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UFC’s popularity reaches betting windows

Initially slow to catch on at sports books, Ultimate Fighting Championship events are gaining steam with mainstream bettors, especially when Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell is involved.

“Anytime Liddell fights, it kind of takes on that rock star atmosphere,” MGM Mirage sports book director Robert Walker said.

“His style is unique. He hits you once and that’s it. He’s an exciting fighter, and certainly the sport is going through the roof right now.”

Liddell closed as a minus-170 favorite over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in their light heavyweight title bout Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden.

Jackson rewarded underdog bettors by making quick work of Liddell, stopping him with a first-round knockout and stunning the crowd of 14,728.

Walker said action was strong on both fighters, with the biggest bets — in the $30,000 range — coming in on Liddell, and the ticket count favoring Jackson by a 2-to-1 ratio. Liddell opened as a minus-280 favorite, but the line quickly dropped.

“It kind of follows the line of boxing. In big fights, we need the favorite to win,” Walker said. “Your smaller bettors just don’t want to lay $20 to win $10. We knew we would get some play on the ‘dog, but Liddell is such a popular fighter.”

Liddell (20-4) had won seven straight by knockout or TKO, including two wins apiece over Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. The only loss of his career he has not avenged was to Jackson in Japan in 2003.

Walker said the wagering also was good on the other four fights on the main card. There were three underdog winners, two of them significant.

Light heavyweight Houston Alexander was impressive in knocking out Keith Jardine in the first round. Jardine dropped from a minus-550 favorite to minus-400.

Kalib Starnes won a unanimous decision over minus-260 favorite Chris Leben in a middleweight fight.

Karo Parisyan delivered as a minus-260 favorite, taking a unanimous decision over Josh Burkmann in a welterweight bout.

Walker said the handle on Liddell-Jackson did not approach what MGM books wrote on the May 5 boxing megafight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather at the Grand Garden.

But mixed martial arts routinely surpasses boxing in the level of brutality and excitement.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times, boxing needs to make some changes,” said Walker, citing a desire for open scoring. “It’s so hard to figure out how the judges score the fight.

“I think that’s what’s so attractive about the UFC is it rarely goes to decision and it’s usually not controversial. It’s just so much better from that standpoint.”

Walker called De La Hoya-Mayweather — won by Mayweather in a split decision — “like a mini-Super Bowl for us” in regards to wagering.

“UFC is the new thing and I don’t see it subsiding. I think it’s going to get better,” Walker said. “People know about these fighters. It’s huge right now.”

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