Cigar Aficionado

Savvy sports bettors find a way to profit from the Ultimate Fighting Championship

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.”

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.”

So who does Dixon like for Saturday night? “Normally I bet one or two matches per card,” he says, allowing in the next breath that, like most gamblers, he sometimes gets carried away, and loses his disciplined approach. “Right now, for sure, I am going with Frank Mir over Roy Nelson. Frank’s at minus-140, which isn’t too bad. Roy is a good fighter with a big heart, but Frank is stronger.” He hesitates for a beat, then adds, “And if they go to the ground, well, then it gets interesting.”

One more possible angle to consider comes from a one-time UFC fighter named Nissen Osterneck. He’s a mixed martial artist himself who also happens to know a few things about beating the UFC at the betting window. One way he advises doing it is by betting the over/under on whether or not a fight will go the distance. “For the upcoming card I like Jorge Santiago and Brian Stann for the under,” he says. “Santiago is a black belt in jiu-jitsu and Stann is fair. Stann is coming back from a win, he likes to push the pace and he has knockout power. Santiago recently returned from five years of fighting in Japan. The line is minus-130, and it’s a bet that I advise.”

How much of an edge can be found in the over/under wagers? Enough of one that Jay Rood stopped booking them. “The bettors were spot on,” he says, referring to bets that are most commonly found online these days. “Guys would know the fighters’ game plans, come in betting $2,000 or $3,000 and before we knew it we had a $40,000 decision on a bet that generated no money from the general public. We scrapped it.”

It’s May 28 and fight night has descended. Heading through the MGM Grand to the arena where the early fights are already under way, I contemplate making a bet. Before coming here, I had listened to Johnny Marinacci and told myself that I wouldn’t bother, that betting without knowledge would feel like flushing money down the toilet (an act to which I am, unfortunately, no stranger). But as I walk through the casino, I can’t shake the infectious confidence that Musketa expressed about his best pick of the night: middleweight Brian Stann over Jorge Santiago.

I detour through the sports book, forget about common sense, get the wager at minus-150, and bet $300 to win $200. What the hell, right? By the time I get to my seat, passing through crowds of tattooed and T-shirted fans, the pre-Spike fights wind down, and I am heartened to see that Musketa did indeed win his batch of parlay wagers.

But I’m here for Stann vs. Santiago. Both fighters enter the ring to the throbbing sounds of metal music—this is par for the course here—and Stann plays up the fact that he has a military background (stars and stripes adorn his trunks), complete with service in Iraq. It makes him a fan favorite, but that goes only so far once he’s inside the octagon and first round begins.
True to Musketa’s prediction, Stann dominates right from the start. He keeps Santiago off balance with choppy little kicks and manages a knockdown in the first round. By the beginning of the second round, Santiago looks like he wishes he was home in Brazil. He fails to connect and never gets close enough to do anything but box against Stann. Then, with 37 seconds left in the second round, Stann connects with a left-handed punch to his opponent’s skull, putting him down and finishing him off with half a dozen pummels to his face and head.

The crowd goes crazy rooting for the vet from Iraq. It’s the easiest $200 I’ve ever made.

Never mind that Musketa later loses his last bet that Matt Hamill will beat Rampage Jackson in the main event. His line of reasoning: Hamill is an excellent wrestler, Jackson has neglected UFC for other pursuits (including a role in The A-Team and an upcoming martial arts flick called Duel of Legends) and, as Musketa puts it, “He’s a head case.” Well, somebody forgot to tell Rampage all of that. He never allows Hamill (a deaf, grappling specialist who has a biopic being readied for release) to take the fight to the ground.

Later that night, Musketa shrugs off the loss, pointing out that the overall card—with his big bet on Stann and the early parlays—has been plenty profitable. Gordon Dixon isn’t complaining either. He went 2-and-0 with his wagers, including a bet on Rampage Jackson to win. Then, as I’m filing out of the arena, I get a text from Nissen Osterneck. He complains that it’s one of the worst cards he’s ever seen. Then he does the opposite of complaining as he texts that his picks went three out of four for the night, then forwards me the betting slip to prove it.

Next morning, over breakfast at the MGM Grand, I place a call to Alf Musketa. He seems to be the man with all the answers where betting UFC is concerned. I seek guidance for someone who might want to jump into handicapping the matches now—albeit, at a bit of a late date.

First, Musketa gives the stock bromide about working hard (he puts in an hour per fight, analyzing records and watching previous matches). He lets that hang for a moment before offering the real advice: “Start following the younger fighters who are getting into MMA from scratch. Other handicappers don’t give them enough credit, and neither do the sports books. John Jones, who is considered the best fighter in mixed martial arts, is only 23 years old and a champion. His first few fights, you could have gotten him at less than 3-to-1 and it was an absolute steal. It was like watching Mike Tyson on his way up. How nice would that be?”

I tell Musketa that he makes it sound easy. He neither agrees nor disagrees. But he responds by saying, “Find those guys, take notes on them, watch them in their next fights. Then away you go.” v

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.