The UFC makes its way to Houston, Texas this weekend for a battle of the 205lb’ers as well as a title eliminator at 170.

Make no mistake though, this card is stacked top to bottom, and in stark contrast to last week’s Japan offering. On the run to Christmas the cards are excellent and this is just the first folks. The odds, as always, are provided by 5Dimes; so let’s make some money.

Eye v Pena:

The opening bout of the main card pits relative newcomer Jessica Pena against the MMA veteran Jessica Eye. Eye, as you may recall, has experienced varying degrees of success in her short UFC tenure. A debut win over Sarah Kaufman was declared a No Contest following a failed drugs test and while she has recorded a win over Leslie Smith by virtue of exploding ear, that fight has been bookended by losses; most recently to Misha Tate.

Julianna Pena entered the TUF Ladies house as one of the pre-tournament favourites and duly delivered, recording a TKO victory in the very first round. An injury to her knee, sustained in training, brought the ire of UFC president Dana White in addition to 18 months rehabilitating the knee before making her return in April this year. She picked up where she left off with another first round TKO.

Surprisingly for a newcomer Pena opens up at a near 2/5 favourite with the oddsmakers forecasting her to plough through her more experienced counterpart. Pena has an outstanding work rate in addition to excellent BJJ and kickboxing so while she does carry the tools to finish the job, Eye’s durability suggests that this is unlikely. The pick is Pena by unanimous decision.

Recommendation: Jessica Pena -2 units at -245 (2/5) @ 5Dimes

Jordan v Magomedov:

In a battle of the behemoths Shawn Jordan looks to maintain his recent momentum against Ruslan Magomedov. MMA veteran Jordan finally seems to have stabilised his performances of late, going 3-0 in his best run since 2010. But for first round knockouts to Mat Mitrione and Gabriel Gonzaga we could have been talking about a legit contender, at 30 time remains well and truly on his side.

Dagestani import Magomedov puts an eight fight streak on the line, with the last two coming via the UFC, in a huge step up in class. While spending most of his career fighting Russians in Russia he does hold notable victories over UFC veterans Tim Sylvia and Ricco Rodriguez, although both of those were way past their best during those encounters.

Even at Heavyweight Jordan just looks massive, although his doughy physique managed to pull off a standing backflip when defeating Derrick Lewis. Magomedov, despite being 6’3” and just shy of 250lbs just doesn’t look that big at all. Further testament is his inability to finish fights as seven of his last eight fights have ended by decision; Heavyweight fights are known for finishing early. The early finish favours Jordan and the late finish favours Magomedov, I’ll take the better line and look for this to finish inside 1.5 rounds.

Recommendation: Under 1.5 Rounds – 1 unit at +105 (21/20) @ 5Dimes

 Bader v Evans:

Rashad Evans makes his long awaited return to the Octagon after almost two years away. Prior to his injury enforced absence he was 2-0 in response to back to back losses to Little Nog and Jon Jones. In both of those fights Evans was outclassed and outworked; most surprisingly by Nogueira, and looking back its easy to forget how good Suga was as a UFC Light Heavyweight; three career losses is impressive, particularly against the calibre of opponent. Now, at 36, he attempts to put his career back on the mat and off the pundits chair in a final throw of the dice.

As the winner of TUF 8, as well as holding a four fight winning streak, Ryan Bader can rightly feel a little aggrieved at being passed over for a title shot against a guy who was knocked cold in the first round of his previous fight. That is exactly what happened when Alex Gustafsson was matched with Daniel Cormier. Bader appears to have corrected many of the holes in his game that saw him defeated by Glover Teixeira, Lyoto Machida, Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz. It was the loss to Ortiz that nobody expected and set his career back a long way, but a win over Evans and that loss is forgotten and surely the next title shot is his.

When the fight was announced I had made my choice and felt that the bookies would agree with me. They didn’t, and I have been waiting weeks for them to realise their mistake and correct their books accordingly. They haven’t and so I get to make a straight underdog play on Ryan Bader. I know I talked about how good Evans was, but that was then and this is now. Bader has been active while Evans has been sat in a studio all the while feeling that ability leave his body. It is inconceivable to me that Bader does not win this and for the life of me I don’t know how he isn’t a heavy favourite.

Recommendation: Ryan Bader -2 units at +140 (7/5) @ 5Dimes

Hendricks v Woodley:

It has been suggested that Johny Hendricks lost out on a third meeting with Robbie Lawler due to the fans not having a desire to see it. Barring his lopsided win over Matt Brown, Hendricks has been involved in three of the most competitive, edge-of-your-seat bouts that you will ever see, consecutively. His loss to GSP divided the MMA media like few before it and afterwards winning and then losing razor thin decisions to Lawler. He may not have finished a fight in three years but boring he is not.

Tyron Woodley doesn’t seem to know what it means to be boring; unless facing a fighter with high level BJJ and then he is the epitome of it. His losses have been to BJJ Black Belts Rory MacDonald, Nate Marquardt and Jake Shields. Against all other fighting styles he remains unbeaten. Since transitioning to the UFC he has campaigned for a title shot and while it hasn’t worked out yet it has allowed him to jump the queue a little and he is now just one fight away from a shot at the winner of Lawler and Condit.

Reputation carries a lot into picking the winner of this fight. Hendricks had a reputation, albeit for a short while, as a finisher now he grinds for the win. For Woodley it was that of a power puncher, certainly in the last few years, but record carries an equal distribution of KO, Submission and Decision wins. He doesn’t knock out Hendricks, of that I am sure and nor does he submit him. Hendricks can knock out Woodley, Nate Marquardt managed it, but I don’t think he does. Over 2.5 rounds looks tempting but so do the odds on Hendricks taking the decision at odds against.

Recommendation: Hendricks wins by three round decision -1 unit at +104 (21/20) @ 5Dimes

Cormier v Gustafsson:

At the start of 2015 few would have predicted this as a main event and for the title. Inside three weeks in January Daniel Cormier was handed his first career defeat by Jon Jones in typically dominant fashion, shortly after that Alex Gustafsson was finished in the first round by Anthony Johnson. Jones is stripped and suspended; Cormier beats Johnson and sets up this main event in Houston. For Cormier to face AJ for the vacant belt was an immediate shot at redemption and one that he took comfortably, winning by submission. For all the bad blood with Jones he was outclassed badly that night and it may have been a year or more before he got the opportunity to exorcise those demons. After four quiet months ‘Embrace the Grind’ once again became the buzzwords in MMA circles only this weekend they’ll be said louder than ever.

Alex Gustafsson remains the only man to almost beat Jon Jones in the octagon. But for a Hail Mary spinning elbow in the 4th round of their previous encounter he may have just done enough to take it over the line. He didn’t and went through Jimi Manuwa inside two rounds in London to set up a bout with AJ. Despite that ending badly he was the first man Dana White called out to challenge Cormier for his belt.

With Cormier and Jones both having a wrestling-heavy style it will be easy to sit here and give the advantage to Gustafsson. After all, he stuffed takedown after takedown from Jones in an area that the champion was able to rely on time after time for success. But Cormier is different to Jones, he had less success in the clinch than Gustafsson had against the-then champion but Jones was always looking for the finish, the submission or to secure full mount and set the victory. Cormier looks to take the fight to the fence, keep it there, then to the mat and keep it there, rarely looking for a finish, if he can do that to Gustafsson then he defends the belt. If Gustafsson can stuff the takedowns, avoid the clinch then he can go one better than he achieved against Jones. Lightning doesn’t strike twice and I think that Cormier defends for the first time via decision.

Recommendation: Cormier wins by 5 round decision -1 unit at +160 (8/5) @ 5Dimes

I’m putting up a small parlay this week; the first pick is Chris Cariaso at +150 (6/4) with Derrick Lewis at +140 (7/5) for combined odds of 5/1 for a single unit. Both fighters are under-priced and too good to ignore.