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UFC Vegas 66 preview, ‘Cannonier vs Strickland’ predictions

UFC 276: Adesanya v Cannonier Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is closing out its 2022 fight campaign with one final mixed martial arts (MMA) event this Sat. night (Dec. 17) at the promotion’s APEX facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, featuring a middleweight headliner between former title challenger Jared Cannonier and certified wackadoodle Sean Strickland. Both fighters are looking to bounce back after losses to former middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and reigning 185-pound kingpin Alex Pereira, respectively. This weekend’s five-round showdown (if it lasts that long) will prove who still has the chops to compete for the division strap and who needs to go back to the drawing board to start over.

LIVE! Stream UFC Vegas 68 On ESPN+

TOP-RANKED HEAVYWEIGHT HEADLINERS! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sat., Feb. 4, 2023, headlined by a hard-hitting main event between No. 7-ranked Heavyweight contender, Derrick Lewis, finally locking horns with No. 12-seeded Serghei Spivac. In UFC Vegas 68’s co-main event, Light Heavyweight hopefuls Da-Un Jung and Devin Clark hook ‘em up on ESPN+. Please note: UFC Vegas 68 start time for the main card is scheduled for 1 a.m. ET.

Don’t miss a single second of face-punching action!

Before we dive into the main and co-main events, which includes the lightweight showdown between once-beaten Russian dynamo Damir Ismagulov and rebounding 155-pound bruiser Arman Tsarukyan, check out Patrick Stumberg’s easy and breezy UFC Vegas 66 preliminary card breakdowns here and here. In addition, resident MMA hero Andrew Richardson did most of the heavy lifting for the rest of the UFC Vegas 66 main card right here. For the latest “Cannonier vs. Strickland” odds and betting lines courtesy of our fiscal friends over at Draft Kings go here.

Let’s break it down ...

185 lbs.: Jared Cannonier vs. Sean Strickland

Jared “Killa Gorilla” Cannonier

Record: 15-6 | Age: 38 | Betting line: -105
Wins: 10 KO/TKO, 2 SUB, 3 DEC | Losses: 2 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 4 DEC
Height: 5’11“ | Reach: 77” | Stance: Switch
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.73 | Striking accuracy: 51%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 3.50 | Striking Defense: 61%
Takedown Average: 0.19 (25% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 65%
Current Ranking: No. 3 | Last fight: Unanimous decision loss to Israel Adesanya

Sean “Tarzan” Strickland

Record: 25-4 | Age: 31 | Betting line: -115
Wins: 10 KO/TKO, 4 SUB, 11 DEC | Losses: 2 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 2 DEC
Height: 6’1“ | Reach: 76” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 5.44 | Striking accuracy: 40%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 4.01 | Striking Defense: 65%
Takedown Average: 1.14 (61% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 85%
Current Ranking: No. 7 | Last fight: Knockout loss to Alex Pereira

Jared Cannonier is considered the third-best middleweight in the promotion and somehow managed to get there without fighting former title challengers Paulo Costa and Marvin Vettori, which makes his spot in the 185-pound rankings a bit dubious from my perspective. I don’t want to minimize his victories over Derek Brunson or Jack Hermansson, a pair of very tough outs in the middleweight division, I just think Cannonier has a ceiling and that ceiling was measured in decision losses to Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, two superior strikers with more tools in the proverbial toolbox. Much has been made about “The Killa Gorilla’s” power and rightly so, anyone who gets into double digit knockout wins is a force to be reckoned with. That said, his output is not great, landing just over three significant strikes per minute, one of the lowest averages in the middleweight Top 10. That happens when you don’t have a good jab (or don’t know how to throw one) and simply rely on your power from bell-to-bell. It’s also worth pointing out that he’s been taken down 20 times in his UFC career and yet scored just two takedowns of his own across 14 fights. This is a nice way of saying that Cannonier doesn’t bring much to the table in terms of skill set but can absorb a tremendous amount of punishment, hit like a Mack truck, and go hard for all five rounds. Is that enough to defeat the unorthodox stylings of Sean Strickland?

I’m not gonna bury “Tarzan” for his loss to Alex Pereira because the Brazilian widow maker has a nasty habit of crushing everyone he comes in contact with. Why Strickland didn’t revert to his wrestling against “Poatan” is a question he probably asks himself every night, despite all that overblown tough-guy talk about wanting to stand-and-bang in a potential rematch (uh huh). To what level Strickland performs against Cannonier will tell us whether or not he’s a legitimate mixed martial artist or just a clown collecting a paycheck. Cannonier may not have the kickboxing pedigree that Pereira has but he can also shut the lights off when a chin is delivered on a silver platter. Against my better judgement I’m going to give Strickland the benefit of the doubt here and expect him to tailor his gameplan to his hard-hitting opponent. Similar to the way he spent 25 minutes jabbing the shit out of Jack Hermansson at UFC Vegas 47, an effort to stay away from “The Joker’s” formidable ground game, I think Strickland will use his jab to set up takedowns against Cannonier and work for position on the ground. “Tarzan” scored four takedowns in his decision win over Uriah Hall because he didn’t want to end up on the “Prime Time” highlight reel and I predict he’ll do likewise this weekend in Vegas. I also predict fans will be half asleep by the third round based on the level of inaction once “The Killa Gorilla” has been neutralized. Hey, winning ugly is still winning.

Prediction: Strickland def. Cannonier by unanimous decision

155 lbs.: Damir Ismagulov vs. Arman Tsarukyan

Damir “Qazac” Ismagulov

Record: 24-1 | Age: 31 | Betting line: +160
Wins: 12 KO/TKO, 1 SUB, 11 DEC | Losses: 0 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 1 DEC
Height: 5’10“ | Reach: 74” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.05 | Striking accuracy: 42%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 2.56 | Striking Defense: 63%
Takedown Average: 1.40 (28% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 90%
Current Ranking: No. 12 | Last fight: Split decision win over Guram Kutateladze

Arman “Ahalkalakets” Tsarukyan

Record: 18-3 | Age: 26 | Betting line: -190
Wins: 7 KO/TKO, 5 SUB, 6 DEC | Losses: 1 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 2 DEC
Height: 5’7“ | Reach: 72” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.76 | Striking accuracy: 45%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.86 | Striking Defense: 54%
Takedown Average: 2.71 (33% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 75%
Current Ranking: No. 9 | Last fight: Unanimous decision loss to Mateusz Gamrot

Damir Ismagulov has been virtually unstoppable over the last eight years, making a mockery of the international circuit before making his Octagon debut in late 2018. The reason more people aren’t talking about the future of “Qazac” is because the Russian bruiser has yet to score a finish under the UFC banner, which includes his split decision victory over Guram Kutateladze at the “Kattar vs. Emmett” event last June in Austin. Part of that has to do with the level of competition Ismagulov is facing now that he’s on the world’s biggest combat sports stage, which includes this weekend’s bout against Arman Tsarukyan. If Ismagulov wants to keep the train rolling down the Top 10 tracks he’ll likely need to replicate some of his earlier performances, like the one against Alex Gorgees at UFC Fight Night 142 when he scored five takedowns en route to an easy sweep on the judges’ scorecards. To that end, there has to be concern about how well he’ll fair against a wrestler like “Ahalkalakets” after watching Ismagulov go 0-5 on takedowns against the venerable Thiago Moises and then 0-6 against the aforementioned Kutateladze. Ismagulov is a serviceable striker but he lacks one-punch knockout power — or hasn’t shown it since crossing over to UFC roughly four years back.

Arman Tsarukyan came up short in his battle of 155-pound prospects opposite Mateusz Gamrot at UFC Vegas 57 but didn’t lose much stock considering they put on “Fight of the Night.” In fact, that was the third straight performance bonus for “Ahalkalakets” and fourth since joining the promotion back in April 2019. His debut came against now-lightweight champion Islam Makhachev — a fairly tall order for any combatant — and once again delivered fireworks in a losing effort. It’s worth mentioning that Ismagulov has no performance bonuses to speak of which in no way discredits his success, but I think it factors into this matchup. Tsarukyan is five years younger than his Russian counterpart and brings a more well-rounded offense. He also goes hard for all three rounds and won’t give “Qazac” the space he needs to work from range or set up the takedowns. Without the threat of wrestling or knockout power, it’s hard to pick against Tsarukyan, who is a healthy betting favorite for tomorrow night’s affair. I think Ismagulov is too durable to be finished in this 15-minute affair, but I do expect him to be outclassed after a slow and measured start, even with two-inch advantages in both height and reach.

Prediction: Tsarukyan def. Ismagulov by unanimous decision

Remember, the rest of the UFC Vegas 66 main card predictions are RIGHT HERE.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 66 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+ preliminary card bouts at 4 p.m. ET, followed by the ESPN+ main card start time at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 66 news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive here. For the updated and finalized “Cannonier vs. Strickland” fight card and ESPN+ lineup click here.

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