Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls: A Study in Betting Main Event Underdogs

What needs to be said and considered following Derrick Lewis’ big win, as Jairzinho Rozenstruik looks to emulate Lewis’ efforts this Saturday.

I’ll get this out of the way early- don’t start getting big eyes for huge underdogs in heavyweight main events, when they appear to be lesser skilled than their opponents, just because Derrick Lewis cashed as a +350 dog this past weekend. As bettors and as combat sports fans, we are prisoners of the moment. 

As was well documented during the UFC Vegas 19 post-fight broadcast this past Saturday, Lewis’ upset victory made him the biggest betting underdog to win in a main event since Michael Bisping finished Luke Rockhold by knockout in their 2016 rematch. The closing line on Bisping was +450 in that fight.

The reason I say not to get big eyes for these big underdogs is that it is an extreme rarity for this to happen. It feels like it isnt, because we’ve seen a bunch of big underdogs make a lucky few bettors very happy over the last month. Most notably, Dustin Poirier and Derrick Lewis in their respective main event victories so far this year. 

In the six UFC main events we have seen this year, the underdog has won three of the fights; the aforementioned Poirier and Lewis, and the other was Michael Chiesa though he was near even on the money line at closing time for his fight with Neil Magny just over a month ago.

Of the 41 fight nights and pay-per-view events the UFC held last year, eleven main event underdogs cashed on the moneyline: 

Jan Błachowicz (+185) TKO Rd 1 vs. Corey Anderson (2/15 Fight Night)

Deiveson Figueiredo (+125) TKO Rd. 2 vs. Joe Benavidez (2/29 Fight Night)

Charles Oliveira (+120) SUB Rd 3 vs. Kevin Lee (3/14 Fight Night)

Justin Gaethje (+180) TKO Rd 5 vs. Tony Ferguson (5/9 Fight Night)

Glover Teixeira (+175) TKO Rd 5 vs. Anthony Smith (5/13 Fight Night)

Alistair Overeem (+135) TKO Rd. 2 vs. Walt Harris (5/16 Fight Night)

Gilbert Burns (+150) DEC Tyron Woodley (5/30 Fight Night)

Derek Brunson (+300) TKO Rd 3 vs. Edmen Shahbazyan (8/1 Fight Night)

Frankie Edgar (+225) Split DEC vs. Pedro Munhoz (8/22 Fight Night)

Michelle Waterson (+120) DEC vs. Angela Hill (9/12 Fight Night)

Glover Teixeira (+200) SUB Rd 3 vs. Thiago Santos (11/7 Fight Night)

Of those underdogs, only three offered payouts of +200 or better. When we compare those three fights with the two in which underdogs have cashed meeting the same parameters so far this year, and historically, there are some commonalities. 

Brunson, Teixeira, Poirier and Lewis all managed to finish their respective fights despite, at least arguably, losing the first round. I think Poirier might be excluded from that qualification because the first round with McGregor was close, as Teixeira likely is as well. Teixeira was clipped and knocked down in the first 2 minutes by Santos but scored a takedown and controlled the rest of the round, and the fight for that matter.

Edgar, on the other hand, won a close split decision which really could have gone either way. The rest of the underdogs that cashed tickets in main events last year were all in the +125 to +185 range. What this data shows us is obvious: bigger underdogs win far less frequently. 

As I have said before, it is very easy to fall in love with knockout power or submission skills in a big underdog, especially in the heavyweight division. It’s a low-risk, high-reward bet which, over certain periods of time, can prove to be a profitable strategy. 

The long-term statistics, however, are not in favor of the underdogs. That’s why they’re called underdogs. If you had bet 1 unit on every main event underdog of 2020, the strategy would have netted you -10.85u following Stephen Thompson’s win over Geoff Neal on December 19th.

While this data is intriguing and pretty definitively shows that betting on underdogs in main events isn’t usually a smart move, (we hope) you don’t come here just for statistics, or picks based solely on analytics, but also strategic, situational and talent-evaluated insight. 

The odds that two heavyweight underdogs cash in consecutive UFC main events is extremely low. According to the odds, its almost impossible for Jairzinho Rozenstruik to defeat Ciryl Gane this Saturday. The odds are low, but never zero.

Check back later this week for our in-depth analysis of this Saturday’s UFC Vegas 20 heavyweight main event, when we reveal our picks and insight for this fight and the rest of the UFC Vegas 20 main card & prelims.

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