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UFC 276 main card preview: Sean Strickland looking to spoil UFC’s grand plans

Delve into the main card action of UFC 276, featuring a streaking Sean Strickland looking to throw a wrench into the UFC grand designs of launching Alex Pereira into the title stratosphere.

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They may have a severe lack of quality wins in MMA, but the UFC is pushing Alex Pereira and Sean O’Malley as the A-side in their contests with more established veterans. It makes sense. Even if it was in kickboxing as opposed to MMA, Pereira has defeated the reigning middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya. Pereira may be inexperienced in MMA – this will only be his seventh MMA fight – but he has taken to the sport well. Plus, at 34, the UFC needs his evolution to be quick if they want to capitalize on the potential grudge match between Pereira and Adesanya. As for O’Malley, the UFC has padded his highlight reel by giving him underwhelming opposition. I can’t blame the guy for wanting the most money for the easiest fights, but a step up was needed if he wanted to maintain his reputation. Well, he’s got it now. It’s do or die time for Pereira and O’Malley....

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

Sean Strickland vs. Alex Pereira, Middleweight

It isn’t hard to see why the UFC is excited to push Pereira. He isn’t a carbon copy of Adesanya by any means, but much like the champ, Pereira can do things inside the cage that a human being shouldn’t be able to do. Possessing power that belies his lanky frame, Pereira is a masterful technician, throwing his punches and kicks with accurate precision. He doesn’t lack for hand speed either, nor is he afraid to get creative. Observe his flying knee KO of Andreas Michailidis. It takes serious confidence to throw something like that, knowing he could end up on his back when he has very little mat experience.

However, as the brief Gokhan Saki experiment in the UFC proved, there is a difference between kickboxing and MMA striking. In kickboxing, there isn’t any need to worry about takedowns. Needing to worry about being taken down has often left kickboxers who cross over impotent on the feet. If they don’t, they severely risk being put on their back and mauled or subbed from there. No one doubts Strickland is fully capable of doing that. The question is whether Strickland will.

For all the frat bro talk that Strickland puts out there, he isn’t a stupid fighter. In fact, it’s hard to believe it isn’t all a persona to get attention in addition to getting inside the heads of his opponents. I doubt it’ll have much effect on Pereira, but there’s no doubt it has worked in the past. However, despite Strickland generally being a smart fighter, he has made some decisions that deserve to be questioned. Though a capable wrestler, he has been reluctant to take his opponents down despite some opportunities to do so. Perhaps he’s been applying an if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it approach as he remains undefeated at middleweight in the UFC.

That approach has been to get up in his opponent’s face with nonstop pressure and a crisp jab. He’ll occasionally throw in a follow up hook or cross, but the jab has been the consistent weapon of choice that has been prevalent. Given the simplicity of his attack, there’s a large swathe of fans that see Pereira catching Strickland eventually if the jab is going to remain his weapon of choice. But just because Strickland hasn’t been wrestling, doesn’t mean he can’t. In a fight with Court McGee, Strickland proved to be the grittier fighter. I get that McGee isn’t an elite fighter, but beating McGee at his own game should count for something. While Pereira has proven to be more defensively adept than many thought he would be, Strickland is easily the best wrestler he has faced.

There have been several occasions where I’ve overthought a contest, picking the guy I knew I shouldn’t have been going with due to an intangible I couldn’t ignore. I get the feeling this is one of those contests. I’m not discounting the fact that Pereira catches Strickland with something heavy and turns his lights out. But Strickland’s edge in high-level MMA experience, impressive durability, and advantage on the mat shouldn’t be ignored. Besides, while Pereira is a gifted striker, it isn’t like he puts everyone to sleep. In Pereira’s last fight, Bruno Silva went the distance with him and Silva even had some good moments on the feet. Strickland comes across as being similarly durable to Silva. Plus, since officially moving to middleweight, Strickland pushes an insane pace. It isn’t like he doesn’t wrestle because it might make him tired. He’s been making a point. Observing Strickland in interviews and fights, he fought that way because he could. The guess here is he knows what he can and can’t get away with against Pereira and realizes it’s better to make the point of winning and getting that chance of fighting for the belt rather than playing with fire. Strickland via decision

Pedro Munhoz vs. Sean O’Malley, Bantamweight

Aside from Conor McGregor, there isn’t a more polarizing figure in MMA than O’Malley. The only people who deny his talent are his haters. Not that the rainbow-haired striker doesn’t deserve some hate. After all, he is living in a delusion by maintaining he’s still undefeated. Then again, perhaps he’s playing it up ala Chael Sonnen. If only he’d deliver his persona with the wink Sonnen always did, we might know if he was just playing it up or if he was serious....

Perhaps one can question O’Malley’s tattoo choices, but he’s an extremely smart fighter in the cage. Possessing a uniquely large bantamweight frame, O’Malley fights to maximize his length and reach. Whether it’s flicking out his jab or letting his feet fly, O’Malley does a fantastic job of keeping his opposition at the end of his strikes. If it was just length he had to fall back on, he wouldn’t be half the fighter he is. O’Malley’s creativity coupled with his fakes and feints allow him to manipulate his opponents where he wants him. Top it all off with his incredible hand speed and power and O’Malley truly is a special talent.

Much like O’Malley, Munhoz has a gift that can’t be taught, though it is significantly different in what O’Malley possesses. Few can take a punch better than Munhoz. That durability has allowed him to stay in fights when others would have been put away. Munhoz power also means he can end the fight at any time, provided he lands a clean shot. If he can’t find the killshot, Munhoz has the cardio to throw insane amount of volume. His best weapon in those contests are his low kicks. There’s no reason to think they won’t be seen with great frequency given O’Malley’s weakness to low kicks. Remember, O’Malley’s lone loss came from a nerve issue instigated by Marlon Vera’s low kicks.

However, Munhoz also has a freakishly short reach, coming out on the negative in the Ape Index. It’s not like he’s a tall bantamweight either. O’Malley is a disastrous matchup for Munhoz. There’s the thought that Munhoz might be able to wrestle O’Malley to the mat and perhaps submit him. The problem with that is O’Malley’s spacing is going to make it difficult for Munhoz to close the distance for that to happen. Even if it does, there were some who thought O’Malley was a better grappler than he was striker on the regional scene. I still wouldn’t discount Munhoz subbing him given Munhoz has one of the best guillotines in the sport, but that seems like a bigger longshot than knocking O’Malley’s block off. The problem for Munhoz is his star is falling right as O’Malley’s seems to be rising. Throw in that Munhoz has taken insane amounts of damage over the last few years and it seems inevitable the 35-year old is going to have his chin crack sooner rather than later. Given the nightmare matchup O’Malley is for him, I think the controversial podcaster is the one to do the honors. O’Malley via TKO of RD3

There is no more legendary fighter for those who favor all action, all the time than Robbie Lawler. It is highly unlikely we’ll ever see a run like his stint from 2013-2016. Of course, the reason is a human being can only withstand so much punishment and Lawler endured several lifetimes worth of damage during that stretch. He also delivered more punishment that he received, but that was also spread out over several opponents. Bottom line, Lawler is a shell of what he was at his peak. Despite that, there are two things working in his favor. First, peak Lawler was so damned good, a shell of what he was is still capable of winning some fights in the UFC. Second, Bryan Barberena isn’t what he used to be either. Barberena never hit the peaks of Lawler, but he was just as happy to engage in a slugfest and endured ungodly damage in several of his fights, some of them even saw Barberena standing at the end. It isn’t just the wear and tear of the cage that has beat down Barberena. The hard-nosed competitor was sidelined by an emergency surgery on his stomach and also had a major back surgery. Never a great athlete to begin with, it has noticeably slowed him. There is hope for Barberena though. Lawler has admitted to having difficulty finding the motivation to become the soul stealer that he was at his peak. That’s even been with him consistently facing some of the best welterweights on the planet. Barberena never was one of the best. On the flip side, it’s hard to believe Barberena won’t be stoked to step in there with a legend like Lawler. Then again, Barberena isn’t going to wrestle Lawler and that has been an Achilles heel for the former champion. Even at 40 with several more years of fighting under his belt, I still favor Lawler to be more durable than Barberena after the recent travails of Bam Bam. Lawler via TKO of RD3