UFC Vegas 66 is headlined by a bout between middleweight contenders, but it’s the co-main event that could provide a true glimpse into the future.
This isn’t a knock against Jared Cannonier vs. Sean Strickland, the main event of Saturday’s show at UFC APEX in Las Vegas. They’ve put in the work to have numbers next to their names — Cannonier is No. 5 in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings and just challenged Israel Adesanya for a UFC title, Strickland is tied for No. 11 — and have developed enough of a following to merit top billing.
But both fighters have a lot of work to do to earn a second title shot (Strickland has a recent loss to current middleweight champion Alex Pereira) and they’ve been around the block long enough that their matchup lacks a certain spark, to be kind. It feels more mandatory than must-see.
The co-main event between Arman Tsarukyan and Damir Ismagulov, on the other hand, could be a late entry to the Fight of the Year discussion. Tsarukyan can already expect to appear on that list after an awesome back-and-forth fight with Mateusz Gamrot this past June, but he might mess around and claim another spot if Ismagulov is up to the task. At 24-1 with five wins in five UFC outings, there’s no reason to believe Ismagulov won’t live up to the hype.
In his UFC debut, Tsarukyan gave future lightweight champion Islam Makhachev everything he could handle and a win over Ismagulov keeps him on track for a rematch somewhere down the road; on the Ismagulov side, he’s seeking a signature win to establish himself as the one to watch at 155 pounds and that’s exactly what Tsarukyan represents.
In other main card action, flyweight contender Amir Albazi welcomes short-notice replacement Alessandro Costa to the UFC, Alex Caceres makes UFC appearance No. 27 against fellow featherweight vet Julian Erosa, Drew Dober fights Bobby Green in a lightweight strikers duel, and Michal Oleksiejczuk looks to keep the wins coming at middleweight when he fights Cody Brundage.
What: UFC Vegas 66
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Jared Cannonier (5) vs. Sean Strickland (T11)
You couldn’t pick a better bounce-back fight for Sean Strickland after the gutsy (read: insane) standup strategy he employed against Alex Pereira. Faced with a two-division kickboxing champion known for his one-shot stopping power, Strickland bravely (read: insanely) beckoned Pereira to bring it on and, indeed, it was broughten.
Now, Strickland has another powerful puncher in front of him, but one that doesn’t have the elite striking qualifications of Pereira. Jared Cannonier is certainly a dangerous knockout threat, I just don’t see him luring Strickland into a finishing blow like Pereira did. It’s the lack of output that concerns me the most.
According to statistician Richard Mann, Cannonier has had problems pulling the trigger in fights and it has cost him, with four of his UFC losses coming by way of decision in bouts where he was out-struck.
But Strickland is an effective pressure fighter if nothing else and does a good job of avoiding significant damage when he’s not playing chicken with a Brazilian juggernaut. This fight should play out mostly on the feet with minimal mixing of the martial arts and that’s right up Strickland’s alley.
Strickland by decision.
Arman Tsarukyan (9) vs. Damir Ismagulov (15)
What a treat!
Yes, it’s unfortunate that contenders like Arman Tsarukyan and Damir Ismagulov have to be mashed together because several higher-ranked fighters are squatting in their spots (I won’t name names, but you know who you are); on the other hand, we get to watch these two lightweight studs fight sooner rather than later and isn’t that something to celebrate?
On this occasion, give me the more explosive Tsarukyan to catch Ismagulov and become the first fighter to finish the Kazakh blue-chipper. Tsarukyan is such a dynamic talent at just 26 years old, a well-rounded fighter with elite wrestling and an aggressive standup style. He doesn’t just shoot for takedowns, he chains takedown attempts together. He doesn’t just load up for haymakers, he loves stringing together combinations to keep his opponents off-balance. It’s fun stuff.
Luckily for Ismagulov, well-rounded also fits him to a tee. He also has excellent striking and grappling defense, which could be just what the doctor ordered to deal with Tsarukyan. These two are going to show their extraordinary adaptability in a Fight of the Night candidate that would only be more intriguing on paper if it were a five-round fight.
No matter who wins, expect both of these men to be a factor in the 155-pound division for years to come.
Amir Albazi vs. Alessandro Costa
It’s weird calling a flyweight heavy, but that’s as good a description as any to Amir Albazi’s approach to grappling. He is super aggressive on top and someone who emphasizes damage over position. That’s not to say he doesn’t know how to maintain control when he has it, just that when he goes to the ground, he’s going there to finish.
Alessandro Costa, stepping in on short notice for an injured Brandon Royval who himself was stepping in for Alex Perez, actually has a similar approach as far as top control goes. If Costa beats Albazi to the punch, he could give Albazi a taste of his own medicine and hunt for ground-and-pound or a submission.
One issue Albazi had in his recent win over Francisco Figueiredo was dealing with striking from distance, but that shouldn’t factor into this fight with Costa, who has a more compact standup style. That makes Costa a credible threat on the feet though as he loves to uncork his powerful left hand if his opponent’s chin drifts into range. This will be a tactical standup battle until one of the fighters scores a takedown.
I like Albazi to shoot first and set the tone for an entertaining grappling match that ends with Albazi having his hand raised by decision.
Alex Caceres vs. Julian Erosa
These next two fights are excellent pieces of matchmaking, both in terms of crowd-pleasing potential and how difficult they are to call.
If it feels like Alex Caceres has been around forever it’s because he has! One of the most memorable personalities from The Ultimate Fighter 12 (a season geared around a Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck title fight if you want reference for how far back this was), “Bruce Leeroy” has done an admirable job of, well, keeping his job. He’s never come close to a title shot, but he’s a fine midlevel gatekeeper and that’s the test he presents to Julian Erosa on Saturday.
Erosa is just as seasoned as Caceres, but you get the sense that he has the potential to shake up the upper tier of the featherweight division if he can extend his three-fight win streak. The rangy Erosa is a tricky style matchup for anyone, even the similarly built Caceres. It’s not so much Erosa’s measurements that are the problem as the unorthodox way in which he moves and attacks. Caceres has seen it all, but has still never fought anyone quite like Erosa.
Caceres’ submission defense has long been his Achilles heel and that’s going to trip him up again as Erosa has a strong submission game. After a few tense exchanges on the feet, Erosa will take this fight to the mat and lock in a choke to snag the win.
Drew Dober vs. Bobby Green
Speaking of flip-a-coin matchups, Drew Dober vs. Bobby Green, everyone!
It’s weird, in my mind Dober feels like the fresher fighter, but he’s barely two years younger than Green, has nearly as many fights, and both men have been with the UFC since 2013. Green has a more notable pre-UFC resume with work for the Strikeforce and King of the Cage, which is probably why he feels more familiar. Also, Dober hasn’t teased retirement like Green has on a couple of occasions.
Forget grappling, this will be a striking battle through and through, with the harder-hitting Dober hunting for a knockout and Green utilizing his one-of-a-kind style to dazzle and befuddle Dober. When Green is on top of his game, there are few in the lightweight division who can trade with him. Do we get the best version of Green on Saturday? Your guess is as good as mine.
That leads me to tilt towards the more consistent Dober, who will have the more impactful moments in the fight to sway the judges. Green is damn near impossible to finish, but look for Dober to win on points after a wicked slugfest.
Michal Oleksiejczuk vs. Cody Brundage
It’s easy to get excited about Michal Oleksiejczuk’s prospects at 185 pounds. He was a fan-friendly scrapper as a light heavyweight, but looked like a new man slimming down for his previous fight. His impressive performance may have had a lot to do with the fact that he was fighting Sam Alvey, but still!
Cody Brundage is your classic wrestle-brawler, with a twist. Like most wrestlers, he has a big right hand in the chamber, but he also likes to keep things loose, which can catch opponents off guard (Tresean Gore learned this the hard way). That said, a disciplined striking style is enough to defuse Brundage.
Add in an emphasis on takedown defense and Oleksiejczuk should cruise in this fight. He’s noticeably faster in his new weight class, while retaining the pop that made him a player at 205 pounds. If Brundage can’t get his wrestling going, it will be a short night for him.
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