The UFC heads to Phoenix, Arizona for the first event of 2017 and it has waited almost two weeks to stage it. It’s not the sort of year opening card that we have been used to of late, but it is one that hosts one of the biggest names in MMA, along with some fighters with huge upside.

There will be a lot of eyes on this card, not just for the fighters involved but also because this is the first card with the revised Unified Ruleset in force. It means that there is less ambiguity about the meaning of downed opponent, and should (in theory) see more 10-8 scorecards awarded. The latter will have a huge impact on betting outcomes as the draw becomes a more realistic option.

I’ve picked out the cream of the main card and given you my thoughts, 5Dimes, as always, provides the odds.

Rodriguez v Penn:

Unbeaten in the UFC since his debut a little over two years ago, Yair Rodriguez gets a step up in class for his next bout. Rodriquez, the owner of a 7-0 streak, has traditionally made hard work of his UFC fights with four of the five going to a decision, two of those by no greater margin than a split decision. He has high level cardio and he trains in the best gym in MMA, in short, he is a bad matchup for any opponent that could struggle to match his work rate.

It has been almost two and a half years since BJ Penn retired from competitive MMA off the back of three defeats and a draw. His last win inside the octagon was against Matt Hughes in November 2010 which means that he hasn’t won a fight for over six years. In that run of defeats he was absolutely schooled by Nick Diaz, taken apart by Rory MacDonald and finished by Frankie Edgar. A comeback was planned for early in 2016 but a failed drug test put paid to that idea. Now ‘The Prodigy’ is back and aiming for one last run at the top.

Penn is a legend, a true hall of famer, but he has no place in the modern game. Since BJ last fought, let alone won, there has been a new breed of athletes enter the sport, not to mention advancements in training and diet. Rodriguez is one of that new breed and he has Penn in his sights as the marquee name for his record, one that would elevate him to a new status. In a five round fight it could get ugly for Penn and I’m not really sure how he survives a 25 minute onslaught.

Recommendation: Rodriguez wins inside distance – 2 units at -220 (1/2) @ 5Dimes

Lauzon v Held:

Joe Lauzon only fought twice in 2016 and both fights couldn’t have ended differently. In July at UFC 200 he became the first man to stop Diego Sanchez, in the very first round no less, before rematching Jim Miller in August and ending up on the wrong side of a split decision. Against Sanchez he came out aggressive and filled with bad intentions, against Miller he was a little cagier, clearly remembering that Miller beat him four years earlier. Lauzon is just one of those types of fighters, while hugely talented he occasionally turns up lacking in self-belief and it costs him dearly.

Marcin Held entered the UFC as a legitimate challenger at 155lbs from Bellator, where he narrowly missed out on taking the belt from Will Brooks. It was Brooks last fight under the Bellator banner and just one fight later Held joined him in the UFC.

Both fighters revel in their submission game, holding a combined 30 wins by submission throughout their respective careers. Against Sanchez we saw little of this from Held as he was smothered by Sanchez en route to a decision victory. For Sanchez, it was his first fight since being taken apart by Lauzon. MMA Math suggests that as Lauzon beat Sanchez and Sanchez beat Held then Lauzon beats Held, but it’s not that simple, is it? Held was nowhere near his best against Sanchez and stylistically it was poor. Against Lauzon it will be a chess match with both looking for the tap, as Lauzon will look for the RNC or Armbar and Held zones in on a leg lock. I give a narrow edge to Held and will take him to hand Lauzon another loss.

Recommendation: Marcin Held – 2 units at +120 (6/5) @ 5Dimes

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