Short-notice replacement, Sean Strickland, will square off opposite rising contender, Nassourdine Imavov, this Saturday (Jan. 14, 2023) at UFC Vegas 67 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Imavov joined the roster in 2020, a rare European prospect picked up in the midst of the pandemic. Though he showed off a bit of inexperience initially, he quickly began to showcase the sharp boxing that has led to his current three-fight win streak. The young prospect — not exactly a common label at 185 pounds — is improving quickly, and he’s shown the physical tools and technical talents to become a factor in his division’s title picture.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
A boxer since his youth, Imavov fights out of Paris’ MMA Factory. Indeed, there’s a little bit of Ciryl Gane to his side-on stance and bouncy footwork, but Imavov uses that style of movement for a very different purpose.
Unlike his team mate, Imavov doesn’t look to manage range and pick his foe apart with kicks. Instead, he relies on the bounciness of his stance to quickly spring forward with his hands. He’ll occasionally throw a snap kick or switch Southpaw and blast the body with his left leg, but mostly, Imavov’s distance weapon is the jab.
Imavov tends to keep his lead hand a bit extended, closer to his opponent than his own chin. He’s a big Middleweight, able to rely on pulling back to avoid shots rather than blocking more often than a smaller man. As such, he’s able to stay safe defensively and quicken his jab by lessening the amount of distance the shot has to cover.
Since Imavov already has fast hands, that makes his jab an especially nasty, snapping strike (GIF).
Imavov doesn’t just hang back and jab, however. He’s an aggressive fighter, and his ability to dull his opponents’ senses with feints combines with his speed to make a dangerous combination. Often, Imavov is showing a lot of steps forward (with or without the jab). Then, he’ll suddenly spring forward, closing an extra bit of distance with a hard one-two combination or hook-cross.
Imavov is quite willing to crash forward behind the right hand. He’s comfortable and violent in the clinch, able to extend his combinations with a hard knee from close quarters (GIF). On the whole, Imavov does well at close distance. Any time opponents are looking to wrestle him, Imavov does well in first securing head position, driving his forehead into his opponent’s jaw before then breaking with an elbow.
There are some downsides to Imavov’s style. Notably, he’s stepping in deep behind his right hand very often, which can get him countered. More often, however, Imavov’s lead leg is getting chopped up. His tall stance and slightly inward lead leg leave him vulnerable to the low kick, as does his propensity for jabbing. All of his recent opponents have effectively attacked his left leg, but thus far, Imavov has still been able to close distance and land enough punches to stay ahead.
Imavov’s first UFC loss came down to wrestling. He touched up Phil Hawes and had him hurt late in the fight, but in the first two rounds, Hawes was able to repeatedly slow Imavov down along the fence and then force him to the canvas.
Many expected Heinisch, an accomplished wrestler himself, to be able to find similar success. Instead, Imavov showed his improvements. Part of that came down to setting up his punches more effectively, as Heinisch wasn’t able to easily time his right hand with double legs. Along the fence, Imavov did a better job of spreading his base and pulling Heinisch up into the clinch, where his head position and elbows were solid defense.
It was simply better work from the prospect.
Offensively, Imavov is definitely willing to mix takedowns into his attack. Since he tends to be backing opponents into the fence and stepping forward with his right hand anyway, the double leg along the cage is a natural addition. It’s not complicated, but Imavov is a strong fighter with a formidable boxing game — his opponents have to cover up at least a bit under fire!
Imavov has finished four of his fights via tapout.
Inside the Octagon, he’s made strong use of the guillotine choke. In particular, he used several variations of the strangle to thwart Heinisch’s takedown attempts. When Heinisch took his head to the outside on his single leg shot, Imavov attacked with the high-elbow guillotine. Twice, he was able to severely threaten Heinisch, forcing him to fall to his back on one occasion.
When Heinisch kept his head on the inside — likely as a counter measure to the high-elbow guillotine — Imavov instead attacked with the ninja choke. Using his forearm to frame the throat, Imavov used his opponent’s forward pressure to drop Heinisch’s chin into the crook of his elbow. From there, Imavov would attack with the rear naked choke grip, again forcing Heinisch to the floor in bottom position.
Outside of the guillotine, Imavov has hunted for the rear naked choke on a couple occasions inside the Octagon. In addition, he did well to trap Edmen Shahbazyan in a top side crucifix, where elbows secured him a second-round stoppage win.
Imavov faces an interesting style match up here, a striker very willing to go toe-to-toe for however long this fight lasts. It’s a pure clash of jabbers and 1-2ers, though Imavov’s speed will be pitted against Strickland’s defensive savvy. If the French prospect can pull through, he’s going to jump up the rankings significantly.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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