As the UFC heads to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi for its first of four “Fight Island” events in 13 days, you’ll find no bigger underdog on Saturday’s UFC 251 lineup than Paige VanZant.
But when it comes to MMA, where the tide of a fight can shift with just one big punch or kick, at what point is an underdog too big of an underdog?
Heading into their UFC 251 pay-per-view main-card opener, VanZant (8-4) returns from a 19-month layoff to meet Amanda Ribas (9-1), who opened as a substantial favorite — and whose odds continue to swell.
After an opening line favored Ribas to the tune of -450, money has steadily pushed the fast-rising strawweight contender to -800, with the comeback on VanZant a whopping +600 at some books in this scheduled flyweight matchup.
Have bettors swamped the line too much, though? Is there now value on the 6-1 underdog? At some point, does a ‘dog become an automatic bet simply because MMA is so unpredictable and because there are so many ways — wild haymaker, fluke submission, freak injury, fight-halting foul — to pull off the upset?
I put that question before a handful of MMA notables — folks whose opinions I value when it comes to breaking down and handicapping fights. The quintet of prognosticators all agreed that Ribas is the rightful favorite, but if money continues to flow her way, does VanZant eventually become the play?
Not everyone was convinced.
“How high would this line have to be? Oh boy. +1000 at a minimum, and even then I wouldn’t feel particularly good about it,” said Shaun Al-Shatti, a senior MMA writer (and my former colleague) at The Athletic. “Because here’s the thing: The UFC knows what they’re doing here. Paige VanZant is marketable, sure, but she’s also a disgruntled fighter on the last bout of her deal.
The UFC isn’t going to fork over the kind of money she’ll be asking for, so instead, they’re pulling the old Joe Silva special — depressing her market value with a matchup that’ll likely lead to a bad loss on her way out. They’ve done this for decades, and they’re damn good at it.”
With her upbeat personality, girl-next-door looks and surprising toughness once in the cage, VanZant quickly became a favorite among UFC executives upon her arrival in 2014. Endorsement deals, special appearances and a runner-up finish on Season 22 of “Dancing with the Stars” followed, but the PVZ-UFC relationship has since soured.
Heading into Saturday’s card, VanZant said she now makes more money with her popular Instagram and TikTok accounts than she does fighting for the UFC, and she wants her fair share of the treasure chest.
But as she considers dipping her toes in the free-agent waters, as well as her lengthy layoff and this brutal stylistic matchup on Saturday, are bettors sleeping on VanZant?
I asked each analyst to give his or her proposed line with which a bet on VanZant would be justified:
Still, as with Al-Shatti, those proposed lines often came with uneasiness, trepidation and disclaimers.
“Although I obviously don’t disagree with who is favored between Ribas and VanZant, it’s always hard to say anything with over a 5-1 spread in MMA is priced right,” MMA Junkie analyst and “Protect Ya’ Neck” host Dan Tom said. “I mean, just ask Khama Worthy.”
While the UFC has seen bigger upsets — remember when +830 underdog Holly Holm ended Ronda Rousey’s UFC title reign with that vicious head kick in 2015? — such lopsided odds are a rarity on MMA’s biggest stage. And in the case of VanZant vs. Ribas, the line may have reached a tipping point for some folks.
“All and all, I think PVZ is a lot more talented than she’s given credit for and has faced the more seasoned opponents in her career,” said Phoenix Carnevale, a former AXS TV Fights commentator and host. “I can understand her being an underdog, but not by such a large margin.”
Malik Smith, The Action Network’s MMA editor, shared a similar sentiment.
“VanZant’s injuries and inactivity over the past few years make it tough to gauge her chances, but I’m inclined to think there’s some value on her odds at 6-1 or better,” he said.
Lou Finocchiaro, who’s posted profitable MMA bets for the better part of a decade, also thinks the line is at or nearing a point to justify a wager.
“Based on each woman’s fight expertise, body of work and recent activity, Ribas should be a firm favorite in this fight, but current pricing is not reflective of how close this bout may be,” he said. “I would not consider a wager on Ribas of any form based on current odds. In fact, if VanZant’s price reaches +650 or more, then she becomes of interest.”
Still, even with a massive potential payoff with an underdog bet, others still don’t see any value with VanZant, who’s been on the mend since January 2019 after breaking her right arm three times in three different spots.
“Even looking past her recent inactivity, the best moments of Paige’s career have usually come against unrefined grapplers that she held an athletic edge over,” said Brad Taschuk, a cohost and analyst on The MMA Analysis podcast. “Ribas does not fit that mold whatsoever. She shut down everything Mackenzie Dern had to offer, and she consistently put Randa Markos in bad positions on the mat.
“On the feet, Ribas’ striking has improved immensely since her lone loss, and she will constantly have VanZant on the back foot.”
Or, as Tom put it, VanZant’s strengths still aren’t good enough for a well-rounded shark like Ribas.
“VanZant’s best attributes are her grappling and toughness — two things that likely won’t stack up great when pitted against a better grappler who doesn’t tire,” Tom said.
So, as UFC 251 approaches and fans plunk down their booty on Ribas (either straight up or as parlay fodder), those bettors may be wise to see just how far the line climbs — FanDuel currently has the best line at +610. Come fight night, the odds may be too good to pass up.
Or, if you do think VanZant’s grit and scrappiness could keep her head above water in this fight, it may be worth exploring an alternate betting strategy — one that’s also on my radar.
“My best angle for this fight is ‘over 2.5 rounds’ at -120 since most late bettors will be taking Ribas or ‘Ribas inside the distance’ or ‘via submission’,” Finocchiaro said.
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