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UFC Vegas 66: Cannonier vs. Strickland preview - Who is getting back on track?

Dig into the main card of the final UFC event of 2022, topped by a pair of middleweights looking to right their ships in the controversial Sean Strickland and powerful Jared Cannonier.

Sean Strickland punching Alex Pereira at UFC 276
Sean Strickland punching Alex Pereira at UFC 276
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The UFC may not be ending the year of 2022 on the biggest bang possible, but it is going out with what is anticipated to be a positive note. If nothing else, it will assuredly be a more positive note than what UFC 282 ended on. Say what you will about Sean Strickland’s controversial persona, he tends to put on high-energy fights. The same can’t necessarily be said about Jared Cannonier, but the heavy-handed former heavyweight does have a history of ending his fights early. There are several other contests on the main card that look promising, one in particular that I could see looking to make a late run at FOTY in this late stage. Not that I’m willing to go far enough to say Drew Dober and Bobby Green will deliver that level of fight, but it’s possible. To drag up the old McDonald’s motto from my youth, “Hey, it could happen.”

For the prelims preview, click here. For an audio preview, click here.

Jared Cannonier vs. Sean Strickland, Middleweight

Fun fact: for over a year, while Cannonier was a member of the heavyweight division while Strickland simultaneously fought at welterweight. Try to imagine Justin Tafa fighting Bryan Battle a few years from now and that’s about as close of a comparison as you’ll get on the current UFC roster. Just something to chew over...

The one thing everyone remembers about Strickland right now is the terrible decision he made to stand and trade fisticuffs with current middleweight champion, Alex Pereira, this past summer. For his part, Strickland is a gifted striker in his own right. Perhaps a bit of a one-note striker – few are so reliant on a jab as he is – but he’s won fights with that single note. But when his base is wrestling and Pereira is a former kickboxing champion noted for his power? Yeah, that was as dumb as it gets.

As a result of that loss, Strickland is probably going to forever be label as a low IQ fighter. The funny thing is, Strickland has been a pretty damned smart fighter as he worked his way up into the bright lights. Hell, the criticism about Strickland in his contest with Jack Hermansson — his last fight before the Pereira matchup – was that Strickland kept things safe for the entirety of the contest. It was Strickland attacking with a jab... and almost nothing else. Given Hermansson couldn’t find an answer to overcome the jab, it can’t be considered to be a bad strategy.

Aside from the jab, Strickland’s biggest weapon is the pace he sets. It’s a bit of an interesting twist as Strickland used to fall into long bouts of inactivity. Of course, that was also when he was dehydrating himself down to 170 pounds. Ever since returning to middleweight, Strickland has been a new man, staying in his opponent’s face and flustering them with constant volume. As he sees the frustration growing in his opponent, he’ll occasionally mix in a takedown, but it’s more likely to be a power shot following his jab. Strickland is more likely to break his opponent’s spirit than he is their chin, but he is capable of doing both.

It’ll be impressive if he can break Cannonier. Cannonier’s unique personality has elicited some chuckles from the MMA community, but it can’t be denied he has created a level of mental toughness that is difficult to replicate. No matter who it is across him in the cage or what is said, Cannonier doesn’t change his approach as he is no respecter or people, at least in terms of his opponents. Strickland’s colorful banter before and during the fight is unlikely to have any affect on him.

Then again, perhaps it might be good if Strickland can light a fire underneath him. Cannonier is an extremely patient striker, working over his opponent’s legs with his brutal leg kicks before looking to land a punch that will put them to sleep. While the kicks are designed more specifically to weaken the base and affect the mobility, they’ve been devastating enough to end a fight within a round. However, against Israel Adesanya, Cannonier never seemed to enter into desperation mode as it became clear that’s what he needed to do. He appeared to be content to fight his fight, even if it meant coasting to a losing decision.

There’s several factors in this contest that have me leaning in one direction. First, Strickland’s pace and pressure looks like it will be problematic for Cannonier. While it is true we haven’t seen Cannonier gassed in a fight, that has more to do with Cannonier’s measured pace. He knows his limits and isn’t going to push himself beyond that. Obviously, that’s a good thing, but what if he needs to pick up the pace? Can he maintain his earth-shattering power late? I can’t say.

The other thing is Cannonier will probably have a hard time getting his kicks off if Strickland is in his face. After all, kicks generally require a requisite amount of space for them to land. Strickland isn’t likely to allow for much of that. That also means Cannonier should get plenty of opportunities to land his power counters... unless Strickland decides to look for takedowns. Cannonier’s takedown defense has always been a sore spot, even as he has been facing smaller opponents at 185. Of course, there is the matter of whether Strickland will even utilize his wrestling, but he has traditionally mixed it in with some regularity in the past.

What really cinches it for me is Cannonier’s age. Granted, he’s a young 38 in MMA years, but 38 nonetheless. Given his lackluster showing against Adesanya, Cannonier has a long road back to fighting for the title again. If he can earn another title shot, he’s likely to be into his 40’s. Cannonier could begin to fall off at any point in his performance. It isn’t just Cannonier’s physical abilities falling off either. Can he motivate himself to continue fighting at a high level knowing his best chance to become champion has come and gone? And while Cannonier hasn’t been finished since moving to middleweight, he has been knocked down several times and has been put away before. Credit to Cannonier for reshaping his body to where it is now, but all weight cuts get more difficult as age takes its toll. As weight cuts get more difficult, the fighters are more likely to be dehydrated. The more dehydrated they get, the more likely they are to be KO’d. Not saying that’s the greatest likelihood, but there won’t be shock to see that happen. A Cannonier finish is more likely than a Strickland finish, but a Cannonier decision is very unlikely. Strickland via decision

Arman Tsarukyan vs. Damir Ismagulov, Lightweight

Using the inexact science of MMA math, Ismagulov should secure a relatively comfortable win over Tsarukyan. After all, Ismagulov has a close win over Guram Kutateladze who has a close win over Mateusz Gamrot who has a close win over Tsarukyan. If only it was that simple....

Ismagulov may be the most underappreciated member of the UFC roster. Not just the lightweight division, the entire UFC roster. There’s two reasons for that. First, Ismagulov is boring. I’m not ripping on him in that manner. He does what he needs to do to win and that’s the primary objective in my opinion. Secondly, he tends to fight about once a year, making it easy for him to disappear from the recesses of the minds of fight fans.

Despite those things, there’s no denying that Ismagulov is the definition of an efficient fighter. I don’t necessarily mean he’s incredibly accurate with his punches or lands all his takedowns. It’s more that even his strikes that miss tend to serve a purpose in directing his opponent where he wants them. It’s all about minimizing risk as opposed to exploiting his opponent, no surprise given that many see the Kazakhstani fighter as boring. However, boring doesn’t mean ineffective. In fact, it could be argued Ismagulov’s jab is one of the best in the business.

It is speculated that Ismagulov fights so infrequently due to the difficulty of his weight cuts. After all, he had a scheduled fight cancelled last year on weigh-in day thanks to an astronomical weight miss of nearly eight pounds. It might also help explain his boring nature as he looks to conserve energy. Kutatuladze was the first to get beyond Ismagulov’s jab on a regular basis, forcing Ismagulov to show off his excellent takedown defense. For the most part, it held up, but Ismagulov showed serious signs of fatigue that hadn’t been there in his previous contests.

That’s a very troublesome against Tsarukyan. The Armenian may have a low percentage in terms of finishing his takedowns, but there is no shortage of attempts he won’t make. Tsarukyan’s contest with Gamrot this summer was some of the fastest paced action anyone will find over five rounds. Tsarukyan proved he’s one of the best scramblers in the division, even as he struggled to get the elusive Gamrot to the mat as Tsarukyan refused to stay on his back for long stretches. Ismagulov isn’t the same type of fighter as Gamrot. Whereas Gamrot proved to be squirmy as hell, Ismagulov tends to use his physicality to fight off his opponent. Tsarukyan may be short, but he’s not short on physicality in the least.

I’m not going to attempt to make a case Tsarukyan is the more technical striker; he’s not. But he is more dynamic in his attack than Ismagulov and has an iron chin. Not that Tsarukyan is likely to throw a wide range of kicks or spinning attacks, but he will look to work over Ismagulov at all levels and keep him guessing if he’s going to keep things standing for that exchange or look for a takedown. Most importantly, Tsarukyan will push a hard pace. Kutateladze tried to do that and had more success than anyone else thus far, but he isn’t the athlete Tsarukyan is, nor does he have the same level of power. That should be enough to give Ismagulov his first loss in seven years. Tsarukyan via decision

Drew Dober vs. Bobby Green, Lightweight

Even as Green has benefitted from a career resurgence of sorts at the age of 36, it still feels like we haven’t seen the best of him yet. It says a lot about the physical talent and his confidence, but it also says a lot about his fight IQ. Green’s confidence allows him to fight with a style that is difficult to deal with, but it also gives him a false sense of security that he’s winning fights he isn’t actually winning. Green’s resurgence can be attributed to him recognizing he’s got to slam his foot on the gas rather than believing he’s done enough. And even though he’s looked better than ever in the three fights leading up to his contest with Islam Makhachev, it still feels like he can do better....

Unfortunately, there’s reason to believe Green has peaked. Knowing much of Green’s success is based on where his head is, it’s very worrisome he was dominated by Makhachev in his most recent contest. Follow that up with Green being forced to withdraw from his summer contest with Jim Miller due to a failed drug test and it’s fair to wonder if Green is in a bad headspace going into his fight.

On the flip side, Dober has become an example of consistency. If his opponent opts to engage him on the feet, there’s a good chance they’re going to go to sleep. There’s also a good chance they’re going to pick up an extra $50K as Dober has developed into one of the more underrated bonus hogs, collecting an extra paycheck in four of his last six appearances, in large part due to his incredible durability. Just as consistent is Dober’s struggles on the mat. Dober’s last three opponents that focused on keeping him grounded – Makhachev, Beneil Dariush, and Olivier Aubin-Mercier – all managed to submit him.

Green isn’t the grappler of either of those three, but many tend to forget Green’s base is wrestling given he rarely looks to take his opponents to the mat. When Green has remembered to mix in some takedowns, he has traditionally found greater striking differentials. The funny thing is, after making greater use of his wrestling during the initial phase of his career revitalization in 2020, he hasn’t secured a single takedown since the calendar turned from that year.

The path to beat Dober is obvious: spam takedowns in hopes that he’ll expose himself to a submission in the midst of a scramble. Hell, even reputed striker Brad Riddell secured his win over Dober by looking consistently for takedowns. I have no doubt Green has the skill to do it. What I don’t have is the confidence Green will take that route. Green may even end up landing more volume without looking for takedowns, but Dober’s power is bound to show itself more than Green’s. If I knew Green was in a good headspace and would heavily feature takedowns, I’d pick him. Thus, I think Dober is the better pick in a contest in which there isn’t a safe pick. Dober via decision

  • The UFC is really trying to give Amir Albazi a push. That’s why they booked him against the likes of Alex Perez and Brandon Royval before both withdrew. I’m not trying to throw shade at Alessandro Costa, but the Brazilian is making his UFC debut while Perez has fought for the flyweight title and Royval fought in a title eliminator two years ago. Albazi has shown the ability to do a little bit of everything, but is clearly most at home on the ground. Sure, he loves to pick up his opponent and slam them to the mat, but he isn’t shirking on the fundamentals either. Costa has shown some decent wrestling of his own, but he hasn’t faced anyone on the level of Albazi. Perhaps he can catch Albazi with a submission as Costa is very scrambly and owns a dangerous guard. I’m not convinced Costa will be able to properly show what he can do on the feet either as he’ll be too preoccupied with stopping Albazi from getting him to the mat. I think Costa can be a fixture in the rankings once he gets his feet wet. I think Albazi can be a title challenger. Throw in that Albazi has consistently faced a higher level of competition and this is one of the surer picks of the event. Costa has a bright future, but this is too much, too soon. Albazi via submission of RD1
  • It feels weird referring to Alex Caceres as the savvy veteran. He entered the UFC at the tender age of 22 and had the early part of his run defined by several losses that could have been avoided if he had operated in a more intelligent manner. Now, with 26 UFC fights under his belt, Caceres has finally begun to operate with a level of consistency that had eluded him earlier in his career. He’s got a better judgement of spacing and distance, takes less unnecessary risks, and is quick to jump on an opponent’s mistakes. He’ll probably get plenty of opportunities to do that as Julian Erosa tends to leave his chin out to be checked. Then again, part of that is Erosa’s tendency to go to great lengths to do the chin checking himself. Erosa is anything but cautious, preferring to fight in the pocket despite having a reach advantage over most other featherweights that would allow him to sit in the pocket and pick his spots. Instead, he’s always pressing to end his night early, whether he ends it or his opponent. Much like Caceres, Erosa is battle-tested and has better learned when to take risks. I’m not sure Caceres has the power to make Erosa pay, so I’ll go with Erosa to get things done. Erosa via TKO of RD2
  • I know he’s won two fights in a row, but I’m still not sold on Cody Brundage being a long term fixture on the roster. The fighters he beat have a combined UFC record of 3-7 and Brundage was getting his ass handed to him in one of those fights before pulling a finish out of nowhere. The optimist in me says I should look at it as Brundage being opportunistic and there’s truth to that. But I haven’t seen enough of his reputed wrestling skills to feel like he’s got a base to fall back on. To be fair, his striking has been better than expected, but only by a limited degree. It certainly hasn’t been enough for me to feel confident he’ll be able to fight off the non-stop pressure from Michel Oleksiejczuk that is sure to come. Oleksiejczuk finally made the drop down to 185 after being the smaller man in the cage every time out at light heavyweight. The concern for him will be whether the weight cut will be too much for his stamina to hold out deep into fights, but he also won’t be moving around larger bodies when he opts to wrestle. Those have been the occasions when Oleksiejczuk’s gas tank has really flagged. If Brundage can hold on through the first round-and-a-half, he’s got a great shot to win. Given Oleksiejczuk’s power tends to be overlooked, I’m not sure Brundage can do that. Oleksiejczuk via TKO of RD1