Michael Morales, still only 23, is 15-0 as a professional and 3-0 in the UFC following a DWCS win in 2021. His first 2 UFC wins were knockouts while his last was a unanimous decision over a grizzled veteran.
Jake “The Celtic Kid” Matthews, 29, has ping-ponged wins and losses in his last five fights. His three recent wins include two finishes while his losses are via decision and submission.
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Morales opened around a -250 but has ballooned up to north of -300 in most books. A few -290s are still out there.
As with most prospects who have a top 5 ranking as a realistic possibility in their future, each fight Morales takes is designed to test a new aspect of his game. His debut was meant to see how the young kid could handle a grown man who was willing to be the aggressor.
Morales showcased his excellent and sniper-like counter striking; and, seemingly, effortlessly knocked his opponent out with a beautiful combination. Then, in his next fight, Morales was arguably given a step down in competition level but was challenged with a tricky grappler who would test Morales’ ability to stay composed and test his takedown defense.
While he did surrender 1 takedown and some control time, Morales’ athleticism, fundamental wrestling, and lateral movement were on full display. He fought intelligently- an important attribute for such a young fighter- stayed within his game plan, and eventually found the 3rd round knockout. Then, most recently, Morales’ grit, cardio, and durability were designed to be tested.
While he didn’t secure the finish in this fight, Morales showcased his jab, ability to be both the hammer and nail, and his cardio en route to a decision win. In all 3 fights, a different set of skills were needed for victory and Morales possessed the necessary arsenal each time.
Matthews, who was once like Morales and considered the future of the division, has faulted as of late. His successful and difficult to deal with combination of wrestle boxing has proved more challenging to implement against the nearly ranked level of opponents he’s recently lost to.
At his best, Matthews is able to weaponize cardio with a well-rounded game that can exploit the weakness or gap of an opponent. However, at his worst, Matthews can be overaggressive and press in the cage rather than letting his game flow. This results in him being hittable on the feet and sloppy on the mat. His striking- a more boxing focused style with a high guard- is rooted in volume, pressure, accuracy, and timing. Matthews doesn’t carry overly impactful power but his damage through attrition approach can result in finishes.
However, if he’s off his game, Matthews’ attempt to land with volume can result in him moving linearly into counter shots over and over as he attempts to strike his way through adversity. “The Celtic Kid’s” wrestling is similar. When he picks his spots well, Matthews has well-timed shots that he tends to finish regularly.
His wrestling, at this point in his career, is most advantageous at the end of close rounds where a takedown sways the judges in his favor. But, if he gets tunnel vision and continues to try and wrestle when the opportunity isn’t available, Matthews can get stuffed and clipped or even reverse. In short, Matthews is well-rounded and difficult to game plan for because he has a complete MMA skillset. However he can get in his own way at times and force his way into bad spots.
I’ve been a believer in Morales since he joined the UFC and I’m believing in him again here. It’s possible that we get a Dalby/Bonfim type of fight if Matthews can push such an extreme pace that Morales gasses himself out. However, everything Morales’ has shown in the octagon is that his intangibles and demeanor are those of a much older and more experienced fighter.
That is to say, Morales’s fight IQ, composure, and well-rounded skillset should allow him to avoid an ill-advised fire fight. Instead, I expect Morales to fight similarly to how he did against Fugitt: careful but tactful. Look for Matthews to push a pace early but Morales to use footwork, an intelligent jab, and well-timed counters to piece Matthews up. While I expect a decision, a late finish wouldn’t surprise me either. I prefer Morales in parlays, but like him by decision as a straight play.
Best Bet: Morales by decision (+250)