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UFC Paris preview: Nassourdine Imavov looking to solidify his dark horse status

Get the scoop on the preliminary action out of the UFC’s first event out France, featuring the dark horse of the middleweight division, Nassourdine Imavov, looking to dispose of the flashy Joaquin Buckley.

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Nassourdine Imavov celebrating his win over Edmen Shahbazyan at UFC 268
Nassourdine Imavov celebrating his win over Edmen Shahbazyan at UFC 268
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

After a week off, the UFC returns to action in a place they’ve never been before: Paris, France.

To many, it comes as a surprise given the UFC has been extremely well-traveled. However, France only legalized MMA in 2020 and thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization only began regular travel just this year.

It’s no surprise the UFC is throwing damn near everyone with French ties onto the UFC Paris card. Given France isn’t exactly an MMA hotbed, a good chunk of those names are unrecognizable to most fans. Then again, considering the sport was still illegal in the country up until two years ago, that should be a surprise. Regardless, they do have some promising names. Francis Ngannou has French heritage. Headliner Ciryl Gane does as well. And, buried in the prelims for whatever reason, Nassourdine Imavov appears to be a dark horse in a middleweight division desperate for fresh blood at the top of the division.

Nassourdine Imavov vs. Joaquin Buckley, Middleweight

The UFC showed just how much they like Imavov by pitting him on the prelims despite him not only being in the official UFC rankings, but fighting out of France. Was it really all that important to put Alessio Di Chirico – an Italian – on the main card despite being thisclose to being on the chopping block? Just my opinion, though I know I’m hardly the only one thinking along those lines.

To be fair to the UFC brass, Imavov has snuck up on just about everyone, entering the promotion with minimal hype. However, it appears to be obvious at this point that we all should have seen him coming. At 6’3”, he’s got a long frame that he utilizes expertly, and I don’t just mean from range. Sure, he’s exceptionally accurate with punches – he isn’t called the Russian Sniper for no reason – but he’s also proven to be tricky to grapple with on the mat. Entangling Edmen Shahbazyan in a crucifix and unloading with elbows is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

The one thing that has many believing Imavov’s ceiling is limited is his wrestling concerns. He can stop takedowns from those with an average or worse takedown game, but he hasn’t been able to secure his own. Not that he won’t be able to hang on the feet with the explosive Buckley, but it has long been known that Buckley’s ground game is full of question marks. If Imavov is unable to potentially expose Buckley’s biggest weakness, that lowers his chances of winning.

Given Buckley’s exceptional power, he’s never completely out of a fight. His KO of Impa Kasanganay will forever be a Baba O’Reilly staple for live UFC events. However, there is an issue with Buckley that could ultimately be more problematic for him than his wrestling struggles: his inconsistency. He looked like a million bucks in disposing of former training partner Albert Duraev, but barely squeaked by Abdul Razak Alhassan just months earlier in a flat performance from both men. It can be attributed to youth at this juncture, but that excuse can’t last forever.

If we end up getting the best version of Buckley that we’ve seen, he stands a very good chance to score the upset. However, Imavov is even younger than Buckley and is already the more disciplined and well-rounded of the two fighters. Plus, he appears to be the more durable of the two, never having been put away from strikes. However, the Sniper tends to waste little motion in his punches whereas Buckley tends to load up. Did I mention Buckley has been put to sleep in three of his four career losses? It’s hard for me not to favor Imavov walking away with the win. Imavov via TKO of RD2

You’ll be forgiven if you’ve forgotten about the hype around Abusupiyan Magomedov circa 2018, but the Dagestani by way of Germany has only fought twice since he lost in the 2018 PFL finals. Prior to being wiped out in 33 seconds, the imposing middleweight flashed a dangerous striking game, making it easy to forget wrestling was his base. After several false starts to get his UFC career off the ground, he finds himself lined up opposite of the steady Dustin Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus doesn’t do anything flashy – except for the occasional slam takedown — but he’s solid everywhere, works at a steady pace, and is difficult to put away. In other words, provided there are no serious chinks in a fighter’s armor, Stoltzfus needs his opponent to make a serious mistake for him to capitalize. Magomedov has enough experience under his belt he shouldn’t make the type of fight-altering mistakes Stoltzfus will need from him. Then again, I wouldn’t have guessed he would have lost to Louis Taylor in the manner he did in 2018. Magomedov is my clear pick, but not knowing the odds at this time, I’d probably be hesitant to put money on him. Magomedov via decision

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the UFC opted to cut loose Fares Ziam after his loss to Terrance McKinney earlier this year. McKinney is seen as one of their top prospects – so no shame in that loss – and Ziam, already with a couple of solid UFC wins under his belt, should only continue to improve. The UFC found the right excuse to bring him back, allowing him to fight in front of his countrymen in France. While Ziam has more name recognition, Michal Figlak has built up his reputation the old-fashioned way: as an amateur and on the regionals. It could be argued Figlak has faced a higher level of competition on the whole, showing an aggressive boxing game and some power. However, while Figlak is a striker first and foremost, it is his all-around game that has him favored. Ziam’s wrestling is a huge question mark and Figlak has consistently mixed things up to great effect. Couple that with far more consistent volume than Ziam throws and it feels like there’s a good reason Figlak is the favorite. Figlak via decision

We learned about the physical toughness of Benoit Saint-Denis in his UFC debut when he endured one of the most hellacious beatings ever seen within the sport. He proved his mental resilience when there was zero hesitation in his sophomore effort, taking the fight right to Nikolas Stolze. The Frenchman aggressively pursued takedowns and wasted no time in looking for a finish, getting one in the second round. Granted, Saint-Denis relies more on strength and being relentless as opposed to technique, so the question is when, not if, he’s going to get caught. There’s a good swathe of prognosticators who think Gabriel Miranda could be the man to do it. Yes, the Brazilian is the definition of a one-dimensional fighter in today’s MMA landscape, but 15 submission victories out of 16 total wins is nothing to scoff at. It’s through slick technique and positioning Miranda gets the job done. However, he has also wilted any time he has been forced to face any opponent with any sort of repute, racking up his wins over a combination of cans, middling fighters, or inexperienced fighters. I won’t discount the possibility of Miranda catching an arm, but Sanit-Denis’ physical superiority should be the winning factor. Saint-Denis via TKO of RD1

Anyone else get the feeling Khalid Taha breathed a sigh of relief when Taylor Lapilus pulled out due to injury. Obviously, Taha will never admit that publicly, but Lapilus presented the type of technique and discipline Taha has struggled with. Instead, Taha will welcome DWCS alum Cristian Quinonez in a debut that has been delayed for a while. Even if Taha doesn’t get the win, Quinonez exponentially extends his chances of at least picking up a FOTN bonus as Quinonez fights to win, swinging with reckless abandon and rarely exiting an exchange without being touched up himself. Taha isn’t quite the brawler Quinonez is, but it is an environment in which his power is better suited to shine. For all Taha’s faults – including a lack of volume, lack of range, and poor takedown defense – he is durable as hell, meaning Quinonez is going to have a hell of a chore in putting him away. Throw in the fact Quinonez’s chin has been cracked and taking the fight on short notice from halfway around the world and I like Taha to end the fight early. However, if it goes to decision, Quinonez’s volume and willingness to hit the occasional takedown should give him the edge. Taha via TKO of RD3

Whether she tapped or notStephanie Egger’s denial came long after she left the cage – Egger is looking to erase the memory of her loss to Mayra Bueno Silva as fast as possible, accepting a short notice fight against newcomer Ailin Perez. At first glance, it looks like an excellent decision. Sure, Egger’s moving up to featherweight, but most of Perez’s fights have also come at 135, meaning Egger is unlikely to be at a size disadvantage. And while Perez appears to have some nice physical tools to work with, she’s been a bully on the regional scene, picking off a bunch of cans. Even worse, she’s doing so in a reckless manner that tends to fall right into the hands of what Egger does best: fight from the clinch and taking her opponent to the mat. Perez has shown the ability to land explosive shots such as head kicks for a one-and-done victory, but Egger is nothing if not durable. I like Egger’s disciplined form of grappling to secure her the victory. Egger via submission of RD1