All the best, most interesting, and unquestionably coolest fights the UFC needs to book following their latest event in Las Vegas, NV.
UFC on Vegas 67 didn’t look like much on paper, but it delivered a pretty alright night of action, considering the main event fell apart during fight week. In the main event, Sean Strickland proved that he’s still one of the more difficult outs in the middleweight division, while Dan Ige reminded folks that he got to the top 15 at featherweight for a reason.
So, is Strickland set for another top tier fight at 185? Is Umar Nurmagomedov officially a ‘problem’ in the bantamweight division? And is the UFC ready to give Raquel Pennington another title shot?
To answer those questions—and one or two other things—I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights!
All credit to Sean Strickland, coming off a demoralizing loss to Jared Cannonier back in December, he got a chance to do what so many fighters wish they could—and jumped right back into the Octagon to start 2023 on a winning note. Surprisingly, to me at least, he came charging out of the gate early against Imavov and took the bout over from the jump. That may have meant that he was more tired than usual over the back half of the fight, but it did the job of forcing Imavov to have to try and recover the momentum and pace of the bout—something the Frenchman isn’t used to doing.
The question now becomes, would it be better for Strickland to launch into a top 5 booking ASAP and use this new momentum to get a higher profile fight? Or, considering that it sounds like the UFC splashed him some serious extra cash to fight Imavov, would he be better off waiting a while for just the right bout to come his way. Put more simply, does he want to try and dive into a fight with Robert Whittaker, or wait for someone like the winner of Brunson vs. Du Plessis? I’ll say go after the Whittaker bout. It’s a brutally bad matchup, but it’s also a huge opportunity. Strickland vs. Whittaker would at least be a fresh fight for the former champ.
It was likely going to happen sooner or later. Nassourdine Imavov ran up the middleweight ranks with a style that was crafty and varied, but without a lot of the depth and pace that tends to be necessary to really compete at the highest levels. A fight against Kelvin Gastelum, as planned, probably would have been a win he could get away with. But Sean Strickland’s combination of output and persistence made him a very different kind of test, even on short notice. The end result is a setback, but not an extreme one. Hopefully this loss serves as a teaching moment, that Imavov’s game still needs more parts to make a title run. After all, it’s not like he got absolutely shellacked. He just lost a close fight to a top fighter. In fact, coming off a loss, it kinda feels like a bout with Gastelum makes more sense than before. Gastelum really needs to prove he can regularly win upper tier bouts at 185, Imavov can still answer that question for him. Re-book Imavov vs. Gastelum, see if either man can pull off a definitive victory.
Exactly what Dan Ige needed coming off back-to-back-to-back losses. Jackson wasn’t about to shy away from the fight, creating exactly the kind of slugging opportunities that ‘50k’ needed. Jackson started to find some of his flow in round 2, but the more comfortable he got, the more chances he started taking—eventually walking him onto a huge counter left hook. That win keeps Ige in position to keep taking high profile action fights in the featherweight division. Bouts against the likes of Sodiq Yusuff, Giga Chikadze, or Alex Caceres (were he not just booked) all seem like decent ideas. I’ll say the UFC should go ahead with the Yusuff fight. Two men who have quality power in their hands, and are well rounded enough to hang with most opposition, but would really prefer to keep things standing and toe-to-toe. Yusuff vs. Ige seems like a great war in the top 15 at 145.
Back when he was on the FNG circuit, I really loved Kopylov’s swarming, volume striking approach. Then he got to the UFC and found that opposition was tough enough to stay with him and could land big enough shots to dissuade him from throwing in bunches. It’s a testament to his fortitude, then, that he’s managed to find a second wind and start recreating the kinds of performances that brought him here. The big change this time around, a focus away from head hunting and toward kicks and body work. Coupled with a dedicated jab and improved takedown defense, Soriano just couldn’t stop Kopylov from flowing out at range, even as he landed multiple huge left hands. After the bout, Kopylov revealed that his UFC contract had expired. Here’s hoping he gets another one, and that a fight with Armen Petrosyan follows soon afterward. Petrosyan vs. Kopylov would be a fantastic kickboxing battle.
Can’t script a more Raquel Pennington fight than this. Lots of 50/50 punching exchanges from distance, lots of clinching with both women landing low-powered knees and punches, very little to separate either fighter when it came down to the final scores. No two judges even turned in the same card. Before the fight, Pennington made it clear that she wanted a title fight if she won this one. Aesthetically, it doesn’t make much sense, there’s nothing about this that made Pennington look like the clear number one contender. But as she noted, she’s got five straight wins, which is more than anyone else at women’s bantamweight can say right now. If the UFC absolutely can’t figure out anything else to do, I’m fine with Pennington vs. Nunes 2. But realistically it should be Pennington vs. Julianna Pena with a title shot for the winner.
I’ve long trumpeted Raoni Barcelos as one of the most underrated top-caliber fighters on the UFC roster. Which means that Umar Nurmagomedov knocking him out for the first time in his career, inside the first round, is a hell of a defining win. The Dagestani’s use of push kicks and jabs to define range and set up feints, and then turn those feints into creative strike selection, makes him a whole world of trouble for the bantamweight division. He didn’t have a name ready after the victory, but it seems like a top-10 opponent needs to be on offer. That could be Ricky Simon, Pedro Munhoz, Song Yadong, or Dominick Cruz. Simon’s the only guy on that list coming off a win, but I can’t pretend that the fight I want isn’t Umar Nurmagomedov vs. Song Yadong.
It wasn’t an electric performance from Javid Basharat, but against a hungry, young newcomer with nothing to lose, the ‘Snow Leopard’ did a great job of keeping calm and controlling the pace of the fight. He used sharp counters, heavy distance strikes, and even a solid mix of wrestling to keep Mendonca from ever turning his pressure and pace into consistent, scoring offense. The result was a clean sweep (excepting one wild 29-28) on the cards. Basharat has quickly positioned himself as a hot prospect on the rise at 135. Fights with Kyler Phillips, Heili Alateng, or Montel Jackson would all be solid. Basharat also called out Chris Gutierrez, but it’s hard to imagine Gutierrez taking that bout coming off a win over Frankie Edgar. Of the other ideas listed, Kyler Phillips is the one that stands out to me as an instant thriller. Unfortunately he’s booked against Raphael Assuncao so I’ll say go with Montel Jackson vs. Javid Basharat. Will be interesting to see Basharat against a really big 145er.
ABDUL RAZAK ALHASSAN
A badly needed KO win for the man defined by his first round knockout power. Abdul Razak Alhassan had to weather a bevvy of low kicks from Ribeiro, and may have even dropped the first round after being forced to switch up his stance. But he stayed patient and kept pressure high. Once Ribeiro made it clear that he was always going to lead with low kicks, Alhassan started firing big counter hooks over the top. A few of those and this fight was all wrapped up. That kind of win keeps Alhassan in prime position for another bangin’ MW slugfest. Opponents like Bruno Silva, Chidi Njokuani, Armen Petrosyan, Abu Azaitar, or Eryk Anders all fit the bill. Silva is the bout I really want, but Blindado is on two straight losses. Anders is coming off a good KO win though, so how about Eryk Anders vs. Abdul Razak Alhassan?
A quality grappling performance from the submission ace/Charles Oliveira training partner. He put the pressure on Hernandez from the jump, kept in his face, and even before he could get a takedown, found his way to the back to start putting Hernandez in danger. Much like Oliveira, once he got to a good position, Nascimento did an excellent job turning an advantage into aggressive offense creation. The final RNC finish was a thing of beauty. Flyweight is a tough place to be a grappler, in a division full of lightening quick scramblers, but Nascimento has proven that he’s always a dangerous man on the mats. Coming off this win, a fight against Bruno Silva seems like an alright idea. Silva’s always a challenge in any position and has proven he can land with real power inside. Should make for a good test for Nascimento if he can’t keep the fight on the mat.
OTHER BOUTS: Damon Jackson vs. Charles Jourdain, Punahele Soriano vs. Makhmud Muradov, Ketlen Vieira vs. Pannie Kianzad, Raoni Barcelos vs. Casey Kenney, Mateus Mendonca vs. Fernie Garcia, Claudio Ribeiro vs. AJ Dobson, Mateusz Rebecki vs. Manuel Torres, Nick Fiore vs. Gabriel Miranda, Carlos Hernandez vs. Carlos Mota, Daniel Argueta vs. William Gomis, Nick Aguirre vs. Jenkins/Shainis loser, Charles Johnson vs. Taira/Aguilar winner, Jimmy Flick vs. Carlos Candelario