The UFC returns after a month-long absence for it’s first card of 2023, and there has already been drama.
Originally slated to be a middleweight main event between Nassourdine Imavov and Kelvin Gastelum, before Gastelum fell out with a mouth injury during fight week.
He’s now replaced by Sean Strickland, who steps in after his main event defeat to Jared Cannonier in the final card of 2022.
During that even we went 9/13 with five perfect picks to end the year at #UFCVegas66, moving us to 804/1251 (64.27%) with 331 perfect picks (41.17%). You can see our full pick history here.
Umar Nurmagomedov (15-0) vs Raoni Barcelos (17-3) – (Bantamweight/135lbs)
A shout for fight of the card in this one to open up the main card. Nurmagomedov is undefeated and claimed a dominant win over Nate Maness in his most recent outing, while Barcelos bounced back from a two-fight losing streak to beat Trevin Jones in his latest fight.
Nurmagomedov by name, but not in style. Umar is a fantastic striker in the bantamweight division, using his kicks well, but still having that legendary grappling in his back pocket when he needs it. Barcelos is one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division who has found his age to be the biggest problem in his career. If Nurmagomedov wants to win this fight, he will absolutely need to use his grappling.
Barcelos has got fantastic jiu-jitsu skills to go along with his violent Muay-Thai, but on his back is where he’s at his least effective. Umar has got good striking to compete, but once he gets top position he can control the fight and work to a decision win in a close and entertaining bout.
PICK – Umar Nurmagomedov via Decision
Ketlen Vieira (13-2) vs Raquel Pennington (14-9) – (Bantamweight/135lbs)
An interesting bantamweight scrap up next between two women looking to get into title contention. Vieira is on a two-fight winning streak having beaten former champions Miesha Tate and Holly Holm in her most recent bouts, while Pennington has won her last four, beating Marion Reneau, Pannie Kianzad, Macy Chiasson and Aspen Ladd.
Vieira is a well-rounded fighter with good knockout power and nasty submission skills on the mat too. She’s very aggressive and forward thinking, and will have a size advantage in this bout. Pennington on the other hand is very well rounded too, but she doesn’t have the greatest of finishing instincts and tends to be quite a reactive fighter. That leans the fight into Vieira’s favour undoubtedly.
Pennington will almost certainly look to hold a lot and land the odd strikes to score with the judges, while being defensively solid to give herself a chance. Vieira will press forward and look to mix up her attacks, but if she can score takedowns early then this is her fight to lose. I expect she will be able to do that, and get to a relatively comfortable decision win.
PICK – Ketlen Vieira via Decision
Punahele Soriano (9-2) vs Roman Kopylov (9-2) – (Middleweight/185lbs)
Bangers at middleweight go head-to-head up next. Soriano bounced back from consecutive defeats to Brendan Allen and Nick Maximov to earn a knockout win over Dalcha Lungiambula last time out, while Kopylov did the same after defeats to Karl Roberson and Albert Duraev with a KO win against Alessio Di Chirico in his last outing at UFC Paris.
Both of these guys see themselves as knockout artists in the short and simple summary, but they have more skills to their name than just that. Soriano is an All-American wrestler in the past too, while Kopylov is a decent grappler himself, especially defensively. There’s no doubt both men are at their best when striking though, with a combined 14 knockout wins in their career.
Both guys are at a similar level, and both fighters are at a similar stage of their career too. Kopylov is the better boxer with decent combinations, and Soriano has got the better cardio and ability to carry his power later in the fight. It will be entertaining for sure, but I think Kopylov should be able to do a bit more with his combinations to secure a decision,
PICK – Roman Kopylov via Decision
Dan Ige (15-6) vs Damon Jackson (22-4-1) – (Featherweight/145lbs)
A really fun and close match up in the featherweight division is the co-main event here. Ige has lost his last three via decision to Korean Zombie, Josh Emmett and Movsar Evloev, while Jackson is on a four-fight win streak beating Charles Rosa, Kamuela Kirk, Dan Argueta and Pat Sabatini in just 79 seconds.
Ige is a striker with decent one-punch knockout power and some solid defensive wrestling too, but he’s on a slide right now. Jackson on the other hand has really developed in the last two years, with fantastic grappling skills and much improved striking earning him a KO last time out. Many people will be thinking Ige is a level up on previous competition, but this is closer than you’d think on paper.
Jackson’s chin is very good for the most part, but it gets tested way too much to take too many shots from Ige. Ige is a very good defensive wrestler and Jackson will have to work really hard to be successful. If he can do that then it’s his fight to lose on the mat, but Ige’s defeats have come against top guys and I do think he should be able to hold off the wrestling threat and land enough on the feet to get back on track.
PICK – Dan Ige via Decision
Sean Strickland (25-5) vs Nassourdine Imavov (12-3) – (Light Heavyweight/205lbs)
Two ranked middleweight fighters compete in a short-notice light heavyweight main event here. Strickland has lost his last two, getting KO’d by the new champion Alex Pereira before dropping a split decision to Jared Cannonier most recently last month, while Imavov has won his last three with knockouts over Ian Heinisch and Edmen Shahbazyan before a decision against Joaquin Buckley.
Strickland is a well-rounded fighter but constantly allows his ego to dictate his game plan. He’s a solid wrestler who never wrestles, instead marching forward with his jab and weaponizing his cardio. Imavov is a very well-rounded fighter with spectacular striking to go with decent wrestling and grappling skills too. Imavov is a really top prospect in this division, and a win here could set him up for a title push in 2023.
Strickland will definitely step forwards and try to assert himself, but Imavov is a very good counter striker and we’ve seen that Strickland definitely trusts his chin rather than using his defence. That is a risky strategy, but with his volume and experience in a five-round fight he could start to pull away in the latter rounds. With that said, Imavov’s movement and speed, plus the fact he’s been in camp for this date, have me leaning towards him in a razor close fight.
PICK – Nassourdine Imavov via Decision