Key questions ahead of 2022’s final Fight Night
UFC will end its year with a main event highlighting one of the promotion’s most exciting divisions.
Sean Strickland will face Jared Cannonier in the main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday in a critical middleweight bout. Both lost against elite fighters, and the winner will make himself relevant again in the £185 pecking order.
Strickland was on a six-game winning streak and looking primed for the title before meeting Alex Pereira – and his devastating left hook – in a knockout loss at UFC 276 in July. Cannonier’s only loss in two years came against then champion Israel Adesanya in the main event on the same card. Both fighters are ranked in the top 10 of ESPN’s middleweight rankings.
Last month, Pereira stopped Adesanya via fifth-round TKO to win the UFC middleweight title, a fight that was very much in the interests of Strickland and Cannonier. With champion Pereira, it revived Cannonier’s chances of a quick return to title contention. But for him and Strickland, a win this weekend was needed to make up for it.
The co-main event featured two of the top lightweight blue-chippers in the UFC, Arman Tsarukyan and Damir Ismagulov. Additionally, Cory McKenna, who is 9th on ESPN’s top 25 MMA under 25 list, will face Cheyenne Vlismas, Bobby Green and Drew Dober’s all-action lightweight fight, and Julian Erosa will look to extend his winning streak at featherweight. against veteran Alex Cáceres.
Here are some of the biggest questions (and their answers) that made their way onto the card for this year’s final UFC fight:
Fact or fiction: The winner of the Cannonier-Strickland will have his next title shot
Okamoto: Fiction. Long fiction. Put this one in the ‘fantasy’ section of your local library. There are plenty of options to defend Pereira’s first title far ahead of the winner on this one. But don’t get me wrong: this is a massive middleweight fight.
The Cannonier may need it more. He’s older, and he’s already had his shot at a UFC title fight, and the effort he put in – if we’re being frank – isn’t the kind that will immediately inspire another shot. Strickland isn’t exactly against the wall, but he’s already lost to the current champ. So, it’s a big bet for both.
Raimondi: Fiction. Adesanya is likely to soon get a deserved rematch for the title against the new champion Pereira. Robert Whittaker is also higher on the midweight competitor depth chart.
Wagenheim: Fiction. Unless “The Last Stylebender” refuses, having lost to new champion Pereira three times now (including kickboxing), the Cannonier-Strickland winner will be stuck behind him in line. Maybe this weekend’s winner can wait his turn, but it’s a dangerous way to navigate the twisty road of UFC matchmaking.
Outside of the main event, the fight I most want to see is ____________?
Raimondi: The ultimate companion event, without a doubt. Tsarukyan and Ismagulov are two of the top up and coming lightweight lightweights in the world. The lone grappling battle between the two of them had to be stellar. Remember how well Tsarukyan fared against Islam Makhachev and Mateusz Gamrot? The winner of this fight could become a future title contender, they are both that good. So good that you almost didn’t want to see them fight each other early in their UFC run. Not that anyone should complain.
Wagenheim: I’d go with the co-main as well, as it features the only other fighter (outside of the main fight) in ESPN’s division rankings. Tsarukyan (18-3), No. 10 at lightweight, suffered a rare loss when he faced Ismagulov (24-1), winner of 19 straight, top five in the UFC. Ismagulov is one of 11 fighters on this card with no more than two losses, and there have been four fights where the two fighters faced each other. This card may not be packed with big names, but it does make some great resumes.
Okamoto: Not to worry, it’s Tsarukyan vs. Ismagulov. Two names that aren’t well known yet, but anyone who follows the sport knows they are two wild cards in the lightweight division. We may not talk about these two on a regular basis now, but we will in years to come. I’m more interested in this fight than I am in the main event.
Which prospect on the card has the best outlook for 2023?
Wagenheim: The word Nurmagomedov has a last name to pay attention to and a skill to capitalize on attention. The 30-year-old fighter from Dagestan, who faced Saidyokub Kakhramono in the bantamweight preliminary round, is not related to former champion Khabib or his UFC cousins Umar and Abubakar or Bellator’s Usman. Still, name associations alone set Said apart from the crowd. Nurmagomedov (16-2) has won 10 of his last 11 fights, shifting the trajectory up.
Raimondi: Tsarukyan. His only UFC losses came against the current champion, Makhachev, and top competitor on Mateusz Gamrot. In the final fight, many thought that Tsarukyan could win. If the Georgian-born fighter of Armenian descent can defeat a very, very tough foe in Ismagulov on Saturday, there’s only a big fight for him to come in 2023. He may not get a shot at the title next year, but he can put himself close with the No. 1 challenger spot 1 with this one and a few more.
Okamoto: I’m with Raimondi at Tsarukyan, because I believe in his overall craft. And he is only 26 years old. Beyond that, I’d say Manel Kape. Kape came to the UFC flyweight division with some behind-the-scenes hype, but it took him a little time to find his groove. Now that it seems, he’s a threat at 125. If he has a breakout 2023 campaign, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Is this a proper counter fight for Bobby Green?
Okamoto: It depends on what we mean by ‘proper counter fight.’ Is it a tough fight? Yes it is. Green is the underdog, though not a massive one. However, Dober has the kind of style that can overwhelm any opponent. He’s good at applying pressure and he’s a plus wrestler. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if his offensive wrestling proved too much for Green. That said, Green has faced challenges before. Some of his most memorable performances have been as an underdog, especially early in his career. Is this the right fight for her in terms of making sure she looks good? Not. Is this an opportunity to straight up make a statement against a proven man? Very.
Raimondi: There have been worse fights for Green, who has been a diehard fan favorite since going 3-1 during a very active pandemic year in 2020. If there’s one thing about Dober, it’s that he brings the fight. He is a candidate for a Fight of the Night bonus whenever he steps into the Octagon. Same with Green. And he excels when he has opponents willing to get involved and push the pace. Look how well Green performed against Rafael Fiziev, an elite striker. Dobber vs. Green would be nice, no doubt about it.
Wagenheim: I believe Green would have preferred a yellow card from a lightweight rating, which would have given him a chance to move up the pecking order quickly. But back from his PED suspension, he doesn’t have the clout to be picky, though he does look for substances found in over-the-counter supplements. If anything, Green should welcome this fight against Dober, a tough veteran fans will recognize. Green will be in as much of the spotlight as he has any right to hope for.
What fight would you like to see in 2022 that never materialized?
Wagenheim: Francis Nganou vs. Jon Jones. Wasn’t that the fight that everyone wanted to see in 2022 the most but didn’t happen? I would expand on the big boy’s wishes by saying that, with Ngannou’s status with the UFC on the air this year, I would love to see Jones make his heavyweight debut against anyone in the top five. Jones vs Stipe Miocic will be – and still could be – a fun fight and a solid test for the big “Bones”.
Raimondi: Ngannou fought Jones for the UFC heavyweight title. It seemed like it was destined to happen eventually this year, but Ngannou needed knee surgery after his title defense against Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 in January, and Jones has not fought for a full 12 months. Jones nearly returned in December, but Ngannou was not ready as his recovery and a deal for Jones against Miocic never came to fruition. Let’s hope 2023 is the year we see Ngannou, the most dangerous puncher in UFC history, fights Jones, the most successful athlete ever in MMA.
Okamoto: Anything involving Conor McGregor, for one. I miss that guy, okay? I am willing. The sport is fine without McGregor, but it’s also a lot of fun with him – and it never feels like we even have close to see McGregor fight this year. I also want to see Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev, and it didn’t happen. Pretty much the other fights I have on my must-see list in 2022 do happen, so it’s been a good year for marquee fights to come together. But McGregor’s 12 months absence this year has been clear, and I hope we’ll see Chimaev in bigger fights, especially after the Fight of the Year candidate he had earlier with Gilbert Burns.