Sean Strickland (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

UFC Fight Night: Strickland vs. Imavov Preview and Predictions

It is never boring to be a UFC fan. Just as we were starting to get restless after a month-long hiatus, the promotion returns with a shake-up atop the fight card this Saturday.

UFC Vegas 67 was originally slated to headline Nassourdine Imavov taking on former interim title challenger Kelvin Gastelum, but a last-minute injury to Gastelum forced him out of the event with Sean Strickland taking his place. Strickland last saw action just a month ago when he headlined the UFC’s final fight card of 2022, where he came up short in a five-round battle with Jared Cannonier. He looks to change his momentum heading into 2023 by defeating a red-hot Imavov.

Imavov has rattled off three straight victories since dropping a majority decision to Phil Hawes. At times, the French fighter has looked unstoppable, but this fight against Strickland is surely a step-up in competition and will show whether or not he is the real deal and is set to become one of the division’s brightest stars.


Sitting in the co-main event slot is a featherweight fight between Dan Ige and Damon Jackson. Ige has come across hard times as of late, dropping three straight fights. Those clashes have all been against top-tier opponents, and, while, on its surface, this might look like a get-right fight for Ige, he has a tough challenge in Jackson.

The last time we saw Jackson in action, he stopped Pat Sabatini, giving the Philadelphia product his first taste of defeat inside the UFC. That extended his winning streak to four fights, and the challenges keep getting tougher. A win over someone as credentialed as Ige could vault Jackson towards the rankings at featherweight, as he looks to climb into contendership.

UFC Fight Night: Strickland vs. Imavov airs live in its entirety on ESPN+ with the preliminary card starting at 4 p.m. ET, followed by the main card at 7 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go toe-to-toe.

Sean Strickland steps in on short notice to take on Nassourdine Imavov less than a month after his last fight; can he start the year off with a win?

Kuhl: Kelvin Gastelum was supposed to face Nassourdine Imavov to headline this card, and, frankly, that was already a tough match-up for the Dagestani Frenchman. It was also a match-up that looked to be slightly in his favor. With Gastelum out, in steps Sean Strickland. It’s no surprise that the wild man didn’t hesitate to step in, even after headlining the last UFC card less than four weeks ago. After dropping a split decision to Jared Cannonier, and getting knocked out by now-middleweight champ Alex Pereira in his previous fight, he might as well take the chance to get back in the win column to kick off the New Year.

As long as he keeps winning, twelfth-ranked Imavov is going to keep getting tougher and tougher competition. Gastelum is currently sitting at No. 13, but Strickland is sitting at No. 7. So, while Strickland wants to get back to his winning ways, there is a lot more upside for Imavov in this bout.

Imavov is on a three-fight winning streak, although against unranked fighters. His sole UFC loss to Phil Hawes was a majority decision, so he has yet to really be decisively beaten in his 4-1 UFC career. Strickland, on the other hand, sits at 12-5 in his nearly nine years under the UFC banner and was on a six-fight winning streak before losing to two guys who were at or near the top of the heap. There are no doubts that Imavov already had a tough draw against former title contender, and perennial bonus winner, Gastelum. However, Strickland could be an even bigger problem.

Strickland throws a much higher volume of successful strikes, he has better takedown defense, and his takedown accuracy is better than Imavov’s. On paper, Imavov might look to have a decent chance against Strickland, but his lack of experience and lower overall output will likely put him on the losing end of this one.

I have Strickland outworking Imavov all the way to the final bell, and taking this one by unanimous decision.

Petela: I hate to do it, but I agree with my colleague on this one. Strickland is a tough matchup for Imavov, especially as his first UFC opponent in a five-round affair. The pace of Strickland over the long haul will be the difference maker in this fight. In Nassourdine Imavov’s last fight against Joaquin Buckley, he looked like a superstar for the first 10 minutes. By the time the third round started, Imavov lost his steam, and, before the round ended, he was in trouble of being stopped. With two more rounds, it is doubtful that Imavov would have been able to hold on. That is going to be a nightmare for Imavov against a fighter like Strickland. His pace never wavers, and he can lure his opponents into a technical brawl where his defense usually holds up and he leaves them swinging at air.

As technically proficient as Strickland is, he is not known as a devastating finisher. His last stoppage victory came against Brendan Allen back in 2020, but he will break his decision-victory streak in this short-notice affair against Imavov. Even with just a few days to prepare, he will have the better gas tank, and, eventually, he will wear down his French opponent and break his will by the fourth round. A TKO, due mostly to exhaustion, will have Sean Strickland getting his hand raised in victory.

Dan Ige has come up on the wrong side of three straight unanimous decision losses; can he snap that skid against Damon Jackson?

Petela: Yes. Dan Ige’s last three losses came against rising star Movsar Evloev, interim title challenger Josh Emmett and former title challenger Chan Sung Jung. Damon Jackson is no punk, but he’s not on the same level as those three opponents either. Jackson picked up an incredible win over Pat Sabatini in his last fight, and he’s riding a hot streak coming into this showdown with four straight victories. That streak will have to end for Ige to get back on track, which I believe he will.

Ige is the personification of gritty. He makes his fights ugly in the best way possible when he is having success. He has a smothering type of striking attack that wears down his opponents who are always left working off of their back foot. That will be the game plan against Jackson this weekend. Ige won’t allow Jackson to move forward to try and get a takedown to show off his superior grappling skills. Jackson will be forced to try and get the fight to the canvas, as he is almost perpetually in retreat. His takedown attempts won’t be as powerful or crisp as they need to be to get Ige down. Instead, Ige will make him pay for lackluster attempts with punches and wear down the submission threat as the fight goes on. This one goes the distance, but it will be a clear-cut win for Ige and possibly the beginning of a run to show that he can compete against anyone in the featherweight division.

Kuhl: I am far from being as optimistic on Ige as my colleague. The lone fact that he is still ranked No. 13 in the UFC featherweight division, despite losing four of his last five, speaks more to the lack of depth in the division than it does to Ige’s upside. Yes, he’s a gritty fighter with a ton of heart. And yes, his four recent losses were all to now-top-10 opponents. But, the bigger problem is that he hasn’t beaten anyone who has a big name and is also successful.

The three biggest names he has beaten – all by decision, and one was split – are Jordan Griffin, Kevin Aguilar and Edson Barboza. Griffin has won one of his last six, Aguilar has lost four in a row, and Barboza has picked up two wins in his last seven fights. Of course, styles make fights, but there is nothing about Ige’s style that poses a big problem for Damon Jackson.

Jackson is one of those guys – kind of like Anthony Smith – who was in this weird limbo of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” He won two Bellator fights early in his career, picked up the Legacy FC featherweight title, and had a short stint in the UFC, which was peppered with weird outcomes. He was subsequently sent back to the regional circuit after his first UFC run. Then, he went 6-1 in the LFA, before getting knocked out in 10 seconds by Movlid Khaybulaev in his sole PFL appearance. It should be noted that Khaybulaev still has never lost and won the 2021 PFL featherweight championship.

Jackson’s second UFC stretch has been much better than his first – and, his longest with any major promotion. He is 5-1 with two submission wins and one knockout, is on a four-fight winning streak, and his sole loss was to Ilia Topuria by first-round knockout two years ago. Jackson, for the first time since his LFA days, has a ton of momentum going into this match-up.

Both Ige and Jackson have wrestling backgrounds, and both men are capable of finishing a fight anywhere it goes. However, while Ige might hold a higher ranking in jiu-jitsu, Jackson has a measurable size advantage, and he has been able to translate his grappling skills to MMA in a much more effective manner. It’s going to be tough for Ige to close the distance, due to the size differential, so it’s going to be tough to score points. If he gets too close, and “The Leech” gets a hold of him, this one could end in submission, which is my prediction.

Ige’s UFC career may be all but over, and Jackson should get another top-15 opponent in his next outing.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Kuhl: Dan Ige. As just mentioned above, I don’t see a good way out of this predicament for the Hawaiian. The chances of him finishing Damon Jackson are almost non-existent, save for him catching the much taller fighter with a powerful punch. If he does win, it will likely be by decision, which will be the eighth decision in his last nine fights. If he loses, especially by stoppage, that puts him at four losses in a row, and five in his last six fights. I just don’t see any way the UFC can justify keeping him in the top 15, if it all, with a loss or even another fight going the distance, unless it’s a total barnburner.

Petela: Abdul Razak Alhassan. He has just one win in his last five appearances. Granted, that one win was a dynamic, first-minute, head-kick knockout over Alessio Di Chirico, but, if he wants to stay on the UFC roster, he is going to need to deliver another highlight-reel finish. I like his chances to get that done over newcomer Claudio Ribeiro, but, if the debuting Ribeiro pulls off the upset, it could very well be “all she wrote” for Alhassan with the promotion.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: I’m a sucker for a good flyweight tilt, so the fight that caught my eye that might fly under the radar otherwise is Allan Nascimento vs. Carlos Hernandez. Nascimento is a submission machine, racking up 14 of his 18 wins via tapout. He clashes with Hernandez, who hasn’t tasted defeat since his professional debut. With all due respect to both men, they aren’t known as the hardest hitting fighters in the world, so this one will likely be decided by submission or decision, which means there should be plenty of time for the two men to show off their grappling abilities and leave fans with some highlight-worthy scrambles before the contest comes to a close.

Kuhl: I’m super excited for the return of Jimmy Flick, as he takes on Charles Johnson. Flick is 16-5 as a pro, has submitted a whopping 14 opponents, and his losses are to some big names, such as twelfth-ranked UFC bantamweight Chris Gutirrez, UFC and WEC veteran Will Campuzano, and longtime regional-circuit standout Levi Mowles. Flick retired abruptly in Spring 2021, after winning his Octagon debut with a first-round, flying triangle choke of Cody Durden in Dec. 2020. He is finally back in action this weekend against a super tough opponent.

Johnson entered the UFC last July after winning three LFA title fights in a row, with the last two coming by TKO. He dropped his UFC debut against Muhammad Mokaev by unanimous decision before picking up a split decision win over Zhaglas Zhumagulov. Johnson will be looking to string together two wins to keep his footing on the roster, but Flick is not a guy for anyone to sleep on with his ultra-slick submission skills.

Regardless of the outcome, this should be a very exciting fight for as long as it lasts.

Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?

Kuhl: Umar Nurmagomedov – brother of current Bellator lightweight champion Usman and cousin to former UFC lightweight champion Khabib – takes on Raoni Barcelos, who is not only a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under his father, but also a multiple-time world BJJ champion and five-time Brazilian wrestling champion. This one has bonus awards written all over it.

Barcelos is tough as nails, has won 10 of his 17 wins by stoppage, possesses some serious knockout power, and is 6-2 in the UFC. This is all great on paper – until he faces Nurmagomedov.

The former Combat Sambo, WMMA, and GFC – now Eagle FC – champion is unbeaten for a reason. Just like his family members, nobody has yet to crack the code. He hits hard, he has amazing takedowns and takedown defense, and he can will a submission on just about anyone he wants to.

Barcelos will come in with a very proficient, very confident ground game, but, if the 26-year-old Nurmagomedov is able to control the highly decorated grappler on the ground and pick up a submission, that will be a no-brainer for a bonus award, If Barcelos is able to hand Nurmagomedov his first loss by submission or TKO, that will be an easy one as well. Lastly, if both men are able to showcase their skills through three full rounds, this could be an action-packed fight that could earn them both a little extra dough.

Petela: Punahele Soriano. When he wins fights, he does it in the most violent way possible. Six knockouts that have all been so drastic, most fans probably had to look away for a second to settle their stomach. This weekend, he will deliver another one of those devastating knockouts over Roman Kopylov and cash in for another fifty-thousand dollars.

Pair this card with…

Petela: The movie Groundhog Day. If it seems like the last time you watched the UFC it was a Sean Strickland fight, you aren’t going crazy. He closed out 2022 with a closely contested loss to Jared Cannonier that Strickland thought he won. Hopefully, for his sake, he has corrected any mistakes he made that allowed the judges to doubt who deserved the nod, and this time he comes away with a controversy-free victory.

Kuhl: I’m going with legit Mexican food. This card is a tasty and spicy addition to what has largely been a freezing cold winter across much of the United States, as well as across combat sports. This event is stacked top-to-bottom with a ton of exciting fights, and it would really be a surprise to see many of them go the distance. I’m thinking this card pairs well with menudo, chiles rellenos, chicharrones, tamales, lengua or birria tacos, and maybe some coctel de camarones. Don’t forget plenty of hot sauce, salt and lime – of course, onions and cilantro on the tacos – and some icy Mexican beer bottles to wash it all down. All of your taste buds will be satisfied by the end of the night.

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
MW: Sean Strickland vs. Nassourdine Imavov Strickland Strickland
FW: Dan Ige vs. Damon Jackson Jackson Ige
MW: Punahele Soriano vs. Roman Kopylov Soriano Soriano
Women’s BW: Ketlen Vieira vs. Raquel Pennington Vieira Pennington
BW: Umar Nurmagomedov vs. Raoni Barcelos Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
MW: Abdul Razak Alhassan vs. Claudio Ribeiro Ribeiro Alhassan
LW: Mateusz Rebecki vs. Nick Fiore Rebecki Rebecki
BW: Mateus Mendonca vs. Javid Basharat Basharat Basharat
FlyW: Allan Nascimento vs. Carlos Hernandez Nascimento Nascimento
FW: Daniel Argueta vs. Isaac Dulgarian Argueta Argueta
FlyW: Jimmy Flick vs. Charles Johnson Flick Johnson
Women’s BW: Priscila Cachoeira vs. Sijara Eubanks Cachoeira Cachoeira