The first UFC event of 2023 takes place this Saturday night, Jan. 14, with a light heavyweight matchup between Sean Strickland and Nassourdine Imavov set as the UFC Vegas 67 five-round main event.
Kelvin Gastelum was initially scheduled to be Imavov’s main event opponent but needed to withdraw from the card earlier this week after suffering a mouth injury. Strickland is the fighter to step in on short notice, and the fight has since been bumped up to the 205-pound light heavyweight category.
Strickland vs. Imavov will be hosted at the private UFC Apex Facility in Las Vegas, just one week out from the promotion’s return to pay-per-view next weekend with UFC 283: Teixeira vs. Hill.
Continue reading for our full staff analysis, predictions, and betting picks before the Strickland vs. Imavov main event. You can also find dedicated prediction and analysis articles for the majority of UFC Vegas 67 fights.
Nassourdine Imavov is a slight favorite for this main event matchup, with late replacement Sean Strickland currently available at even odds.
- Sean Strickland: +112
- Nassourdine Imavov: -120
Sean Strickland stepping in on short notice presents Imavov with a ton of new problems to solve. Strickland stands very tall with an unusual guard that rests on or below his chin but he is constantly jabbing, feinting or hand-fighting regardless. In some ways, like Gastelum, Imavov’s original opponent, Strickland thrives in his ability to move minimally inside the pocket so that he is still in range to counter and flow into his next combination, however, this is done with less slipping and rolling, rather he will lean away or angle off. He extends his guard when he pulls away so that his opponents tend to land on his arms.
For Imavov, he should look to attack Strickland’s lead leg, because as one of the best jabs in the UFC, Strickland does shift his weight heavily forward. Take away his leg and take away his jab, which is one of, if not his best weapon. That being said, when Strickland finds his lead leg being eaten he does tend to shift to a Thai stance, and use a good teep to keep his opponents at bay, this may provide Imavov opportunities to catch the leg and look for his trips and takedowns and test Strickland’s grappling from bottom. I do think that Imavov is a higher submission threat but Strickland has yet to really show any glaring holes in his defense.
I do think that while Imavov has a wider variety of striking skills and footwork on a larger scale, this ultimately becomes less and less effective as time goes on and the two grow tired. Sean Strickland’s jab and upright approach is extremely economical over five rounds and he tends to slowly break guys down with a constant pace. Imavov is yet to go five rounds and has even shown fatigue in his last three rounder.
Ultimately I see Imavov controlling the distance early and landing the cleaner strikes. If he can put Strickland on the fence, he may be able to find something on the break, he has a great uppercut from takedown feints. However, I do think that over time Strickland will become more and more effective if he is in shape and healthy after fighting in just the UFC’s last event, last month.
The smart money is still on Imavov to win, however, if Strickland can turn the fight around by the third round and build momentum, I see him gaining traction and winning the last three.
Pick: Sean Strickland to win (+112 odds)
Sean “Tarzan” Strickland, steps in on less than one week’s notice to take on Nassourdine Imavov. This fight will take place up a weight class at 205. Most recently, Strickland lost a moderately entertaining and controversial decision in the final main event of 2022. Imavov, 4 years younger than Strickland is on a 3-fight winning streak. He was originally slated to face Kevin Gastelum, a short, southpaw, and accredited wrestler with legit power. Now, in less than a week, Imavov must pivot and prepare for the lengthy, orthodox, and striking focused point fighter in Strickland.
Strickland is big, strong, and technical but lacks the power and athleticism that many atop the division have in spades. Strickland tends to fight with an extreme upright stance, hands close to his jaw, and mouth open, often talking to his opponent. “Tarzan” has crisp boxing that relies on fundamentals, volume, and precision over aggression and power. Frustratingly, though, in back to back fights, Strickland’s game plan has been so bare bones that his fundamental boxing has been reduced to a single fundamental jab for most of the fight. Rather than using his quick and volume heavy jab to set up a power combination, recently, Strickland has kept his right hand glued to his face. It’s possible that getting knocked out permanently changed Strickland’s fighting style. Prior to getting KO’d, in a standup fight, Strickland often had the edge in boxing but often is a step behind when all facets of MMA striking come into play. Said another way, Strickland is a one-note boxer with little striking variety or power. When “on,” Strickland is able to push a steady and constant pace, fight intelligently and safely behind his jab, and land consistent combinations, when he lets his hands go. Strickland is also a sneaky wrestler. Most of his fights are technically driven and he wins decisions on the back of out pointing opponents; but, if he gets into trouble, Strickland has proven an ability to time a takedown and finish it with regularly success. Although, more often, Strickland uses his grappling chops as way to stuff opponent takedowns and keep the fight standing. Because Strickland doesn’t have much power or fight finishing ability himself, he relies on cardio and volume to win decisions. At times, though, even after Strickland wins the first part of a round, one big shot can sway the judges. This was apparent in his most recent loss to Cannonier. Strickland out-landed Cannonier but Cannonier did significantly more damage. Moreover, in a fight on less than a week’s notice and up a weight class, Strickland might struggle to push his patented pace. A volume striker who can’t push volume is a dangerous combination.
Imavov has impressed each and every time he’s entered the octagon. Even in his sole UFC loss, Imavov looked crisp and in control for much of the fight. The French fighter has technical lateral movement which helps him avoid heavy power shots and forces opponents to chase him around the cage. He has intelligent and well timed counter strikes which he uses well when an overly aggressive or linear opponent tries to cut the cage and stop his movement. His hands are crisp, able to land with volume and power with little wasted movement. Imavov’s typical path to victory is to start slow, fight behind his jab, and time up his opponent. Then, as round 1 nears its end, we often see Imavov increase his volume, plant his feet, and look to land heavier shots to seal the round. Round 2 often follows the same game plan as round 1. Round 3, though, is where Imavov’s critics point to when suggesting his shortcomings. Even though Imavov seems to have good volume, cardio, and movement for the first 10-12 minutes of a fight, around the second half of round 3, he has slowed considerably. His footwork becomes lazy, he drags himself around the cage rather than fluidly moving, and his striking looks more like he’s punching underwater rather than the snapping strikes he throws early in the fight. Despite the cardio concerns, Imavov has proved his toughness and grit, working through difficult positions and exchanges when gassed. He’ll need to address that cardio, especially in a 5-round fight, because he has the striking acumen to continue to fight in main events.
I am in the minority but I think this fight against Strickland is a much better matchup for Imavov. Gastelum can push a nasty pace himself, especially in rounds 4 and 5, and Gastelum has the power to hurt a gassed opponent. With this fight happening on short notice and up a weight class, it’s less likely that Strickland has the better cardio. So, Imavov’s primary concern, gassing and losing the later rounds, becomes less likely. Moreover, against Gastelum, Imavov would have to mind his P’s and Q’s for 25 minutes given Gastelum’s power. Now, against a point-fighter who is hesitant to throw with emphasis, Imavov can strike more freely. The big question in this one is the size difference. Imavov has fought at 170 in his career so he is already a bit undersized at 185. With this fight taking place at 205, there is a chance Strickland is simply too big for Imavov. However, that possibility does not sway me enough to couch my opinion that Imavov should be the more technical, varied, and powerful fighter who has continued to improve fight after fight. I’m confidently taking Imavov here. A decision is most likely; so, hopefully, we can leave the strange judging back in 2022.
Pick: Imavov to win (-120 odds)
Nassourdine Imavov is a highly technical striker who adheres to a similar game plan as his fellow countryman and teammate, Ciryl Gane. Specifically, Imavov values technique and speed on the feet contrary to throwing with all-out power, as he believes piecing away at his opponent will eventually let the finish find him, not chase the finish. I am a big fan of letting the finish come to you by controlling the pace, range, and direction of the fight, as this style is able to be easily repeated and the successful implementation is far more predicated on the fighter him/herself contrary to needing the opponent to have certain flaws necessary to win.
A great example of Imavov putting his style on display is in his last fight, as he beat a very explosive and dangerous power threat in Joaquin Buckley. Here, Imavov not only used advanced footwork to negate the largest threat of the fight – power – but also, showcased how he is truly a mixed martial artist in the octagon and not just a point striker, as he shot 7 takedowns, landing 2 of them. Once there, he looked for the submission to end the fight, and although he did not find it, the fight illustrated how he is a well-rounded fighter who can exploit the easiest path to victory. And, more important than having the ability to exploit the easiest path, Imavov showcased he is willing to forego any ego of wanting to prove he is the superior striker which shows fight intelligence, an attribute that is necessary to climb the top-end of the middleweight division.
In total, Imavov is a prospect who has the fight game necessary to sit at the top of the division but does have some flaws in his game that will need to be cleaned up to ensure his ascent up the division. Notably, the output he puts forth in the octagon will need to be able to stay the same from start to finish without any semblance of strikes diminishing given his game is output over power. Moreover, he will need to continue to show the ability to land the clean strikes when facing the top of the division, as he will likely be in close rounds, and given power is not on his side, he will need to land clean and crisp strikes to exacerbate the damage aspect of MMA judging.
I could rinse and repeat my breakdown of Sean Strickland as a fighter from my article just one month ago as he fought the exact way he always fights in his last bout. While many believe he won the fight, the reason why he lost a close decision is his inherent flaw in his fight game, that is, he values pressure-forward output compared to landing the more punishing blows. This style, on paper, is quite similar to Imavov, but the way in which Strickland implements it is quite different. Notably, he uses a very upright stance with a non-stop jab which is quick and lands with regularity. The issue is that while, on paper, the jab allows him to get up on the strike count, the visual of throwing a touch jab out there makes it less than appealing for the judges, hence him losing close decisions. Moreover, his upright stance of his creates an opportunity for his opponent to land a variety of strikes to his body and legs, and although Strickland has impeccable durability and a keen sense to avoid the harshest end of a particular strike, the way in which his opponent lands looks more damaging than what he inflicts on his opponent.
While I am quite critical of Strickland, he is an extremely confident and well-rounded fighter who will be in nearly every fight he is in. Because of this, Strickland will nearly always give himself a chance to pull out the victory, whether it be at a moment’s notice in the fight or when the scheduled duration comes to an end. So, if he finds a way to open up his striking beyond a primary jab approach, he can begin to win the close rounds contrary to getting the chair pulled up from underneath him.
This fight will be razor-thin. Similar to Strickland’s last fight, I expect Imavov to look good early but anticipate the insane cardio of Strickland will allow him to begin to do well as the fight goes on. So, the question for me is if Imavov can find clean enough strikes to potentially put away Strickland inside the first 2 rounds or if he has improved cardio to continue his output from start to finish.
While I expect Imavov to land devasting knees to the body and potentially a sharp elbow, I do believe Strickland has the necessary durability and fight experience to negate strikes landing to the effect of putting him away, thus the first posed question is likely a no for my answer. Regarding the second, I do believe Imavov will have the necessary cardio to keep up his movement and output for the entire duration of the fight. Because of this, I am taking him in this bout although I am quite concerned knowing the rounds will be quite close and the judges may lean toward Strickland knowing he lost a coinflip fight just one month ago – this should not be the case, but judges may have inherent human bias.
Pick: Imavov to win by decision (+390)