TNT Sports Reload - Episode 11Sep 26
UFC Apex once again plays host to Fight Night as Jared Cannonier and Sean Strickland take centre stage in the final event of the year, with the pair originally supposed to go toe-to-toe in October before Strickland withdrew with a finger infection.
Both men last fought - and lost - during what was a memorable UFC 276 at the start of July as Israel Adesanya secured a unanimous-decision victory over Cannonier and Strickland suffered a first-round knockout at the hands of current middleweight champion Alex Pereira.
Elsewhere, Damir Ismagulov will be looking to make it six wins with the promotion from as many fights as he throws down against the dangerous Arman Tsarukyan, while Amir Albazi bids to extend his 100% franchise record when he faces Alessandro Costa.
With all that coming your way this weekend, here are three reasons you can’t miss UFC Fight Night: Cannonier vs Strickland on BT Sport.
Tarzan wary of Killa Gorilla
Jared Cannonier may have seen his first UFC title shot pass him by at the age of 38 after losing to Israel Adesanya over the summer, but the "Killa Gorilla" will thrust himself right back into the conversation about future challengers to Alex Pereira if the Dallas man can see off Sean Strickland in Saturday night's hot ticket.
Strickland, nicknamed "Tarzan", will, like Cannonier, be itching to put things right after lasting two-and-a-half minutes against Pereira, the first time he has lost in the Octagon since 2018.
Despite Strickland possessing a better UFC win-loss record than his upcoming opponent - 12-4 compared to Cannonier's 8-6 - the North Carolina-born fighter is keen not to understestimate him.
"The 'Killa Gorilla', let's f****** go - sounds like a scary motherf******," the 31-year-old admitted. "Sounds like I don’t want to share a f****** cell with that guy."
Maybe I'll take him down. Maybe I'll kickbox. Maybe I'll box. I don't even f****** know these things
- Sean Strickland
When it comes to predicting how the fight will go, Strickland kept his cards close to his chest in the build-up, believing he has the versatility to trouble Cannonier in a variety of ways.
"Maybe I'll take him down. Maybe I'll kickbox. Maybe I'll box. I don't even f****** know these things," he said. "You're asking questions I haven't even thought about yet."
Nevertheless, Strickland's previous fights suggest that he is particularly adept at finding finishes with his fists, stopping Alex Garcia, Nordine Taleb and Brendan Allen with punches.
Indeed, Strickland has only ever stopped one other opponent in the UFC, producing a rear-naked choke submission on his debut against Bubba McDaniel.
Cannonier meanwhile has six finishes - all via striking - from eight victories, setting up an intriguing battle between two men who seem on paper to possess very similar strengths and currently both hold places in the top 10 of the middleweight rankings, with Cannonier third and Strickland seventh.
“I’m excited for this fight,” Cannonier said. “I'm always excited to fight, but there's a different sort of excitement around this fight. I'm going against a guy who is going to be willing to get into a fight.
“He's not a guy who's going to try to be more evasive. That's exciting for me. I'm very excited to have Sean as an opponent.
“That's not to discount his abilities. He's definitely a good fighter. He's top 10 for a good reason. He's a dog in there. He goes forward. He puts his fist in your face. And he's not too scared to get one put in his. So, excited.”
Ismagulov eyeing "trampoline" effect
While Damir Ismagulov may not be the most spectacular fighter on the circuit, he is devastatingly effective and faces Arman Tsarukyan in the co-main event, with the duo former training partners at the Tiger Muay Thai facility in Phuket.
All of Ismagulov's bouts in the UFC have gone the distance, but he has a record of five wins from five, meaning he currently sits 12th in the lightweight standings.
That said however, those five fights have taken place over a period of three-and-a-half years and the 31-year-old is itching for more regular and prestigious match-ups from now on after bemoaning the fact that the promotion wasn't putting opponents in front of him, even after he was calling people out, including Donald Cerrone after beating Guram Kutateladze in June.
Asked why he felt he wasn't getting the fights, Ismagulov responded: "My record is 24 wins [and just one loss in MMA overall], so I'm dangerous for any opponent.
This fight can be a trampoline to make sure my career goes forward
- Damir Ismagulov
"If I need to, I can find a key to victory for any opponent that the UFC puts in front of me.
"Everyone is kind of afraid. Everyone is making sure to avoid me. Now that the UFC has given me such an opportunity, this fight can be a trampoline for me to make sure that my career goes forward.
"This is going to give me a chance to show what I’m really worth, this is going to give me a chance to get a lot of American fans, this is going to give a chance for me to show the UFC that they have been overlooking me, that I deserve much more."
Despite Ismagulov's credentials though, opponent Tsarukyan is the higher-ranked of the pair in ninth, but arrives in Nevada off the back of a controversial unanimous-decision loss to Mateusz Gamrot in June, ending a five-fight winning streak for the Russian.
Nevertheless, Tsarukyan's confidence doesn't appear to have been dented too much, as he claimed in the run-up to the weekend that he was the only man in the lightweight division capable of taking the belt off Islam Makhachev, his first UFC opponent and the current belt holder.
After saying he is "very hungry and can't wait to beat [Ismagulov]", Tsarukyan added: "One day I'll be UFC champion. It doesn't matter how judges [are] going to judge me, I'm going to get my goal.
"I wanted to fight someone from [the] top five, top 10, but nobody wants to fight with me. I've got to have a good win streak and show that I can beat everybody."
Third time lucky for Albazi
London-based fighter Amir Albazi's preparation for this weekend has been chaotic to say the least.
The flyweight was initially marked down to face championship challenger Alex Perez, before the Californian withdrew in October for undisclosed reasons.
Perez was replaced on the billing by Brandon Royval, but the 30-year-old sustained a broken wrist in training late last month, meaning Alessandro Costa had to be drafted in.
Costa can't quite believe that his UFC debut will take place against a top-10 fighter, saying: "It's so much happiness that it doesn't even give weight to pressure.
"First when I saw his name then went to Sherdog [the MMA website] to look at his record, I was like, 'Damn!' But that's kind of end-of-year gift I could get, right?"
Albazi's first-round submission victory over Francisco Figueiredo in August was a statement of intent as his UFC record moved on to 3-0.
The Baghdad-born fighter is sceptical of Perez's reason for pulling out of their originally scheduled meeting as Perez is already booked in to face Kai Kara-France in February at UFC 284 in Perth.
"I don't know if [his withdrawal] is a valid excuse," Albazi, nicknamed "The Prince", said.
"Personally I didn't like to see him booked up again, so I'm thinking: 'What's going on?'
I don't know if it's valid
- Amir Albazi on Alex Perez's withdrawal
"Brandon Royval, I get it. I know he's a tough guy. He probably injured his hand, and I don't want to fight against someone that's compromised.
"I'd rather fight with Brandon Royval when he's fresh and I'm fresh, and we get that fight going."
Albazi also knows not to underestimate Costa.
"I still expect a hard fight. The guy has nothing to lose - all the pressure is on me. I’m there to showcase my skills.
"I know the pressure is on me, so I'm just going out there to perform. I'm going out there to outclass a guy that has nothing to lose."