Sean Strickland is a divisive character. Talking about himself being a sociopath who would probably be in prison – if not dead – if it wasn’t for fighting tends to ensure people have a feeling about him one way or another. While most would agree the persona that he presents to the public is more of an act than who he really is, that it’s an act doesn’t sit well with the general public. What can’t be denied: he’s a gamer. On a two-fight losing streak, Strickland agreed to step in on less than a week’s notice for an injured Kelvin Gastelum, facing Nassourdine Imavov in a five-round main event. That’s ballsy as hell. The late notice change adds a bit of spice to a card that had a bland taste. Not that the fights are bad; the main card features ranked combatants in all but one contest. There’s Fight Night cards that only feature ranked fighters in the main event. However, there’s now a unique narrative to follow outside of a bunch of competitive matchups. This appears to be the rare occasion when a late injury actually ends up improving the card.
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Sean Strickland vs. Nassourdine Imavov, Middleweight
Any time a fighter steps in on short notice, there’s going to be questions about their conditioning. Those questions are going to be even more prevalent when the fight they are stepping into is a five-round contest. In the case of Strickland, there are questions, but not as many as would usually be anticipated. Strickland has proven to be a cardio machine. Just over two years ago, he stepped in on short notice to take on Brendan Allen and showed no conditioning issues in the process. Of course, the fight stopped in the second round and was scheduled to be just a three-round fight, but he does have some history of short-notice success.
Thus, the typical concern in these types of situations doesn’t appear to be as big of a factor as usual. In fact, it’s fair to hypothesize that Imavov is going to be the greater question mark in terms of stamina. The lanky striker has never fought in a five-round contest and isn’t known for pushing a hard pace. To be fair, Imavov hasn’t had conditioning issues in the UFC, seeming to put on healthy weight since moving up from the welterweight division. Regardless, there’s reason to believe cardio won’t be an advantage for him despite him being the one with a full camp to prepare for a fight.
The stylistic matchup itself seems to favor Strickland. Like Imavov’s nickname would suggest – the Russian Sniper – Imavov likes to sit on the outside and pick apart his opponents with potshots and counters. It’s hard to believe Strickland would give him the space to operate in his preferred range. Strickland has evolved into a consistent pressure fighter who likes to stay in the face of his opponents, constantly throwing out a jab. It’s rare he puts full power behind his punches, but he does have enough power that he can hurt his opponent with a cross following up one of those jabs.
Strickland did show a reluctance to follow up with power against Jared Cannonier last month. Perhaps he was wary given he had been KO’d by Pereira in the summer, perhaps it was that he respected Cannonier’s power. The guess here is it was both. Regardless, Strickland has traditionally proven to be durable and did survive some heavy shots from the notably powerful Cannonier. Of course, it’s hard to say if he’ll show Imavov the same respect. Imavov isn’t the powerhouse Cannonier is, but he is a cleaner striker and has enough in reserve that he can put away anyone if he lands cleanly.
One major question is whether Strickland will ever begin to reliably mix in his wrestling. Strickland has intermittently displayed the ability to take his opponents to the mat almost at will with a quick blast double. However, Strickland has scored more than one takedown in a fight just once in the past five years. That said, Strickland’s takedown defense has been even more impressive. Imavov isn’t a terrible wrestler, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to get Strickland down on a consistent basis. It looks like this fight only hits the mat if Strickland wants it to.
I feel a bit guilty for not putting a brighter spotlight on Imavov, but how the fight plays out is dependent on Strickland. There’s more variance to his gas tank. He’s the one who is likely to determine where the fight takes place. He’s the one coming off a loss, meaning he could be looking to shake things up in terms of strategy. Clearly upset following a close loss to Cannonier, will he fight emotionally? Imavov is going to try to maintain space and stands a fairly good chance of catching Strickland. After all, Strickland’s head movement is limited and Imavov is an accurate puncher. But a fairly good chance isn’t the most likely outcome. While I admit there’s no way to guarantee what version of Strickland shows up, I feel confident enough to believe the version of Strickland that shows up will be good enough to beat Imavov. There is a reason Strickland fought the last two challengers for the middleweight gold in his last two contests. Strickland via decision
Dan Ige vs. Damon Jackson, Featherweight
It can’t be denied that Ige is fearless. The Hawaiian has been reluctant to take a step back in competition, even though it’s pretty well established at this point he’s not capable of hanging with the elite of the division. Four losses in his last five contests has hammered that point home clearly. To be fair, Ige has delivered a wins over every opponent outside of the top ten since dropping his UFC debut. Jackson has been itching for a chance to prove he can hang with the big boys, his only UFC loss since returning to the organization coming to Ilia Topuria… and we all know how good Topuria is.
Ige is a fairly bland fighter to describe, chalking in as the classic good at everything, great at nothing type fighter. He’s a solid boxer, but has been outworked by his last few opponents in that department. Ige’s ground game is sound enough that he can survive on the mat with just about anyone and even have some success against better fighters. That said, it isn’t good enough for him to consistently deliver wins on the back of those efforts. Ige also has a couple of finishes under a minute on the strength of his punching power, but his power hasn’t manifested itself since he began getting matched up with the better fighters in the division.
That said, even in his recent losses, Ige has continued to push forward and deliver enough offense to keep himself within striking distance for most rounds. That could very well be enough for him to finish the job against Jackson. Jackson has been improving his distance striking and has a lanky frame, but it’s hard to believe he’ll want to have anything to do with staying on the outside. Instead, Jackson’s preference is to close the distance and either grind away in the clinch while looking for trip takedowns. Leave an opening for a submission and Jackson will look to capitalize… and more often than not has finished his fights throughout his career.
This is a very difficult fight to predict. Jackson could very well catch Ige in a guillotine or RNC, but it also isn’t difficult to see Ige catching Jackson’s chin given the latter’s habit of leaving it high. There’s also a possibility Jackson utilizes his grappling prowess to secure long periods of control over Ige and squeezes out a decision win that way, but a greater probability is Ige popping back up to his feet quickly following hitting the mat and outboxing Jackson for the decision. There’s a valid concern Ige’s confidence is shaken – hard to believe it wouldn’t be after his losing stretch – but he’s shown a lot of mental toughness. I think that leads him back to victory. Ige via decision
Ketlen Vieira vs. Raquel Pennington, Women’s Bantamweight
The UFC is trying very hard to avoid making Vieira the number one contender. The Brazilian’s last two wins came over former titleholders in Miesha Tate and Holly Holm and is one of the few near the top of the division Amanda Nunes hasn’t already disposed of. And yet, rather than insert her into a title fight, the UFC is instead sliding her in against perennial apple cart turner Pennington.
The idea of Pennington being underrated has become emphasized to the point that she may be overrated at this point. That sounds a bit weird to say given she’s on a four-fight win streak. But Pennington appears to have had the misfortune of facing a series of opponents who have turned out to be underwhelming. Aspen Ladd has washed out of the UFC and Macy Chiasson has hit a ceiling at this point. That said, Pennington has done what she’s supposed to do by beating who the UFC puts in front of her.
The issue with Pennington is she is probably already topped out based on her physical skills. She’s an average athlete at best and lacks the wrestling skills to smother the top athletes at the top of the division. Those who believe they can be scrappier than Pennington or can outbox her in the pocket tend to find out the hard way that it takes a special talent to do so. Pennington may not be a top-flight athlete, but she is one of the toughest women in the sport, not to mention one of the best boxers in the division.
That makes this contest a very difficult one to predict. Vieira doesn’t always use the best judgement in her fights, leaving open the idea she’ll take the fight to Pennington where Pennington is at her best. Granted, Vieira largely ended up fighting the fight Holm wanted in her most recent contest and walked away with a W. Perhaps a controversial win, but a win nonetheless.
What Vieira does have going for her is plenty of pop in her punches – far more than Pennington – impressive physical strength, and smothering grappling. The problem is her striking technique can leave her vulnerable, she doesn’t always know how to use her strength to her advantage, and she doesn’t get the fight to the mat enough to make her grappling the advantage it should be.
This is an incredibly difficult contest to predict. Given Vieira has a history of fighting her opponent’s fight, it should be an easy pick to go with Pennington. However, despite that, Vieira also has a habit of opportunism that has helped her to secure wins. Ultimately, I’m going with Pennington to get the job done again. While Vieira was able to beat Holm with some opportunistic strikes, Holm had the look of a fighter who experienced a sudden drop in physical abilities. Pennington should be well aware of her limitations and how to work around them. Pennington via decision
Umar Nurmagomedov vs. Raoni Barcelos, Bantamweight
At one point, many had Barcelos as the most underrated member of the UFC roster. The opinion on Barcelos has changed somewhat given he suffered a two-fight losing streak, but both of those losses came were razor-thin decisions that very easily could have gone his way. Plus, they came against experienced veterans who know how to avoid being overwhelmed by someone of Barcelos’ immense physical gifts. Whether Nurmagomedov can is a fair question.
That isn’t to say Nurmagomedov is without physical talents himself. The Russian wouldn’t be able to bowl over every one of his opponents thus far if he wasn’t a physically impressive specimen. But this may very well be the first time he has faced someone who is the superior athlete to himself. Barcelos is the more dangerous striker and may even be the better pure grappler. Of course, MMA isn’t about pure grappling, so that could very well prove to be a moot point.
Many tend to think of Nurmagomedov as a wrestling mauler, manhandling his opponent from bell to bell, much like his cousin Khabib. While Nurmagomedov has done that against several of his opponents, it would be foolish to think that is his only route to victory. He’s proven to be a far more diverse striker than the former lightweight champion namesake, offering a variety of kicks to lead his attack on the feet. He hasn’t secured a finish from those kicks quite yet, but one gets the feeling Nurmagomedov should secure one sooner rather than later as his comfort level continues to grow.
The key will be whether Nurmagomedov can weather the early storm from Barcelos. The veteran Brazilian tends to burst out of the gate like a man on fire, swarming with a flurry of punches or blasting them off their feet with a powerful shot. However, despite Barcelos’ reputation as a fast starter, it has been eight years since he secured a first round stoppage. More troubling, he’s also developed a reputation as someone who gasses down the stretch. That may be a bit unfair to Barcelos as he has thrown effective offense in the last round of his recent fights. Nonetheless, each of his two UFC losses could have been avoided had he proven able to avoid slowing down the stretch.
Many are picking Nurmagomedov until he faces someone with a number next to their name, regardless of who the UFC matches him up with. While I get the sentiment – Nurmagomedov does look like something special – Barcelos is capable of beating several of the fighters with numbers next to their names. Ultimately, I believe Barcelos is on the downside of his career. That isn’t to say he can’t win this fight – Barcelos is dangerous in every area – but Nurmagomedov’s ability to push a hard pace and remain effective late should ensure he emerges with his hand raised. That said, there’s a part of me that expects him to lose a round in the UFC for the first time. Nurmagomedov via decision
- It would be a stretch to say Punahele Soriano and Roman Kopylov are failed prospects, but there’s no questioning they’ve fallen short of expectations. That said, both delivered emphatic wins in their most recent contests, indicating they could be turning a corner and getting back on the path to success. There’s a lot of other similarities between the two of them as well. Despite their original base being wrestling, pursuit of takedowns is a rarity from both of them. Given the power they possess in their fists, they can’t be faulted too much for abandoning their base. After all, each of them has secured knockdowns in over half of their UFC appearances. Did I mention they have identical professional records too? When everything boils down, I prefer Kopylov as Soriano likes to head hunt while Kopylov tends to keep his striking nice and tight throughout. That not only could lead to an edge in the volume for Kopylov, but it should leave him the fresher fighter down the stretch. Obviously, it’s a close contest, but something as minor as that can be all the difference in the world in a fight like this. Kopylov via decision
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