Mohammad Ali’s knockout of George Foreman is always presented on cable TV in “story-telling” format, even if producers simply play the entire long broadcast from Zaire in 1974 so that the audience gets to hear the background narrative.
Documentaries on the fight have become righteous works of art on their own, such as the classic montage of George Plimpton recounting his ring-side “witch-doctor” epiphany of a doomed Foreman just before Ali delivered the coup de grace. (I wish I could show it to readers here in an insert, but it’s only on the web as part of a much-longer film.)
The “Rumble in the Jungle” is a classic documentary subject because you have to know the history behind the bout for it to make any sense. Ali was a heavy underdog against Foreman. He took a beating for the first 5 rounds. In retrospect, the GOAT’s flurries of stinging shots to the head in the first few rounds were earthquakes, but nobody knew it at the time.
People put down Las Vegas’s influence on the prizefighting industry. But heck, if it wasn’t for the odds, then the fight in Zaire might have been just another dramatic knock-out in a Heavyweight title scrap. We’d remember it, like we remember Michael Moorer beating Evander Holyfield, but nobody would call it the greatest jewel of the greatest boxing career ever. Ali was facing an invisible prop-betting line of (-105) to get out of Africa with his skull intact, yet he defied the bookies and reigned supreme.
It was a massive story, because handicappers used to be experts.
Once upon a time, the gambling odds for a big-time prizefighting circus were more reliable than they are today. Las Vegas used to give Rocky Marciano (-1000) odds, and he’s go out and murder a guy, and then the thin moneyline would pay off and underdog bettors would be disappointed.
Say hello to the UFC era, in which Ronda Rousey was once (and recently) a decided gambling favorite to beat Amanda Nunes in a Octagon. The era of mixed martial-arts is the era of upsets.
Fighters Who Win as Underdogs and Lose as Favorites
What if UFC betting became a bigger deal than Heavyweight boxing action, and Las Vegas never learned how to adjust?
It seems like every event in the Octagon brings more “surprises” compared to what oddsmakers and the betting public were thinking.
Prop markets on a recent clash of big strikers Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis collected heavy action for early-round results in a bloody skirmish of tank-like athletes. Instead, the fighters danced and sparred loosely for 5 rounds in what is still considered one of the biggest and lamest disappointments in UFC history.
All of us watching this Derrick Lewis vs. Francis Ngannou fight. #UFC226 pic.twitter.com/jYivq8B7tQ
— NESN (@NESN) July 8, 2018
UFC competition is more volatile than boxing. Heavyweight champions used to have records like “51-0 with a no-decision,” but today, some kind of fluky drawn result might be a title-holder’s best result in 6 to 12 months.
MMA underdogs often win in decisive fashion. Favorites often belly flop – sometimes literally if they’re facing a good grappler.
Here are just 3 examples of UFC fighters who love to trick Sin City.
Holm is a former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, former boxer, and former kickboxer. The popular fighter from ABQ won 16 boxing title defenses in 3 weight divisions.
Her inconsistent record serves to underscore Holm’s overachievement. Over-achieving and spirited fighters are always a good option for low-risk, high-payoff moneyline betting.
Holm (+525) vs Rousey, UFC 193 in Melbourne, Australia
Holm’s 2015 moneyline against Rousey was a matter of the betting public (and even some bookmakers) getting intimidated by The Rowdy One. Holly Holm may have had a seesaw career later on, but as a young fighter her credentials were impeccable.
The two unbeaten fighters came into the bout even in weight, with Holm having a slight one inch advantage in height and reach. Holm soon connected with a series of punches that left Rousey bloodied and battered. Rousey continued to struggle to gain any momentum against the Preacher’s Daughter and took a vicious punch to the chin.
The undervalued upstart followed-up with a kick to the neck to finish-off Rousey in one of the most shocking upsets in UFC history.
Holm (-350) vs Tate, UFC 196 in Las Vegas
The first title defense for the new Bantamweight champ was to be against Miesha Tate. Holm, a heavy betting favorite, got out to a favorable start by connecting with several punches in the opening round. Tate gained the edge in Round 2 with a surprising takedown of the champ, however, and landed a series of punches and elbows.
Holm managed to avoid another takedown for a while, until Round 5 when Tate secured a rear-naked choke to force the newly-crowned champ to submit.
Just like that, the other shoe had dropped. The same gamblers who had profited from an underdog Holm were now paying a price for joining the Holm Team.
A 26-year old Milwaukee native, Rose is the current UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion. Earning her nickname “Thug Rose” from childhood friends, she is also skilled in Taekwondo, Karate, and Jiu-Jitsu.
Namajunas (-222) vs Kowalkiewicz, UFC 201 in Atlanta, GA
Before Namajunas could become a champion, she ran into a roadblock against undefeated Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Rose came in as a slight favorite and didn’t seem to be bothered as the 2 young fighters got off a slow start in the opening minutes, but Kowalkiewicz soon worked-in a bevy of sneaky knees and elbows. The Polish underdog would take command down the stretch.
After spending much of Round 3 in a dominant position, Kowalkiewicz earned the victory in a split decision and paid off a handsome moneyline.
Namajunas (+400) vs Jedrzejczyk, UFC 217 in New York City
The off-on form didn’t stop there for Namajunas, who came into a 2017 title match against Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a less-than-stellar record for a championship contender. Jedrzejczyk was taller and heavier and had built a reputation as a vicious fighter, but “Thug Rose” brought the fight directly to the favorite with a series of effective kicks and punches.
Moments later, Thug Rose landed a brutal punch on the champ’s jaw and the audience was stunned to see the match end by TKO in Round 1.
A 33-year-old native of California currently residing in Denver, Colorado, Dillashaw is a 2-time Bantamweight champion known for a powerful punch.
Dillashaw (+475) vs Barão, UFC 173 in Las Vegas
Dillashaw did not draw much action at UFC betting sites in his bid to end Bantamweight Champion Renan Barão’s 31-match win streak in 2014. Dillashaw’s record entering the match was a fair-to-middling 9-2.
But during the bout with Barão, Dillashaw put on a spectacular display of brilliant counters against the champ’s most-powerful punches. The later rounds were dominated by Dillashaw, who connected on thunderous punches and kicks to weaken the champion in Round 5. Barão was knocked to the ground and the fight ended by TKO after a series of hammer fists by Dillashaw.
Dillashaw (-260) vs Cejudo, January 19, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York (UFC Fight Night)
Dillashaw dropped to 125 lbs. to fight Flyweight Champion Henry Cejudo. Many believed the drop in weight class had taken a major toll on Dillashaw’s body leading up to the fight, but Vegas still saw fit to give the veteran a solid favorite’s moneyline.
The flyweight dispatched the Bantamweight champ with little effort and won via TKO only 32 seconds into the opening round. Cejudo connected with a vicious head kick and finished with non-stop punches until the ref was forced to end the match.
Later, Dillashaw failed a drug test and was suspended for a year.
So much for that (-260) moneyline.
Careful: Octagons Make Harder Predictions Than Ancient Rings
If there’s a common thread in each of those 3 examples, it’s that the underdog fighter was underrated for reasons that seem obvious in retrospect.
In a landscape of high, high ceilings and low, low floors for each fighter (as opposed to the relatively-stable world of old-time boxing) it’s important to look at the bright side as well as the pitfalls of fight-gambling.
Remember that even though moneyline bets on favorites must be made with extra, extra caution, there is also a better opportunity to win with an underdog pick than there once was.
That helps to make a few devastating, surprise losses worth the trouble.