2023 started out the same way 2022 ended for the UFC: with Sean Strickland headlining a Fight Night card at the Apex: UFC Vegas 67.
Unlike 2022, Strickland walked away with his hand raised this time around, after stepping in on short notice against Nassourdine Imavov. Given he stepped in like that, the UFC allowed the contest to be fought at 205, ensuring Strickland wasn’t too dehydrated to fight effectively for five rounds. In fact, it was Imavov who slowed down over the course of the contest, despite having a full camp to prepare for the contest. The win doesn’t launch Strickland back into title talks, but it did reestablish himself as a top five caliber middleweight. While that was the contest that got the most attention from the event, there was plenty of other happenings from the event that went down. We’ll touch on some of those here with my Unofficial Awards.
Biggest Jump in Stock: This is a tricky spot. Nobody made a huge leap in their status. Strickland only reaffirmed that he’s a step below the elite of the division as opposed to making a leap by defeating someone a step below where Strickland is viewed to be. Dan Ige did the same thing, only in a more emphatic manner. It’s hard to pick Umar Nurmagomedov given he was an 8-to-1 favorite, even if he disposed of Raoni Barcelos in a manner no one else has. Thus, I’d say the crown goes to Roman Kopylov. The Chase Hooper-lookalike put on the best performance of his UFC career by a wide mile. The first round with Punahele Soriano was close, but Kopylov began pulling away by a wide mile in the second before securing the finish. Some viewed him as a busted prospect, but this win perfectly encapsulates the type of fighter many saw him as when he first signed with the UFC in 2019. If he can show up in the cage consistently, he could be in the UFC rankings by next year.
Biggest Fall in Stock: As you’d expect when nobody makes a huge leap, nobody made a huge fall either. Regardless, it feels obvious the choice is Damon Jackson. Jackson entered his contest with Ige with a lot of momentum, having won four in a row. That included an atypical violent finish with his fists over a rising Pat Sabatini. This was his opportunity to prove he could hang with a ranked opponent in Ige. Instead, Ige completely outclassed Jackson. Jackson had his back against the cage for almost the entirety of the contest, Ige pressuring him and beating him down with his power. Given the lack of success Jackson had in combination with how badly he was outclassed by Ilia Topuria a few years ago, it stamps a hard ceiling on the now 34-year-old. Jackson is a tough test for a lot of up-and-comers, but he has no business competing with ranked opposition.
Best Newcomer: There were a lot of debuts on the card – five to be exact – but only Mateusz Rebecki walked out of the event with his hand raised. That said, Rebecki is only the best newcomer if we’re going by the results and showing of the event. Rebecki dominated fellow newcomer Nick Fiore, landing heavy punches and maintaining long periods of top control over the final two rounds to take a dominant victory. However, it’s also hard to gauge how bright his future is when he dominated an opponent whom many would say shouldn’t be in the UFC yet. Thus, to further clarify what I’m getting at, onto my next award….
Best Debuting Prospect: While he didn’t get the win, everyone who watched him go toe-to-toe with Javid Basharat will agree that Mateus Mendonca looks like he’s going to be a problem in short order. It was clear Mendonca was the more explosive athlete between the two. The first round was particularly competitive when Mendonca was fresh, landing some heavy shots. Unfortunately for him, Basharat is as savvy as they come, making adjustments and teaching Mendonca a lesson in ringcraft. Even with Basharat’s adjustments, Mendonca threatened in the final round, knowing that he needed a finish to get the win. He came up short, but Mendonca proved he’s going to be a major player.
Saved Their Job(s): Even though this wasn’t the highest quality card, it didn’t have anyone who appeared to be on the verge of losing their job. Much of that can be attributed to the high number of combatants making their debuts with the organization. Maybe Kopylov saved his job, but I think he would have been safe provided he didn’t entirely crap the bed. Ige’s another one that may have done so given he had dropped four of his previous five contests, but every one of those losses came to an opponent whose name has been tossed around as title contenders in the last year.
Start Typing a Resume: I don’t think he’s going anywhere, but if there is someone who may be on their way out, it’s Barcelos. The Brazilian has now dropped three of his last four fights. While none of them are names there is any shame in losing to, the UFC did drop Timur Valiev – one of Barcelos’ loses – when he was on a less egregious streak. Throw in that Barcelos is 35 and on the downside of his career, it isn’t inconceivable to see the UFC cutting him loose. The guess here is Barcelos still has enough name value the UFC will look to pit him with some of the more notable up-and-comers in the division… much like they did with Nurmagomedov.
Biggest WOW Moment: The most memorable moment of the event is very much a judgement call. That’s what happens when there’s a bunch of great KO’s that aren’t at the all-time great level. Kopylov and Razak Abdul Alhassan deserved some consideration. Ige’s disposal of Jackson was a close runner-up. Ultimately though, my favorite was Nurmagomedov’s brutal finish of Barcelos. With the other finishes, there was a build up before the ultimate finish was actually delivered. With Nurmagomedov, it came out of nowhere. Nurmagomedov was clearly winning the contest up to that point, but he never landed anything that appeared to stagger Barcelos. In the blink of an eye, Barcelos was flat on his back after a short left from Nurmagomedov. It was the perfect moment for Nurmagomedov as the promotion looks to promote him going forward.
Most Controversial Decision: If I’m being honest, it was the only controversial decision. However, given I was one of the few media figures who agreed with the judges that Raquel Pennington did enough to edge out Ketlen Vieira, I figured it was appropriate for me to offer my thought process. Vieira clearly won the first round. Pennington had more volume, but Vieira was landing the harder shots. The second round saw Pennington finding her range, not just landing punches. She was landing hard punches. The third is where it gets controversial. The round opened with Pennington landing a particularly potent combination that appeared to rock Vieira a bit. Yes, Vieira recovered quickly, but she was still hurt. Vieira did land some nice offense after that and controlled Pennington for more than half the round against the fence. However, none of that offense was as potent or made up for when she was hurt by Pennington. Plus, Vieira didn’t do anything effective with her control. Yes, she landed some knees and elbows, but Pennington’s offense was just as effective. Depending on one’s perspective, it may have been more the effective. Thus, why I thought Pennington won the fight in what is the first controversial decision of the year. Feel free to disagree.
Best Organizational Favor: Entering the contest, Vieira had done enough to warrant a title shot. Unfortunately, the UFC clearly doesn’t want her to be fighting for the title. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have booked her against Pennington. Now that Pennington has knocked off Vieira, you’d expect her to get the shot that likely would have gone to Vieira had the Brazilian succeeded in pulling out the win. The problem is, Pennington already suffered a very one-sided loss to Amanda Nunes several years ago. In other words, nobody is excited about seeing that rematch. Look for Irene Aldana to be hyped up for a potential title fight given the UFC appears to have been grooming her for that opportunity for quite a while….
Most Intense Pep Talk: Prior to Claudio Ribeiro stepping into the cage, one of his coaches pulled him aside for about a good minute to pump him up before stepping into the cage. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed a similarly intense moment between coach and fighter. I won’t say those type of moments never happen, but I get the feeling it usually happens in the backstage area. Regardless, it was memorable enough for me to point out.
Best Callout: I can only remember one callout, so this kind of goes to default. Regardless, while it was a callout that seemed just outside of what seems to be the most likely next step for Basharat, it isn’t a callout that was out of the realm of reality. Basharat asked for Chris Gutierrez. Gutierrez finally received a quality opponent with name recognition in his most recent contest, a win over Frankie Edgar. It doesn’t seem likely Gutierrez is going to want to take a step backwards after a long stretch of fighting opponents outside the rankings. It doesn’t make sense for Gutierrez to take a step backwards when his last loss came over four years ago. Nevertheless, it isn’t like Basharat is wrong to shoot for a contest like that. But Jonathan Martinez or Montel Jackson might have been more realistic asks.
Bonus Numbers: I’ve found Ige’s nickname of “50K” to be a bit humorous given he only had two Bonuses in his 12 UFC contests. I acknowledge it’s above average for a fighter, but it isn’t like it’s at the level of the likes of Joe Lauzon or Justin Gaethje. Well, Ige picked up his third Bonus, so the nickname is a bit less ironic at this point. Nurmagomedov picks up his second Bonus of his four fight UFC career. Kopylov picked up his first in his fourth UFC contest while it was also the first for Allan Nascimento in his third contest. The longest drought belongs to Pennington, having last picked up a bonus 12 fights ago in September of 2015. In terms of those who have never won a Bonus, Vieira is now at 10 fights without a Bonus since debuting in October 2016.
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