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Beating the UFC

Savvy sports bettors find a way to profit from the Ultimate Fighting Championship
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

It is the afternoon of May 22, less than a week before the start of the 130th Ultimate Fighting Championship match in Las Vegas. UFC is a mixed martial arts league in which fighters are allowed to punch, kick, wrestle, and use self-defense styles such as jiu-jitsu. They tear each other apart in a caged-off ring while the rest of us sit in the stands, eat popcorn and bet on the outcome. Heading to Vegas in a few days. I’m aiming to find the gamblers who do it successfully.

Prior to departing, I sit at an outdoor café in downtown Manhattan with a couple of gambling acquaintances. One of them, Johnny Marinacci, has used his experiences in New York’s underground poker scene to consult on dramatic enterprises that range from the movie Rounders to  HBO’s cable series The Sopranos. The sharpest of the sharp, the most cynical of the cynical, he sips an iced green tea and rails against my pursuit of gamblers who can beat Ultimate Fighting. “How the hell do you do that?” he wants to know. “Find somebody who’s sick and fighting anyway? The matches are unpredictable. It’s a ridiculous sport. You can’t make money betting the UFC. There’s not enough history. Not enough to go on.”

Our mutual friend points out that he does have a contact who provides good information. “Good information?” asks Marinacci. “How come we haven’t won any money at it?”

This particular guy is not somebody with whom I want to get into a serious argument, and he does give me a moment of pause. But, in the end, I disagree with his skepticism. Especially after I find myself in Nevada a few days later, sitting across from burly Alf Musketa, a commentator on and a successful sports bettor who has made money by gambling on golf, football and tennis. We’re sitting in a Cheesecake Factory about 10 minutes off the Vegas Strip, and he’s explaining that not only is UFC beatable but that—to paraphrase Roberto Clemente’s words—it has been very good to him.

“I started watching Ultimate Fighting on TV, like everyone else,” Musketa explains, tucking into a plate of Cajun stew. “I didn’t think of it as a betting sport at first. Pay-Per-View covered only the main events, so there wasn’t much to bet on. But when they started putting lines on all the fights, I knew that the books would lack information and make errors that could be exploited. Of all the sports that I bet, UFC is now the strongest for me. It’s still new as a betting sport and the linemakers haven’t come up with the right odds for prop bets or over/unders. The money-lines are weak, and so are the initial numbers.”
How good can it get for Musketa? While he acknowledges that the upcoming card does not present as many opportunities as he would like, he fondly remembers the previous UFC event (number 129). “There were 12 fights on that card. I made nine bets, along with a few parlays, and they all came in. I watched the matches with a bunch of guys”—he almost always watches on TV rather than actually going to the fight—“they all bet along with me, and we were all cheering. It was a good night."

While Musketa and his crowd love UFC for the gambling profits that it can generate, there are many others who are enamored with the intense combat element of this sport. Inside a gimmicky octagonal ring, caged in with vinyl-covered metal fencing, the fighters receive points based on performance per round, with lots of credit given for knockdowns and takedowns. They can win by decision, submission (an opponent gets into a position he can’t get out of and gives up by tapping on the mat), or, of course, by knockout.

Each round zips by quickly, blood is often drawn, and it all adds up to something that makes boxing resemble your father’s fight game. “We’re booking six out of nine matches on a mixed martial arts card, and that generates volume for us,” says Jay Rood, race and sports book director for MGM Resorts International. “With boxing, which has gotten a little stale, there might be two or three bookable fights. Year over year, the handle [between mixed martial arts and boxing] is close, and the MMA fans are still 15 years younger than the boxing crowd. I can see the betting growing as the fans mature. They have strong opinions and show up early enough to see every fight on the card.” As opposed to boxing spectators who mostly materialize for the main events, which usually come with such long odds that they’re almost unbettable.

Not bad for a sport that was once considered a brutish pariah. Recall how 36 states had previously banned Ultimate Fighting matches, which were known for being “no holds barred.” In its infancy, the UFC had no weight classes, no rounds and far fewer regulations. When brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta (the familial force behind Station Casinos) purchased it back in 2001 for $2 million, they intended to rehabilitate Ultimate Fighting and modernize it, while at the same time making the matches more exciting for spectators. Their plan worked. Along the way, fighters like Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz emerged as protosuperstars and went mainstream with book and movie deals. Spike TV aired matches on a weekly basis, a reality show called “The Ultimate Fighter” drew a growing audience and a lucrative international market was born.

Because UFC attracts a younger, less wealthy crowd than boxing does, gamblers are not betting as much per bout (so if you hope to wager, say, $50,000 on the feature match that pits world-class wrestler Matt Hamill against the hard-punching fighter-turned-movie-star Rampage Jackson, you might be disappointed) but there is plenty of room to maneuver for those who bet as high as the mid-thousands of dollars per match.

Those limits suit Musketa just fine. “When the lines first come out, $1,000 is the most you can bet at one time, and that is not enough for me,” he says, explaining that he gets down a series of wagers via multiple sources. “But on fight day, the limits go up to $10,000 per fight”—at a point when most of the value has been worked out of the available
wagers—“and that is more than enough on any one bet for me.”

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