The first UFC event of the year is upon us and so is this year’s first edition of BE staff picks. Last season, Zane Simon won our staff picking contest. This year more competitors are entering the fray looking to prevent him going back-to-back.
Our first chance to put some wins on the board is a pretty lacklustre UFC Apex card that will do little to distract from the main controversy swirling around the promotion (Dana White slapping his wife).
For this curtain opener to 2023 in MMA, we’ve got Sean Strickland stepping in on short notice — and moving up in weight — to fill in for Kelvin Gastelum opposite Nassourdine Imavov. Safe to say our staff is mostly unconvinced that Strickland can bounce back from his loss to Jared Cannonier in the last UFC fight of 2022 and beat the streaking Imavov.
Other fighters being favoured by the staffers are Damon Jackson, whose craftiness is being counted on to defeat Dan Ige, and Umar Nurmagomedov, who we’re expecting to ragdoll Raoni Barcelos.
Check out the rest of our picks below and please (please) add your picks in the comments so we can see how you do, too!
Anton Tabuena: I’m not sure if it was the Pereira knockout, but Strickland really looked hesitant and gun-shy on his last outing, and I’m curious to see if that’s still the case here. I’m also not confident in picking a guy who relies on pace, volume and cardio to win fights if he’s coming in on very short notice. Nassourdine Imavov by TKO.
Zane Simon: Against Kelvin Gastelum, I more or less would have picked Nassourdine Imavov with my eyes closed. Not only is he six inches taller, and fully capable of fighting a long, rangy style, but Gastelum’s woes with pace and determination to win rounds haven’t shown any signs of abating in recent years. Would Imavov have been able to keep his cardio up for five rounds? I don’t know, but I’m not at all convinced Gastelum would have asked enough questions of him to really test it. Against Strickland, all that is much less certain. Not only is he much closer in height and reach, but he’s also a dedicated pace fighter. If Imavov starts to flag at any point, it’s likely Strickland will be right there ready to fill space with strikes. There are major questions about Strickland’s prep to ask, especially with the fight at 205, but he also seems like the kind of guy who’s always in the gym, always sparring, and he never really changes his style for an opponent. Assuming he shows up ready for five rounds, I’ll take Sean Strickland by decision.
Tim Bissell: Imavov has never gone five rounds in the UFC, so there is a danger he could wear out against Strickland if they get there, especially since Strickland has great cardio and actually ups his volume striking the longer a fighter goes on (he threw 111 significant strikes in round five versus Jared Cannonier versus 43 in round one). However, if this does last long and Strickland is upping the amount of strikes he’s throwing, I don’t think that’s enough to get past Imavov. Strickland’s accuracy on significant strikes was a paltry 38% versus Cannonier, who isn’t exactly the most evasive fighter on the planet. His strike accuracy on his UFC career is 40%. Imavov’s is 54%. With both men displaying similar levels of striking defense, I think this fight will see Imavov land slightly more than Strickland, which would be enough to get the nod from the judges. I also think there’s a chance one of those punches lands hard and has Strickland turtling up and reconsidering the decision to hop back into the cage on such short notice/turnaround at a new weight class. Nassourdine Imavov by decision.
Lucas Rezende: Nassourdine Imavov by KO.
Staff picking Strickland: Dayne, Eddie, Zane
Staff picking Imavov: Chris, Lucas, Kristen, Lewis, Bissell, Stephie, Anton
Dan Ige vs. Damon Jackson
Zane Simon: I’d love to see Damon Jackson win this. His run up to the top of the featherweight division feels like something of a Cinderella story for a noodle-y, middling athlete who couldn’t cut it in the UFC the first time around. He’s always aggressive, always fun to watch, and always trying to find ways to finish. That win he got over Pat Sabatini was spectacular. Unfortunately for him, and unlike Sabatini, Ige is a much more fluid, natural striker, and a much more durable one. To date, he’s never been stopped. And while he’s not a consistent KO threat, he’s a sharp counter puncher slipping out of the pocket and working at Jackson’s preferred range. This will be a scrap, but sooner or later I think Ige lands a bomb. Dan Ige via KO, round 1.
Tim Bissell: Damon Jackson is on a four fight winning streak. His last loss was to Ilia Topuria and there’s no shame in that. During that run he’s shown great toughness, craftiness and killer instinct. I think Ige is the best fighter he’s faced since Topuria, but I still believe Jackson will be able to figure him out in medias res and come up with a solution that gets his hand raised against a tough (and somewhat desperate to Ige). Damon Jackson via submission.
Lucas Rezende: Damon Jackson by unanimous decision.
Staff picking Ige: Dayne, Eddie, Zane, Anton
Staff picking Jackson: Chris, Lucas, Kristen, Lewis, Bissell, Stephie
Punahele Soriano vs. Roman Kopylov
Zane Simon: Roman Kopylov’s style wasn’t built to thrive in the UFC. He’s a high-volume, low power ‘flow’ striker, who really doesn’t offer a lot beyond his boxing game. When that game is really flowing, it’s fun and sharp, but it also means that he’s got to wade through longer ranges where opponents can tee off on him, and it means he spends a lot of time in the pocket, throwing strikes that aren’t all that powerful... where opponents can tee off on him. Di Chirico gave him the time and space he needed to get his game going, but it was still kind of a rough fight in spots. Soriano hits a lot harder, is way more durable, and can be a great wrestler when he chooses to use it. If Soriano can’t find a way to take this one, it’ll be a pretty bad statement on his future in the UFC. Punahele Soriano via TKO, round 2.
Tim Bissell: I think this fight is pretty even, with Kopylov having an edge in the technical department, but Soriano having an edge in both explosiveness and athleticism. Because I think Soriano’s advantages are more likely to cause a stoppage, I have to pick him. I also think he’ll be more willing to change things up if there is a stalemate on the feet. Punahele Soriano via TKO.
Lucas Rezende: Roman Kopylov by KO.
Staff picking Soriano: Kristen, Eddie, Bissell, Zane, Anton
Staff picking Kopylov: Chris, Lucas, Dayne, Lewis, Stephie
Ketlen Vieira vs. Raquel Pennington
Zane Simon: If I had to make a guess it’s that Pennington will do a lot of the better boxing work moment to moment, but lose key battles of position and power that leave at least two judges scoring two rounds against her. Has all the makings of a very close, very ugly, very indecisive fight. Ketlen Vieira by split decision.
Tim Bissell: I realize Pennington is on a winning streak right now, but two of those four wins are against women who are no longer in the promotion. The other two wins aren;t exactly against world beaters. Vieira on the other hand is more practised, recently, at beating fighters who are known to perform at higher levels, having bested Holly Holm and Meisha Tate last time out. Vieira has the power advantage in this fight and I fear that, if Pennington starts to feel that she’ll fade. Vieira has shown a relentless side when she sees she has someone hurt, so if those things collide it could be another big notch on the belt of the Brazilian. Ketlen Vieira via decision.
Lucas Rezende: Raquel Pennington by unanimous decision.
Staff picking Vieira: Chris, Eddie, Bissell, Zane, Anton
Staff picking Pennington: Lucas, Dayne, Kristen, Lewis, Stephie
Umar Nurmagomedov vs. Raoni Barcelos
Zane Simon: I’m pretty shocked by the odds for this one, and pretty surprised to see all the picks here going Nurmagomedov’s way. Barcelos is a fantastic wrestler, and while Nurmagomedov is the more creative striker, he’s rarely looked like a guy who can just breeze through a dedicated standup battle. Especially not one with the kind of power and toughness that Barcelos can offer. That said, I’ve seen Barcelos against dedicated kickers, and I’ve seen him against less able, more creative strikers, and when he can’t physically dominate them, he has a lot of trouble pushing a pace that decisively steers rounds to his favor. If neither man can create a clear wrestling advantage (and I’m not at all sure about that), then I’ll lean toward Nurmagomedov to keep things at distance and keep the fight frustrating. But Barcelos is one of the most underrated guys in the UFC, he shouldn’t be overlooked here. Umar Nurmagomedov by decision.
Tim Bissell: I’m worried that I’m being romanced by the name recognition here, given that Barcelos is in no way a can here to be crushed. But Nurmagomedov has looked great so far and I pick him to have an edge both striking and grappling with the still very talented Barcelos. Umar Nurmagomedov by decision.
Lucas Rezende: Umar Nurmagomedov by unanimous decision.
Staff picking Nurmagomedov: Chris, Eddie, Lucas, Dayne, Kristen, Lewis, Bissell, Stephie, Zane, Anton
Staff picking Barcelos:
Abdul Razak Alhassan vs. Claudio Ribeiro
Zane Simon: Both men throw bombs, both men run out of ideas in a hurry. Expecting a complete car crash for one round where either man could go out, but if neither man does, this will probably turn into an exhausted swing-n-cling contest down the stretch. Alhassan has more experience doing that at a higher level, so I’ll take him to gut out the ugly decision. Abdul Razak Alhassan by decision.
Lucas Rezende: Claudio Ribero by KO.
Staff picking Alhassen: Chris, Dayne, Kristen, Stephie, Eddie, Zane
Staff picking Ribeiro: Lucas, Lewis, Bissell, Anton
Mateusz Rebecki vs. Nick Fiore
Zane Simon: Rebecki has the look of a much more dominating physical force who wants to have the exact kind of fight Fiore will offer. Maybe Fiore can catch a miracle sub, but my guess is he’ll be doing a whole lot of work from guard, where he won’t be all that comfortable. Mateusz Rebecki via decision.
Lucas Rezende: Mateusz Rebecki by unanimous decision.
Staff picking Rebecki: Chris, Lucas, Eddie, Dayne, Kristen, Bissell, Stephie, Zane, Anton
Staff picking Fiore:
Mateus Mendonca vs. Javid Basharat
Zane Simon: A good fight. Mendonca may be unknown, but he’s a real quality prospect with a bullying style, power in his hands, and some decent wrestling and crafty grappling. Problem here is that Basharat’s a lot bigger than him, and a razor sharp counter puncher. Mendonca’s not bad off the back foot, but when he pushes forward, he gets awfully wild and exposed. Lucky for him, Basharat’s not a great power striker, so this probably goes the distance. Javid Basharat via decision.
Tim Bissell: I’m a believer in Basharat and am genuinely excited to see how far he can go in the division. Mendonca looks an exciting prospect, too, but I’m giving more stock in what Basharat has been able to do outside of the Contender series. Javid Basharat via TKO.
Lucas Rezende: Javid Basharat by unanimous decision.
Staff picking Mendonca:
Staff picking Basharat: Chris, Lucas, Dayne, Kristen, Eddie, Bissell, Stephie, Zane, Anton
Allan Nascimento vs. Carlos Hernandez
Zane Simon: I can’t really imagine a version of this fight where Hernandez stays safe enough to see the final bell. He loves to fight messy, create exchanges, wrestle, and grapple. Sooner or later, he’s gonna give Nascimento the ground battle the Brazilian wants. Allan Nascimento via submission.
Lucas Rezende: Allan Nascimento by submission.
Staff picking Nascimento: Lucas, Dayne, Kristen, Stephie, Eddie, Zane, Anton
Staff picking Hernandez: Chris, Bissell
Daniel Argueta vs. Nick Aguirre
Zane Simon: Argueta’s got the sharper hands, and can be a decent wrestler when he’s thinking about it. Aguirre’s got a decent, raw takedown-to-grappling game, but it’s very untested at a higher level and I don’t think short notice like this is the place for it to shine. Daniel Argueta via TKO, round 3.
Lucas Rezende: Daniel Argueta by unanimous decision.
Staff picking Argueta: Lucas, Dayne, Eddie, Kristen, Stephie, Zane, Anton
Staff picking Aguirre: Chris, Bissell
Jimmy Flick vs. Charles Johnson
Zane Simon: There’s no real reason that Johnson should be a big favorite here. Both men have had their share of losses and Johnson has rarely pushed a great round winning pace in his career (an especially big problem at flyweight). His last (debatable) win was a good step forward there, however, and he has one notable point to his credit against Flick. Over a long regional career that includes the likes of Brandon Royval, Johnson has been impossible to hold down or submit. Even Mokaev, putting on his wrestle clinic, could rarely actually just keep Johnson on the mat. Before his layoff, Flick’s striking was little more than serviceable to get him into takedown range. I doubt that’s changed in the years since. That said, If anyone can be Johnson’s first sub loss, Flick is the kind of guy to do it. Charles Johnson via decision.
Lucas Rezende: Jimmy Flick by submission.
Staff picking Flick: Lucas, Bissell
Staff picking Johnson: Chris, Dayne, Eddie, Kristen, Stephie, Zane, Anton
This poll is closed