UFC Vegas 67: Strickland Steps Up Against Surging Imavov For Historic Back-to-Back Main Event Turn

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 13: (L-R) Opponents Sean Strickland and Nassourdine Imavov of Russia face off during the UFC weigh-in at UFC APEX on January 13, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Surging middleweight contender Nassourdine Imavov will have a new opponent in Sean Strickland who steps in on several days notice to now historically headline both the last event of 2022 and first event of 2023 by fighting at UFC Vegas 67.

In a year that has already had its share of headlines, Sean Strickland’s place at UFC Vegas 67 is relatively mild.  That said, it is not without its merits.  The number seven ranked middleweight was last seen roughly four weeks ago in a competitive five round contest against fellow top contender Jared Cannonier in which he came up short by split-decision.  It was a disappointing result to say the least as Strickland entered the year on a six fight win-streak that had him on the cusp of a title shot and ended it on a two fight skid.  Now in a more critical position of needing to build his way back up the rankings, he has stepped up to save the day against a hungry up-and-comer eager to remove him from his spot.

To underestimate Strickland in this position would be to ignore the body of work he has put together as a UFC contender.  For the first ten years of his career, he went 20-3 with his only losses coming to top UFC welterweights Kamaru Usman, Santiago Ponzinibbio, and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in the Octagon.  After a motorcycle accident sidelined him for two years, he moved up to 185 pounds where he has turned away the likes of veterans Jack Hermansson, Krzysztof Jotko, and Brendan Allen to rise to the top of the division.  While a disappointing stumble against now champion Alex Pereira halted his momentum, he remains in prime position to stay in the mix in 2023 with a victory on Saturday.

Russian Nassourdine Imavov has steadily climbed up the ranks since the beginning of his career.  Now calling France his home, “The Russian Sniper” accumulated a 7-2 record before getting called up to the UFC in 2020.  Notably, Imavov had been scheduled to face fellow surging middleweight Gregory Rodrigues on Dana White’s Contender Series that year but was instead offered a UFC contract outright and ended up making his debut against Jordan Williams who defeated Rodrigues in Imavov’s place at DWCS.  The turn of events played out well in favor of Imavov as he ended up winning the bout handily by unanimous decision.

Imavov was handed his first UFC loss in his following outing against Phil Hawes but soon bounced back with an impressive three fight win-streak against Ian Heinisch, Edmen Shahbazyan, and Joaquin Buckley to propel himself into the rankings and now his first UFC headliner.  Though he now faces a higher ranked opponent than previously anticipated, he also has the advantage of having had a full training camp compared to his new foe.  Considering the criticism stemming from the pacing of his most recent bout against Buckley, a return to form against Strickland under the circumstances would poise him for a potential leap up the rankings in 2023.

The bout sees a stylistic change for Imavov as the taller and more high-volume attack of Strickland is widely different from the boxing and wrestling offense of the shorter Kelvin Gastelum who he was previously scheduled to face.  Strickland is most effective when he’s able to push forward with high volume and wear down opponents over time.  That said, it remains to be seen if his familiar conditioning is up to par on short notice and considering that the fight will be contested at light-heavyweight which is twenty pounds heavier than their natural weight class.

The middleweight division is expected to see several top contenders jockey for position.  With the title picture locked in behind Alex Pereira, Israel Adesanya, and Robert Whittaker, it is expected that the winner between Strickland and Imavov will face the winner of the upcoming bout between Marvin Vettori and Roman Dolidze or Paulo Costa in their next outing to continue their climb up the rankings.