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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

(continued from page 1)

Like all cultishly popular things, UFC exists in its own little world. That becomes evident at the weigh-in, which takes place two days before the impending fight, inside the Garden Arena at MGM Grand. The media section fills with reporters and bloggers who act more like fans, cheering on their favorite fighters as they strip down to tattoos and jockey shorts before tossing T-shirts and caps with logos into the frenzied crowd.

For astute bettors, this presents an excellent opportunity to zero in on competitors and find clues about their condition. “If a guy’s cheeks are sucked in, it’s a sign that he’s been struggling to make weight,” says Gordon Dixon, a winning bettor of Ultimate Fighting who travels the United States, following the matches, betting on them and witnessing as much live action as he possibly can. “I am interested in seeing how Frank Mir and Roy ‘Big Country’ Nelson look [they’ll be going up against each other on the upcoming fight night]. Nelson is a power-puncher and Mir has been hit by the best. Mir’s jiu-jitsu skills are far superior and he’s a bigger man.” Barring any surprises at the weigh-in, says Dixon, “Frank is the safer bet.”

While other attendees at the weigh-in whoop it up whenever a fighter flexes or shows aggression in staring down his opponent, Alf Musketa is clearly a man with a larger purpose. He’s looking for unexpected disparity, and he finds it when Michael McDonald and Chris Cariaso strip down and hit the scales. They’re lesser-known fighters who will be going up against each other in the UFC’s new featherweight division.

They both weigh 135 pounds, though McDonald stands 5’ 9” tall, as compared with Cariaso at 5’ 3” and Musketa notices something surprising about the two fighters. “McDonald looks 20 pounds heavier and a lot stronger,” he says. “It’s obviously a complete mismatch. I’m adding him to some parlay bets that I have for fighters who were favored at 3-to-1 and 5-to-1 and competing in preliminary matches that were not being televised on Spike or Pay-Per-View [they actually can be seen on Facebook].”

Who else does Musketa like? He has his largest bet on Brian Stann, a hard-punching middleweight going up against the Brazilian mixed martial artist Jorge Santiago who’s fresh from a fighting stint on the Asian circuit. Musketa became a fan of Stann’s while watching him work out prior to his last fight. “He threw punches like Aaron Pryor and Sugar Ray Leonard in their prime,” remembers Musketa. “I immediately realized that he’s the best boxing MMA fighter out there. It was worth seeing”—and worth betting. “I got Stann at minus-110 [meaning that he needs to bet $110 to win $100] and now it’s at minus-145 or -150, which is the number that it should have opened at.”

I tell Musketa that Jay Rood had picked Stann’s opponent as the best bet of the night. Musketa scoffs and says, “Hearing that, I’m thinking that I should bet even more money on Stann. Sometimes I think that I’m the one who should be making the lines for these fights and not the bookmakers.”

Soon after, Musketa tells me that he is 25 for 30 on his last batch of UFC wagers. That’s good enough for me to need to know how he does it.

Like most sharp sports bettors, he breaks down the two sides to their individual elements and works things out on a spreadsheet. He factors in size, weight, past opponents, fighting styles. “I like to see who a person fought,” says Musketa. “A winning record doesn’t mean anything unless it’s against top guys and not a bunch of Las Vegas cab drivers. Then I look at replays of previous fights”—which are often up on YouTube or available for purchase from UFC—“and I look to see if the guy has a lethal move or lethal power that will allow him to win without a decision. Guys who win by decision are usually not strong enough.”

Gordon Dixon, who does not bet professionally (he has a day job as an executive with Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas), works a bit less rigorously. He takes to the Internet, reads up on the fighters and likes to focus on stylistic advantages. “If you have a superior wrestler vs. a great striker, and the wrestler has a national championship and a strong chin, you want to bet on him,” says Dixon. “Invariably, the fight will go to the ground. Points will be scored there. And there is not an insignificant chance of the striker getting himself knocked out [once he is on the ground].”

That said, Dixon acknowledges that the bookies have gotten smarter, winning money has become harder and the fighters themselves have turned less predictable. As the sport has grown and fame has encroached, he observes, “They have lifestyles disrupting their training in ways that they didn’t used to.”

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