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5 Underdog MMA Combatants to Gamble on in 2019 and 2020

Kron Gracie Performing Spinning Back Kick

“MMA,” as in Mixed Martial-Arts, and “UFC,” as in the dominant MMA promotion, can almost appear to be synonyms sometimes. People use the acronyms interchangeably, like “NFL player” and “football player” or “NBA superstar” and “guy who is good at basketball.”

But we’re making a mistake when we do that, because, like all competitions, UFC events come with a certain flavor and atmosphere (and set of rules) that impact how the combatants are able to perform. Other MMA promotions may present other sets of rules, other circumstances, other atmospheres.

To ignore the kick-boxing, grappling, or alternative-MMA-promotion resume of a prize-fighter in the landscape of 2019 is to be an old fogey, ranting and raving about the “old days” in which the big leagues meant everything in every sport. The recent wrestling promotion AEW: Double or Nothing which involved A-list athlete-entertainers in a solid PPV buy-rate event out of Las Vegas shows that there are no monopolies on ancient combat sports in the 21st century – even as Vince McMahon doesn’t recognize that there is a monopoly on a fairly-new American game.

Lando Vannata, the 1st of 5 Octagon combatants I’ll be looking at today, is an up-and-comer who won the initial 8 of his 10 victories outside of Ultimate Fighting Championship fences. Do those matches “count” as evidence of his prowess? Not to “UFC handicappers.” But I always take a long winning streak seriously, because I’m an MMA handicapper who happens to be looking at UFC fighters.

All of these individuals will be underdogs at a UFC card at some point in 2019 or 2020. Some will be looking to face the top names in their weight classes right away, while others will tend to be moneyline betting favorites in undercard matches throughout fall and winter.

But I won’t recommend line-forecasting too much before the odds come out. We’re not trying to figure out what bookmakers are going to do, save for when there’s a fat-payoff ML on one of the upstart combatants listed below.

When that happens, knowing what these combatants are capable of in the Octagon will could make even a (+300) market feel like a high-% gamble.

Lando “Groovy” Vannata

Like a lot of accomplished fighters who are new to UFC, Vannata had to wait for a cancellation by a marquee lightweight before he got a peek at the big-time. Thankfully for the New Jersey native, replacement-scenarios are commonplace in the promotion, even up to the last week before an event.

The 27-year old stepped in on short-notice to face #3 lightweight Tony Ferguson at UFC Fight Night 91 in 2016. Vannata pushed Ferguson to the limit in a high-paced thriller before succumbing to a submission. The bout was one of the most exciting of the year, and earned Fight of the Night at the event.

That was only his debut. As we’ve witnessed again and again, MMA careers can improve in a hurry with top-notch sensei training (or top-notch Western pugilism training) and video study. Vannata followed up the Ferguson loss with a vicious spinning heel-kick knockout of John Makdessi in the 1st round at UFC 206 to earn Performance of the Night, cashing in his 4th bonus for an outstanding UFC battle.

The electrifying fighter entertains crowds with his elusiveness in the Octagon. He is crafty but powerful striker with a large array of kicking weapons, but Vannata’s recent struggles to get past elite fighters have made no small headlines.

As always, it will pay off to track a combatant even when not gambling them, waiting for knock-outs and submission holds to scout or for losses to run the betting lines longer. I’m liking a passionate and agile 27-year old against any aging veterans he’s booked against in 2019 or ’20 (short of Conor McGregor) but look for Vannata’s moneyline to have a “+” in front of it often, just due to the southward momentum. He’ll perk-up soon enough and surprise a name-brand favorite at 3 or 4-to-1 odds.

Vicente “Silent Assassin” Luque

This contender’s UFC debut didn’t look quite as promising. But since dropping a result at The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians Finale in 2015, Vicente Luque has been on a tear, winning 9 of his last 10 bouts.

The “Assassin” rarely lets fights come to a decision, having posted 9 KO/TKOs and 6 submissions.

Luque’s 2019 began with an epic brawl against Bryan Barberena at UFC on ESPN 1. While the match appeared even after 2 rounds, in the 3rd round Luque pummeled Barberena with a knee and several punches to secure the win by TKO.

Luque-Barberena won Fight of the Night and has been called one of the most grueling fights of 2019.

The Brazilian has climbed to #15 in the welterweight rankings using a combination of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, Luta Livre, and Dutch kick-boxing. Luque always keeps his composure in the Octagon and can finish-off opponents with technical precision and front-choke ability.

Alexa Grasso

As you can see, Alexa Grasso carries no professional nickname at just 25-years old.

But look at her. Would you really want to tease her about that? Or anything?

Alexa Grasso Flexing At Weigh Ins

Y…yes ma’am. I agree, nicknames are a waste of time.

A cynical pundit might say that the Guadalajara native’s 10-2-0 record is bunk, since 8 of the wins came outside of UFC. (Sound familiar?) But while her recent injury issues have contributed to a 2-2 record in 4 fights, she’s obviously got long-term promise and a lot of value on underdog moneylines until climbing higher on the ladder. Grasso’s striking skills were apparent as early as 2016 when she overwhelmed Heather Jo Clark with a fury of combinations to win by unanimous decision.

Grasso is a striker who combines boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in a fast-paced, precise MMA fighting style. She has also overcome a plethora of injuries to climb into the rankings of the strawweight division, including an injured meniscus in 2017 and a UTI infection prior to a split-decision victory against Randa Markos. Her recent defeat to Tatiana Suarez does more to loosen the Vegas lines than it does to harm her chances to develop.

She’ll face Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 238 this weekend, an event I’ve got a few more thoughts on below.

Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa (Bonus UFC 238 Prediction)

All together now, folks – Tai Tuivasa and Tago Tagavailoa are 2 different people, even though I would probably wager Tuivasa’s way on the gridiron too.

Tuivasa would have to endure a long wait due to injury before making his major-promotion debut against Rashad Coulter at UFC Fight Night: Werdum vs. Tybura in 2016.

Bam Bam knocked out Coulter with a flying knee in the 1st round.

The Sydney, Australia native waited a while to make another splash, beating Cyril Asker at UFC 221 with a TKO on punches and elbows. The victory would ascend Tuivasa into the top-15 ranked heavyweight fighters of the UFC.

Tuivasa will enter the Octagon for the first time in 2019 against fellow ranked heavyweight Blagoy Ivanov at UFC 238 this weekend.

I’m looking at this fighter long-term. UFC betting sites have a (-140) line on Tuivasa to beat Ivanov on Saturday, but the Russian may choose to attack the 20-something Bam Bam with takedowns and mat grappling – still a relative weakness for the favorite. I’d wait for an unexpected loss to affect the lines for late-2019 or 2020 before buying the up-and-comer at a nice price.

“Ice Cream” Kron Gracie

Any blogger who watches the El Rey Network as much as this one would be expected to make a Conan the Barbarian reference right about now, given that our final underdog fighter’s name is Kron.

However, I’m more drawn to the amazing nickname “Ice Cream.” A character nicknamed “Ice Cream” sounds like something out of a Jim Jarmusch movie.

Heck, ice cream practically is a character in a Jim Jarmusch movie…or at least has a life of its own.

Kron is another new face in the UFC community, but his family ties and pre-UFC record are starting to create a buzz. Son of renowned 9th-degree red belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Rickson Gracie, Kron is an accomplished grappler who has utilized a deep set of skills in an as-yet brief MMA career.

All 5 of Gracie’s victories have come by submission, with a good old rear-naked choke spelling doom for his last 3 victims.

Ice Cream licked well-respected veteran Alex Caceres on February 17, 2019 with a choke hold at the 2:06 mark of Round 1.

The Performance of the Night victory put an entire featherweight division on notice.

Still, his lack of a thick UFC resume should keep Vegas lines a little longer than they should be…for now.