The final UFC fight card of 2022 took place on Saturday night at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. In the headlining bout of that event, UFC Vegas 66, Jared Cannonier bounced back from his July loss to then-UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. Cannonier scored a split-decision win over Sean Strickland in that contest. With the setback, Strickland is on the first losing skid of his professional career. Strickland entered UFC Vegas 66 coming off a July knockout loss to Alex Pereira.
In the UFC Vegas 66 co-main event, Arman Tsarukyan showed that he deserves a fight against an elite lightweight. The 26-year-old handed his opponent, Damir Ismagulov, his first loss since 2015.
Also on the card, Alex Caceres and Michal Oleksiejczuk picked up $50,000 bonuses for their first-round knockout wins, while Drew Dober and Bobby Green delivered the “Fight of the Night.”
Jared Cannonier: Before Jared Cannonier faced Sean Strickland in the main event of UFC Vegas 66, the UFC commentary team noted that Cannonier was aware that he needed to up his striking output. Cannonier did that, attempting 310 significant strikes and landing 141 in a split-decision win over Strickland. That increase in production was likely one of the reasons Cannonier got the nod over Strickland on the scorecards.
I’m not sure Cannonier’s win will put him in the conversation for a middleweight title shot, but he should, at the least, retain his No. 3 UFC ranking with his victory.
Arman Tsarukyan: Arman Tsarukyan has two losses during his UFC career. In his promotional debut, which took place in 2019, he dropped a decision in a “Fight of the Night” bonus-winning scrap to current UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev. Tsarukyan then went 5-0 before losing a decision to Mateusz Gamrot, who is the No. 7 fighter in the official flyweight rankings. On Saturday, Tsarukyan got back in the win column with a dominant win over the No. 12 ranked Damir Ismagulov.
Tsarukyan put together a technically sound performance in topping Ismagulov, using his cardio, wrestling and control to pick up the 30-27x 3 win.
Tsarukyan is not the biggest name in the lightweight division, but he deserves a fight against one of the big-name combatants at the top of the weight class in 2023.
Amir Albazi: Amir Albazi had two highly-ranked opponents drop out on him ahead of UFC Vegas 66. Albazi, the No. 8 ranked fighter in the official UFC flyweight rankings, saw Alex Perez (No. 6) and Brandon Royval (No. 4) drop out of a fight with him on Saturday’s card. Thanks to the overmatched Alessandro Costa, Albazi fought at UFC Vegas 66. Albazi picked up the win, which should set him up to face Perez, Royval or another fighter ranked higher than he is.
Alex Caceres: Alex Caceres scored his first striking knockout win since 2010 with a beautiful head kick that caught Julian Erosa with his defenses down. The knockout got the 34-year-old back in the win column after a March loss to Sodiq Yusuff ended his career-high five-fight winning streak.
Caceres knockout was a glimpse at how balance, technique and fight IQ can combine to bring a fight to an abrupt end.
Drew Dober: Drew Dober has two things in his favor, a strong chin and powerful hands. He used both of those in scoring a nasty knockout over Bobby Green, who touched up DOber via his speed. The win gave Dober a 3-0 UFC record in 2022 with three knockout victories.
The second-round knockout tied Dober with Dustin Poirier for the most knockouts in UFC lightweight history with eight.
Michal Oleksiejczuk: Cody Brundage scored an early takedown on Michal Oleksiejczuk, but Oleksiejczuk refused to accept the position (with the help of at least one fence grab). A scramble allowed Oleksiejczuk to take top position. From there, Brundage’s inability to keep his opponent in tight cost him, as Oleksiejczuk scored with heavy strikes, bringing the fight to a close in the first round.
The win gave the former light heavyweight two straight first round knockout wins at middleweight.
Cory McKenna: Any fighter who gets matched up against Cory McKenna needs to practice her takedown defense and drill stand ups. The 23-year-old is a strong wrestler and she is still developing. However, McKenna is not competing in the deepest division, so she needs to pick up her striking game.
Matthew Semelsberger: Matthew Semelsberger used his power to score three knockdowns and get the win over Jake Matthews. The 30-year-old Semelsberger is a limited combatant in that he relies on the aforementioned power, but as long as he gets matched up against defensively suspect opponents, he will have success.
Said Nurmagomedov: Said Nurmagomedov had a rough day at the office for most of his bantamweight bout against Saidyokub Kakhramonov, but his awareness and fight IQ allowed him to find the opening he needed to score a guillotine choke in the second stanza.
Nurmagomedov is now on a four-fight winning streak.
Rafa Garcia: Rafa Garcia overcame a height, reach and weight disadvantage to pick up a decision win over Maheshate at UFC Vegas 66. Maheshate checked in 2.5 pounds heavy for the lightweight scrap.
Garcia lost a not insignificant amount of blood during the contest, where he limited his opponent to a 16 percent landing rate in significant strikes.
Rinat Fakhretdinov: Two fights into his UFC career, Rinat Fakhretdinov has 12 takedowns and 27:11 in control time. The UFC commentary team mentioned the matchmakers will struggle to get this man more fights. I don’t doubt that for one second.
Manel Kape: After being out of the octagon for more than a year, Manel Kape returned to action at UFC Vegas 66. While the former Rizin bantamweight champ did not get a third straight first-round knockout win, he showed that despite his absence, he deserved to keep his No. 12 spot in the official UFC flyweight rankings while he was away. Kape will likely jump into the top 10 of the division following his dominant win over David Dvorak, who entered Saturday as the No. 9 ranked UFC 125-pounder.
Kape is — rightfully — known for his striking, which effectively put Dvorak on the deck in Round 2 and kept Dvorak backtracking for most of the fight, but what Kape showed in this bout was he also has some ground skills. The kimura he applied at the end of the first round looked close to injuring Dvorak and/or forcing a tap.
Keith Peterson: Referee Keith Peterson called the doctor in to check on David Dvorak’s left arm after it appeared that Manel Kape had done some damage to that limb with a nasty kimura at the end of their flyweight fight.
Many fans, media and pundits question when and why referees bring doctors into the cage, but the ref’s function is safety. With that, Peterson calling for an examination on Dvorak was the right move to make.
Sergey Morozov: Sergey Morozov used forward pressure and a jab to set up his takedowns against Journey Newson. That approach served him well in gaining a 30-27x3 win over Journey Newson.
Morozov went 6 for 13 on his takedown attempts and racked up close to seven minutes of control time in earning his decision victory. With the win in the UFC Vegas 66 curtain jerker, Morozov is on his first winning streak since he signed with the UFC in 2020 after winning and defending the M-1 Global bantamweight crown in 2019.
Paul Felder: Paul Felder did his best to show that he had read the scoring criteria for an MMA fight. However, try as he might, Felder did not make up for the confidence and wrongness of his partner, Dominick Cruz, when interpreting that criteria.
Sean Strickland: Sean Strickland has the best striking defense percentage in UFC middleweight history. He also has one of the highest striking differentials in the history of the UFC’s 185-pound weight class. However, he doesn’t throw his punches with a lot of power and he doesn’t fight with much aggression. His inability to land his strikes with force and his reluctance to push forward will always hurt him in fights where his opponents connect with more authority. That’s what happened at UFC Vegas 66.
UFC: It should be a surprise when a ranked UFC fighter calls for a fight-night bonus because they are facing a hardship, but it happens often enough that it’s no longer a shock. What makes it worse is that the UFC is not the least embarrassed that it has fighters like Amir Albazi, asking for some extra scratch because their car broke down during fight week. The UFC has a shameful pay structure and revenue split.
Bobby Green: At 36, Bobby Green still has a great deal of speed. However, as Drew Dober showed, he can be pushed to the fence and knocked out. I understand that Green is an entertainment-first fighter and that will keep him on the UFC roster for some time, but as he ages, Green might consider using some striking defense.
Saidyokub Kakhramonov: Pressure, control and activity were the name of Saidyokub Kakhramonov’s game in his matchup with Said Nurmagomedov.
I’m not sure if Kakhramonov laid out the blueprint on how to beat Nurmagomedov because the pace he set seems as if it might be unsustainable over three full rounds and because Nurmagomedov submitted him in the second stanza.
Bryan Battle: Bryan Battle took a big chance in accepting a fight against Rinat Fakhretdinovon on short notice. Battle deserves props for accepting the matchup, which ended his three-fight UFC winning streak.
The one-sided loss should provide the 28-year-old Battle with a list of things he needs to work on to succeed in the UFC. Battle’s next fight against a skilled wrestler with a heavy top game will let us know if he learned anything from his defeat at UFC Vegas 66.
David Dvorak: David Dvorak showed a lot of toughness and flexibility in not tapping to the kimura Manel Kape applied on him at the end of the first round of their flyweight bout. What Dvorak didn’t have was an answer for Kape’s striking arsenal.
Dvorak opened his UFC career on a 3-0 run, but he went 0-2 with the promotion in 2022 and is now on the first losing skid of his 15 professional career.
Journey Newson: Journey Newson’s striking is not bad, but his ability to stop takedowns and get back to his feet is severely lacking. That cost him in a big way at UFC Vegas 66.
Dominick Cruz: I’ll give Dominick Cruz credit for being confident. Even when he is way off the mark and talking nonsense, he delivers his hogwash with complete sincerity and conviction. Such was the case during the UFC Vegas 66 broadcast when he did his best to convince all who were viewing that a cut might steal a round— or a fight — for the combatant who delivered the blow that caused the cut.
For example, after Maheshate opened a gash on the side of Rafa Garcia’s head in the second round of their prelim bout, Cruz said, “What do we know about damage? That wins a lot of these fights. Damage is scored. That’s how they score the fight, not necessarily who looks like they’re winning by scorecards, per se. That damage is gonna be huge on the scorecards in this fight.”
Alas, that cut was meaningless on the scorecards because, despite the visual of Garcia bleeding all over the octagon for the final 3:30 of that round, he won the round and swept his opponent on the scorecards with three 30-27 nods. And you know why? Because Garcia had the more effective striking in that round, which is the first criterion by which the judges score an MMA fight.
It’s frustrating when the commentary team — and a former UFC champion — misrepresents the scoring, but it happens — a lot.