Another UFC APEX card, another main event for Sean Strickland.
If you’re keeping track at home, UFC Vegas 76 marks the fifth time that Strickland has headlined at the APEX and the results have been pretty good for the middleweight contender — ranked No. 10 in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings — so far: Three wins and one loss to ranked fighters, plus its kept him in an environment where he has minimal exposure to the general public. So a smart situation all around.
Up next, Strickland faces the dangerous, but relatively unknown Abusupiyan Magomedov. The Germany-based Russian made a big splash in his UFC debut with a 19-second knockout of Dustin Stoltzfus, which has landed him a main event spot in just his second fight for the promotion. He’s a slight underdog (+135) according to DraftKings, so the window is open for him to beat the odds and leapfrog Strickland in the contenders’ line.
Also of note at UFC Vegas 76, Damir Ismagulov takes on the streaking Grant Dawson (undefeated in 11 straight fights) in the lightweight co-main event, blue-chip welterweight prospect Michael Morales returns to face the battle-tested Max Griffin, Ismael Bonfim looks to follow up on an incredible UFC debut when he takes on Benoit Saint Denis in his sophomore outing, and Kevin Lee returns to the octagon to face Rinat Fakhretdinov in the preliminary card closer.
What: UFC Vegas 76
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
Sean Strickland vs. Abusupiyan Magomedov
Abusupiyan Magomedov has a tricky striking style that’s fun to watch, complimented by good size for a middleweight. If you’re picking Magomedov, the assumption is that you expect him to finish this inside the distance, a tall task when dealing with Sean Strickland.
Other than the Touch of Death-wielding Alex Pereira, no one has managed to put Strickland down since he moved up to the middleweight division. Part of it is due to his defense, part of it due to the pace he puts on his opponents, and part of it is due to him just being a tough son of a gun. He might not have an intelligent thought in his head, but that head can take its fair share of punches.
As exciting as it would be to see Magomedov shake up the rankings, I’m not convinced he presents any kind of challenge that Strickland hasn’t seen before. Magomedov just hasn’t sufficiently been tested at the highest levels, and unless there’s an extra gear that he’s yet to show, this should end up as another five-round decision win on Strickland’s resume.
Damir Ismagulov vs. Grant Dawson
There’s certainly potential here for Damir Ismagulov to rebound from his first loss in seven years. He has such a steady, sharp striking style, with quick counters and good takedown defense. Does he have enough takedown defense to hold off the hulking Dawson? Of that, I’m not so sure.
As my colleague Jed Meshew so elegantly puts it, Dawson is a “predatory grappler,” which is to say that he is constantly on the hunt for angles from which to attack and muscle his opponents to the ground, and when he gets them there, it’s just an onslaught of strikes and submission attempts. Ismagulov has enough of a ground game to keep Dawson at bay for a round or two, but stopping Dawson entirely for 15 minutes has proven to be nearly impossible.
Ismagulov briefly went into retirement following his disappointing loss to Arman Tsarukyan and it’s fair to question where his head is at heading into a difficult fight. I expect Dawson to put on another statement performance and become the first fighter to finish Ismagulov.
Max Griffin vs. Michael Morales
Max Griffin is 13 years older and he has 12 more UFC fights under his belt than the unbeaten Michael Morales. If you’re looking for an experience vs. talent test, we’ve got the epitome of it right here.
So far, Morales has looked like a world beater. He’s a plus-athlete who shows great patience in his striking and he’s blessed with effortless punching power. I wouldn’t go as far as to compare him to greats like Anderson Silva (I already did that with Christian Leroy Duncan a couple of weeks ago and it didn’t go well for either of us), but the sky is the limit for the talented Ecuadorian.
Look for Griffin to make this one ugly early, with the plan to take the younger Morales out of his comfort zone. Unfortunately for Griffin, Father Time is not on his side and eventually Morales will find his rhythm. Once he does, it’s lights out for Griffin.
Ariane Lipski vs. Melissa Gatto
This is a great spot for these two flyweights, who have the potential to put on a Fight of the Night candidate.
Melissa Gatto is a clear favorite here and for good reason. Her style is best described as “in your face” due to her constant forward movement and volume. She’s not going to give Ariane Lipski much room to breathe, though Lipski’s experience should serve her well. How she deals with Gatto’s pressure early will tell us a lot about how the rest of the fight will unfold.
As solid as Lipski is working off of the back foot, this is a duel that will be won by the more aggressive fighter and more often than not, that’s Gatto. After getting off to a fast start in Round 1, Gatto seals the deal with a knockout flurry against a cornered Lipski in Round 2.
Ismael Bonfim vs. Benoit Saint Denis
Ismael Bonfim comes out of the corner coiled and ready to explode at any time. Terrance McKinney found that out firsthand and I’m sorry to say that Benoit Saint Denis might be next to discover just how dangerous Bonfim is.
There’s nothing fancy about Saint Denis’ game. He expects to outmuscle his opponents and when he smells blood, he switches on berserker mode. Highly entertaining, maybe not conducive to any title aspirations the Saint Denis might have. If Saint Denis tries to rush Bonfim, it could spell doom for the Frenchman.
Bonfim is just so incredibly sharp that I have to give him the edge in a fight that’s highly unlikely to go all three rounds. Saint Denis is tough as nails, but he’ll wilt once Bonfim starts to pick him apart in the second round. He’ll make it to the third, where Bonfim will shut him down for good.
Brunno Ferreira vs. Nursulton Ruziboev
Brunno Ferreira is an odd duck. Like, even by UFC middleweight standards, he stands out with his oddness. Maybe it’s his squat frame, maybe it’s his seemingly accidental lapses into a karate stance, maybe it’s his freakish knockout power, it’s hard to say exactly. He’s just odd.
The debuting Nursulton Ruziboev stands out in his own way. At 6-foot-4, the lanky Uzbekistani fighter towers over most of his competition. You’d like to see him utilize a jab more, but he seems content to stalk his foes while throwing kicks from long range before finding a path to a takedown. He’s an octopus on the ground and I’m genuinely curious to see what happens to Ferreira if they have to battle on the mat for any extended period of time.
That said, I don’t expect his one to last that long. Ferreira is going to have to reach out to touch that chin but once he does, it will be trouble for Ruziboev, whose pre-UFC resume is a tad squishy. This is an important strategic test for Ferreira and if he passes it, we could have another player in the 185-pound division.
Ferreira by knockout.
Kevin Lee def. Rinat Fakhretdinov