UFC title matchup projections: What does our model say about Edwards-Covington?

Flashback: Leon Edwards tops Kamaru Usman, extends unbeaten streak to 12 (1:24)

Leon Edwards wins via majority decision in his trilogy fight vs. Kamaru Usman in London at UFC 286. (1:24)

What do the analytics say about the championship fights remaining on the 2023 calendar and in early 2024? ​​Using predictive models agnostic of betting lines, we examined how each champion's matchup appears from a favorability view.

Essentially, is this a good matchup for the champion or the challenger? The inputs consider each fighter's performance metrics inside the Octagon and select factors about the fighter outside the cage. The higher the score, the more favorable the incumbent champ matches.

These scores don't indicate how to bet the fight versus the relative favorability running from the riskiest to the best matchup.

Reed Kuhn and Ian Parker look ahead at five future title fights that are currently scheduled, along with a fight that's likely to get booked. Kuhn provides the model projections for each fight, while Parker details the betting perspective.

Confirmed UFC championship bouts

Welterweight title: Leon Edwards (c) vs. Colby Covington, UFC 296 on Dec. 16

Analysis: -0.06, slightly unfavorable for the champion.

Kuhn on what the numbers mean: An incumbent champ showing up less favorably could be a fight night 'dog, depending on market movements. With two wins over former champ Kamaru Usman, Edwards has twice done something Covington could not, despite two tries himself. But Edwards will face a considerable volume disadvantage, as Covington typically outpaces him by more than 2-to-1 on the feet. Add in the challenger's wrestling credentials, and suddenly, the current champion could face uphill rounds on multiple levels.

Parker on where the bettors lean: Over 3.5 rounds. In Covington, Edwards will have to fend off the high pace and relentless wrestling he puts forward, similar to Usman in the second fight. I see bettors looking for this fight to go into the later rounds. Covington is exceptionally durable, and Edwards could spend all five rounds defending takedowns while trying to counter.

Flyweight title: Alexandre Pantoja (c) vs. Brandon Royval, UFC 296 on Dec. 16

Analysis: +0.02, barely favorable for the champion.

Kuhn on what the numbers mean: This one is a bit surprising, especially given that Pantoja already has a big win over Royval. But whenever Royval isn't facing champ-level talent, he has been an elite finisher. In limited minutes of action, Royval's knockdown rate is above average and gives him a solid puncher's chance when combined with Pantoja's historically loose striking defense. I still see an uphill battle for Royval, but depending on where prices land, there might be some value in an epic knockout upset. This matchup is the closest of all the current booked and projected title fights.

Parker on where the bettors lean: Pantoja to win. Both fighters fight at a suffocating pace and are unafraid to get into a brawl. Pantoja is sitting at -260, which makes sense, as he just dethroned Brandon Moreno with his submission skills. Royval is a tough opponent with good power and submission skills as well. However, he sometimes gets reckless and has been caught and subbed before. If he makes even the slightest mistake against Pantoja, it's over.

Middleweight title: Sean Strickland (c) vs. Dricus du Plessis, UFC 297 on Jan. 20, 2024

Analysis: -0.01, barely unfavorable for the champion

Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Strickland is a masterful point striker, but Du Plessis will have the power advantage. The trouble is that Du Plessis has loose defense, so while he's looking to land a big shot, he'll be eating plenty of punches and probably losing on the cards. To avoid that, Du Plessis could opt to use his ground game, which he might fall back on if he gets frustrated on the feet.

Parker on where the bettors lean: Strickland to win. After seeing what Strickland did to the former champ, Israel Adesanya, it's hard not to lean his way in this matchup. Strickland has the better boxing, and although he doesn't use it, he also has good wrestling. But Strickland's best weapon is his cardio, which allows him to maintain a blistering pace throughout a five-round fight. Du Plessis will struggle to get Strickland down to the mat, and I don't think he can land a power shot, similar to how he knocked out Robert Whitaker. I expect Strickland to have a repeat performance in his first title defense.

Women's bantamweight title: Raquel Pennington vs. Mayra Bueno Silva, UFC 298 on Feb. 17, 2024

Analysis: +0.07, mildly favorable for Pennington

Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Both fighters are hesitant strikers, but Pennington has shown better efficiency in outworking opponents. Add in her clinch control, and she should get the edge in rounds that remain standing. Bueno Silva's submissions are her best weapon, but only when she can get position. She doesn't attempt many takedowns, though she makes the most of them when she does. Pennington must rely on her veteran defense to stay out of trouble.

Parker on where the bettors lean: Pennington to win. Bueno Silva has heavy strikes but is hesitant and doesn't throw much volume. On the other hand, Pennington usually starts slow as she finds her range, but she pours it on in the later rounds. Pennington is the better technical boxer and has good takedown defense. As long as she doesn't get caught in a submission, like Holly Holm did against Bueno Silva, I see her getting the upset and possibly a finish in the later rounds.

Men's bantamweight title: Alexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Ilia Topuria, UFC 298 on Feb. 17, 2024

Analysis: +0.21, mildly favorable for the champion.

Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Volkanovski is undoubtedly flirting with GOAT status at featherweight, having proved his striking against elite talent. While Topuria cemented his title shot with a lopsided win, the quality of his opponents is nowhere near what the champ has faced for the past few years. A fresh face in the title picture is welcome, but don't expect Topuria to see nearly the same success he had while earning his title shot.

Parker on where the bettors lean: Volkanovski by decision. Volkanovski is coming off another loss to Islam Makhachev in their rematch. He put on a gritty performance in a fight many thought he won against the lightweight champion in their first bout, but this one wasn't close. Now he moves back to featherweight and a matchup against a rising star. Topuria is a good wrestler with technical boxing and carries a ton of power. In his fight against Josh Emmett, Topuria showed every aspect of his game, and he looked flawless. However, the difference between fighting Emmett and Volkanovski is vast. Look for Volk to win by decision and the fight to go the distance.

Men's featherweight title: Sean O'Malley (c) vs. Marlon Vera, UFC 299 on Mar. 9, 2024

Analysis: -0.1, unfavorable for the champion

Kuhn on what the numbers mean: O'Malley's precision in power striking is off the charts, arguably the best in the UFC right now. And he can lead the action with his range. However, Vera's knockdown rate is much higher, and he has more experience in championship rounds. While O'Malley will be favored, Vera will have a puncher's chance. With 19 knockdowns combined between them, fireworks seem to be in store with this rematch.

Parker on where the bettors lean: O'Malley to win; over 3.5 rounds. Both fighters are slow starters, usually finding their rhythm in the second. Depending on how big of a favorite O'Malley is, I'm leaning in Suga Sean's direction. His range and movement will be the key to victory in this matchup. And if you can get plus odds, I would love to take this fight to go over 3.5 rounds, possibly even over 4.5 rounds.