has been hurt multiple times and finished in four of his five professional losses.

His opponent, Muslim Salikhov is coming off a decision loss to Nicolas Dalby in June. He is nearly 40 years old and has lost two of his last three fights which certainly does not look good on paper. However, he is a very technical kickboxer and has clear knockout power with 13 of his 19 wins coming by knockout. Additionally, he is strong defensively, so he usually does not allow his opponents to get off on volume without countering them. I do not fully trust his durability at this stage in his career, but Brown does not have a ton on power anyway.

I expect this fight to be more competitive than the betting odds suggests. Salikhov is a good striker and should be able to keep it close on the feet as long as he can track down Brown and deal with the speed of him. Salikhov has more knockout upside and the potential to swing rounds with the bigger shots. Salikhov by decision is the official pick.

Martin Buday vs Shamil Gaziev
Buday, -148; Gaziev, +124

Martin Buday is fresh off a first-round submission victory over Josh Parisian in August. Buday is 4-0 in the UFC after fighting on Dana White’s Contender Series back in 2021. He does not have a very exciting skillset but he finds ways to win which can take you places at the Heavyweight division. He fights a Holly Holm-like gameplan as he will fight behind his jab before finding a way to get in the clinch and hold you up against the fence for extended periods. His grappling is not bad but he rarely looks to land takedowns and his defensive grappling is still a bit of a question mark to me. His cardio seems not as bad as I originally thought and he will likely have an advantage in that area for this fight.

His opponent, Shamil Gaziev fought on Contender Series this past season and won a contract with a first-round submission over Greg Velasco. He sports an 11-0 undefeated record with 10 wins coming inside the distance. He is a very explosive fighter and has your typical Heavyweight knockout power on the feet. But he also has the traditional Dagestan grappling chops and usually uses his explosive takedowns to get in dominant positions on his opponents. But he is very sloppy on the feet and can lose position on the mat as well. Lastly, I suspect the cardio is not a strength and he likely needs to find a finish in the early rounds.

This is an interesting matchup as Gaziev likely has more upside due to his fighting style and being round one finish reliant. But Buday is the more well-rounded fighter and it should favor him down the stretch if the fight gets extended, assuming he makes it out of round one. Buday by decision is the official pick but I have some interest in Gaziev for Draftkings.

Andre Fili vs Lucas Almeida
Fili, -175; Almeida, +145

We last saw Andre Fili inside the octagon when he dropped a competitive decision to Nathaniel Wood in July. Fili is a well-rounded fighter with a solid jab and strong calf kicks. He will also look to mix in some wrestling as he averages 2.22 takedowns per 15 minutes. He is skilled in all areas but it is also obvious when he is outmatched in the cage in certain matchups. In general, I do not like to lay juice on Fili even though I think he is a good fighter. He does not carry a ton of finishing upside and his durability is a concern for me as he has been hurt multiple times and knocked out three times in his career.

His opponent, Lucas Almeida is coming off a submission loss to Pat Sabatini in June. Almeida is an explosive striker that wants to keep the fight on the feet. He keeps a high pace and has the power to put your lights out if he connects clean. Of his 14 professional victories, all of them have come inside the distance and he has only been to decision once in his career and that was with Daniel Zellhuber. The issue with Almeida is that despite holding a black belt in BJJ, he can be outgrappled and controlled if you can get him to the mat.

Fili is the more well-rounded fighter and much more proven as well. But his durability is tough to trust in round one against someone as explosive as Almeida who will be swinging for the fences. This fight has the makings to be a back and forth war. For that reason, I will look to have more exposure to the underdog for the price but will have shares of both fighters on DraftKings. Almeida finishing props are worth a look along with the potential to bet Fili live after round one assuming he is conscious and Almeida emptied the tank. Almeida by TKO is the official pick.

Tagir Ulanbekov vs Cody Durden
Ulanbekov, -170; Durden, +142

Tagir Ulanbekov is coming off a first-round submission victory over Nate Maness last November. He is 3-1 in the UFC with his only loss coming against Tim Elliott. He is primarily a grappler and has landed two or more takedowns in all of his fights. But he can be taken down himself as well and he does not carry much power on the feet. He does have seven wins by submission but he is more of a lay and pray artist than an aggressive finisher.

His opponent, Cody Durden is coming off a decision win over Jake Hadley in August. Durden is an aggressive wrestler and averages just under 5.5 takedowns per 15 minutes. He is currently on a four-fight winning streak and has relied heavily on his wrestling throughout. The only real concern with Durden is the gas tank and it usually only affects him in the final round. It seems to be mainly from him pushing such a high wrestling pace throughout so it is not for nothing.

I expect this to be a competitive match with both fighters being able to land takedowns. However, I favor Durden in the striking and expect him to be the better wrestler as well. Durden by decision is the official pick.

Dustin Jacoby vs Alonzo Menifield
Jacoby, -270; Menifield, +220

Dustin Jacoby is coming off a first-round knockout victory over Kennedy Nzechukwu in August. He comes from a high-level kickboxing background and it is clear what the gameplan is in each of his fights. He is a high-volume striker that will pump volume throughout and try to avoid clinching and grappling. He is very active with the leg kicks and does carry some underrated power as well with 12 of his 19 wins coming by knockout. The issue with Jacoby is he is one-dimensional and another fighter that sometimes wins on thin margins which I am generally not a fan of backing those guys.

His opponent, Alonzo Menifield is coming off a second-round submission victory over Jimmy Crute at UFC 290. He is a very powerful athlete with 10 of his 14 wins coming by knockout. He has shown poor fight IQ early on in the UFC but it seems to be improving along with his overall skillset. In theory, Menifield could have a grappling advantage although I do not expect him to look to wrestle much. But he will clearly be the more powerful striker as well if he will be able to track down Jacoby.

I expect Jacoby to be the more active striker and getting ahead on the cards early. However, it is Menifield that has more finishing upside which gives me some interest on DraftKings. Jacoby by decision is the official pick but I will likely only be looking at Menifield as a viable DraftKings target.

Casey O’Neil vs Ariane Lipski
O’Neil, -192; Lipski, +160

Casey O’Neil is coming off a decision loss to Jennifer Maia at UFC 286. That was her first fight post-ACL surgery and her first career loss as well. It was discouraging to see her not try to use her grappling which is one of her biggest strengths. Her striking defense still needs improvement as she regularly eats some big shots, but her output and cardio make her a strong round winner. She also has a solid ground game as she can mix in takedowns at around two takedowns per 15 minutes. When she gets in dominant position, she is extremely dangerous with vicious ground and pound and always looking to do damage.

Her opponent, Ariane Lipski is coming off a split-decision win over Melissa Gatto in June. She is currently on a two-fight winning streak and has won three of her last four fights. Lipski is primarily a striker and does have legitimate power for the weight class. However, her durability and her defensive grappling have always been an issue as she only defends takedowns at 78% and has been knocked out four times in her career.

I expect Lipski to be the more powerful striker but her defense is suspect as well. It should be O’Neil who is landing more volume and she should have the cardio advantage as well. Lastly, O’Neil’s grappling is likely the biggest advantage in this fight. O’Neil by TKO is the official pick.

Cody Garbrandt vs Brian Kellher
Garbrandt, -198; Kelleher, +164

Cody Garbrandt is coming off a decision win over Trevin Jones at UFC 285 in March. Prior to that, he had lost five of his last six fights and suffered multiple injuries during that span. It was good to see him get back in the win column, but it was a massive step down in competition than what he was fighting prior to the layoff. Garbrandt is still a sharp boxer with strong calf kicks and powerful combinations. However, the durability is a massive concern as it seems his chin is deteriorated as he has been knocked out in four of his five professional losses.

His opponent, Brian Kelleher is coming off a sizable layoff as he last fought in June of 2022 and lost by first-round submission to Mario Bautista. The time away was due to some lingering neck issues for Kelleher but he got them addressed with surgery and now he returns this weekend. Kelleher is a low volume striker, but he does have some underrated power when he connects. But he is at his best when he initiates the grappling as he has a strong guillotine choke and he averages 1.79 takedowns per 15 minutes.

I expect this fight to be pretty competitive as neither guy is looking to throw much volume on the feet. Especially this version of Garbrandt as he seems to be more measured and tactical with his striking approach. He does not take as many risks like he used to and that is likely because he does not trust his chin. This should be a low volume striking match unless either guy looks to mix in takedowns. Outside of Kelleher catching Garbrandt with a check left hook or jumping guillotine, I expect this to hit the judges scorecards at a relatively high clip. I have some interest in Kelleher considering the cheap price tag but I am just not confident he can do enough to win a decision without hurting Garbrandt. I am interested in Kelleher in finish only markets depending on the price but the official pick is Garbrandt by split-decision.

Irene Aldana vs Karol Rosa
Aldana, -192; Rosa, +160

Irene Aldana is coming off a title shot loss to Amanda Nunes in June at UFC 289. She basically got dominated in that fight but was to be expected considering the matchup. Aldana is a high volume boxer that wants to stay on the outside and fight behind her jab. She is very one-dimensional in that sense as she never looks to engage in the grappling. But she does have some underrated power for the division and she has landed three knockdowns over her last five fights. Clearly, the biggest leak in her game is her defensive grappling as she can be taken down and controlled on the mat.

Her opponent, Karol Rosa is coming off a split-decision win over Yana Santos in July. Rosa is a high-volume striker as well and will occasionally mix in a takedown or two but she is typically wanting to keep the fight on the feet. She seems to have gotten buzzed a couple times in her most recent fights and it makes her fight scared in my opinion. She has not looked good to me recently and just not someone that I am looking to back for the time being.

I expect this to be a close kickboxing match with both fighters landing volume. I slightly favor Aldana as she is better defensively and should be the harder hitter in there as well. Aldana by decision is the official pick but there are much better fights to target on DraftKings.

Bryce Mitchell vs Josh Emmett
Mitchell, -218; Emmett, +180

Coming off a Biblical performance in a decision victory over Dan Ige, Mitchell is back in the octagon this weekend looking to put together a win streak on Saturday. We know what to expect from Mitchell as the striking is not great, but his grappling is very good. He averages 3.51 takedowns per 15 minutes and is a dangerous submission grappler once he gets you to the ground.

His opponent, Josh Emmett is coming off a decision loss to Ilia Topuria in June. He got the brakes beat off him for the majority of that fight and it is also clear that he cannot compete with the best of this division at this stage in his career. Emmett is nearly 39 years old and his body has taken a ton of damage throughout his career. He has also never been good at defending takedowns as he defends at just 46% in the UFC.

Emmett does have massive power but he will need to hurt Mitchell early and I do not see it happening. Mitchell is very durable and will be shooting at the legs from the opening bell. I expect Mitchell to land multiple takedowns and control Emmett for the majority of the fight with the potential to find a finish as well. Mitchell by submission is the official pick.

Ian Garry vs Vicente Luque
Garry, -345; Luque, +275

Ian Garry is coming off a dominant performance over Neil Magny at UFC 292 in August. He is an undefeated prospect with an 13-0 professional record. Of his 13 victories, seven of them have come by knockout. He is a great striker and has clear power on the feet and will throw in volume as well. The biggest issue that I have with Garry is his striking defense as he is extremely hittable and relies on head movement too much at times. I still believe that the better fighters in the division will give him real problems but while he continues to get matchup against middling veterans, he is going to cruise.

His opponent, Vicente Luque is coming off a decision win over Rafael Dos Anjos in August. That win snapped a two-fight losing streak for him and he looks to play spoiler this weekend as a big underdog. Luque is primarily a striker and does have clear power with 11 of his 22 wins coming by knockout. He is a brawler by nature and has been in some wars over the years. His striking defense is not great either which makes me think both men could be tagged in these exchanges.

This fight should be semi-competitive, but I expect Garry to be more durable and having more upside to finish as well. Garry by TKO is the official pick.

Paddy Pimblett vs Tony Ferguson
Pimblett, -305; Ferguson, +245

It’s been a year since we last saw Paddy Pimblett as he won a decision over Jared Gordon at UFC 282 last December. He is 4-0 in the UFC with three of those wins coming inside the distance. His striking defense is not good and he gets hit clean a lot which never makes you feel good but he does have good recover ability as we have witnessed him fight through adversity multiple times. He is a powerful striker and a dangerous submission grappler which makes him a threat wherever the fight goes even if he is not a great minute winner as he can be taken down and controlled at times. Fortunately for him, this should be a very favorable matchup for him to continue to build the hype train.

His opponent, Tony Ferguson is coming off a submission loss to Bobby Green at UFC 291 in July. He has now lost six fights in a row and turns 40 years old in February. Need I say more? There might be people out there this week that will talk themselves into Ferguson being a “live underdog” for the simple fact that they dislike Pimblett. These people are no fun. Do not be one of these people. The guy is burnt toast and has virtually no plausible way to win this fight. Pimblett by whatever he wants is the official pick.

Shavkat Rakhmonov vs Stephen Thompson
Rakhmonov, -650; Thompson, +470

Shavkat Rakhmonov is coming off a third-round submission victory over Geoff Neal in March. For my money, he is the most exciting prospect in the Welterweight division and the run to the title continues this weekend. He is very well-rounded with sharp striking and legitimate power as well. But he also has a well-rounded ground game and averages right around 1.5 takedowns per 15 minutes and has nine of his 17 wins coming by submission.

His opponent, Stephen Thompson is coming off a fourth-round TKO victory over Kevin Holland last December. Thompson proved in that fight that even at 40 years old, he is still one of the best pure strikers in the division. However, a clear leak in his game is his defensive wrestling as he only defends takedowns at 64% in the UFC. He will likely need to hurt Rakhmonov while not allowing him to get the fight to the ground which seems like a tough ask.

I expect Thompson to be competitive at space while the fight plays out there. But it will likely be only a matter of time before Rakhmonov is able to initiate the grappling exchanges which will be the biggest advantage in this fight. Rakhmonov by decision is the official pick.

Alexandre Pantoja vs Brandon Royval
Pantoja, -192; Royval, +160

Alexandre Pantoja finally touched UFC gold as he won the Flyweight title at UFC 290 in July with a decision victory over Brandon Moreno. Pantoja is an aggressive fighter that always looks to come out hot and heavy in the first round. He throws with bad intention on the feet and is a dangerous submission grappler as well and holds a black belt in BJJ. He is a solid wrestler as well and averages 1.75 takedowns per 15 minutes although he can get sloppy at times in the grappling exchanges. He is very good at taking the back and almost always finds a way to get to this position in most of his fights. But if he is unable to swarm you and find the finish in the first round, then he almost always fades as the fight goes on. He has repeatedly lost the third round in multiple fights and has looked tired throughout his career after the first round.

His opponent, Brandon Royval is coming off a first-round TKO victory over Matheus Nicolau in April. He is currently on a three-fight winning streak and his last loss came against Pantoja when they fought back in 2021. Royval is a firecracker and wants to move forward and spam volume. He is not very technical but does have multiple knockout tools with his nasty elbows and powerful kicks. He is also an aggressive submission grappler with nine of his 15 career wins coming by submission. The main issue with Royval is he gets out of position while he is blitzing forward and he gives up his back very often. That was his downfall in the first fight and Pantoja will likely look to backpack him once again.

This is an awesome fight and probably the one that I am most excited about. It is clear to me that Pantoja is the more skilled fighter but that does not always equal a victory. Pantoja was starting to fade in the first fight much like he does after an aggressive first round. If Royval can keep space or not let Pantoja get the back then he is very live to take over as the fight goes on. For that reason, I will have exposure to both sides on DraftKings but will lean more towards the underdog in Royval. Royval by decision is the official pick.

Leon Edwards vs Colby Covington
Edwards, -155; Covington, +130

Leon Edwards defended the Welterweight title against Kamaru Usman to the tune of a majority decision at UFC 286 in London. Edwards is a very skilled fighter with technical striking and a strong clinch game as well. He defends takedowns well initially but you can still get him down if you chain your attempts together as he defends at 69% in the UFC. He is usually difficult to control though and works back to his feet pretty well. He can also mix in some wrestling of his own as he averages 1.26 takedowns per 15 minutes. The main thing I dislike about Edwards is that despite being a great fighter, he is not a great round winner which may sound crazy considering he is on an 11-fight winning streak not counting the no-contest against Belal Muhammad. But he is very low volume and without big moments, he is not putting a stamp on rounds, especially against the better fighters in the division.

His opponent, Colby Covington is coming off a sizable layoff as we last saw him at UFC 272 when he won a dominant decision over Jorge Masvidal. Over his last 11 fights, Covington has only lost to Kamaru Usman which is something that him and Edwards have in common. Unlike Edwards though, Covington is an exceptional round winner as he pushes a high pace on the feet with nonstop volume and chain wrestling as he averages over four takedowns per 15 minutes.

This is going to be a close fight but one where I see Covington as clearly the fighter with more upside to put a stamp on rounds. He is going to be much more active and I expect him to have success landing multiple takedowns as well. This has the potential to look like the first Usman fight for Edwards but without the miracle head kick. Covington by decision is the official pick and he is the strongest underdog play on DraftKings this week.