Going the Distance: Strickland rising up Middleweight rankings with win over Hall

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor

On a fight night card that had poor on-paper matchups but strong real-life results, the main event delivered in the same fashion, as Sean “Tarzan” Strickland (22-3, 11-3 UFC) earned a unanimous decision victory over Uriah “Prime Time” Hall (17-10, 10-8 UFC) at UFC Vegas 33 on Saturday, July 31, at the UFC Apex. While the build-up to this fight wasn’t as exciting relative to other Fight Night headliners (e.g. Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw), Strickland ultimately delivered an entertaining and dominant performance, proving himself as a top-10 middleweight while adding a fifth notch to his winning streak. 

The fight played out largely as expected: Strickland was able to effectively pressure Hall, landing significantly more output (221-122 strikes) and gaining more control time (7:22 to 0:00) than Prime Time. Hall couldn’t really get into rhythm in this fight. He was able to land some decent strikes here and there, but Strickland’s swarming pressure was ultimately too much for the veteran to handle, as he was nearly finished multiple times throughout the five rounds.

Looking at Strickland’s resumé, I’m very impressed with his career. His only losses have come at welterweight, to Elizeu Zaleski Dos Santos, current champion Kamaru Usman, and Santiago Ponzinibbio. All three of these men are high-level fighters, and Strickland has looked good everywhere else, including his last four fights since returning to middleweight. I’m excited to see what is next for Strickland. He may be just a few more victories away from a shot at the belt.

Middleweight Landscape

Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (C) vs. Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (No. 1): (From June): “A rematch of the 2019 unification bout between these two men is the only fight to make at the top of the division, and Dana White has already said as much. Since taking his loss to Adesanya at UFC 243, Whittaker has rebounded impressively, winning unanimous decisions over some of the division’s best in Darren Till, Jared Cannonier, & Kelvin Gastelum. Whittaker is the true number one contender, and of all the top fighters in the division, he poses the biggest threat to Israel. While the champ may not have anything to prove, a second win over Whittaker (who is currently listed as No. 12 in the UFC pound-for-pound rankings) would go a long way towards cementing Stylebender as one of the best middleweights to ever do it. We should expect to see this bout headline a PPV event in late 2021.” 

Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa (No. 2) vs. Marvin “The Italian Dream” Vettori (No. 4): Having called out Costa after his loss to Adesanya at UFC 263, Marvin Vettori is looking to reverse his downward momentum and make a big statement by being the only man other than Adesanya to defeat Costa. Stylistically, I’d be excited to watch this bout: Both men will look to come forward and exert a pressure-heavy approach. Costa has the more impressive resumé, but Vettori is the more technical striker. There’s also some intrigue here because we don’t really know what Vettori is capable of. Sure, he lost to Adesanya, as has every other middleweight. But a win over Costa, as opposed to the Karl Robersons, Kevin Hollands, and even Jack Hermanssons of the world, would show us that Vettori does belong in the top tier of the division. For Costa, who hasn’t fought since his dreadful performance against Adesanya at UFC 253 last September, a win over Vettori will get him back on the right track, although I’m not sure how much else he stands to gain here. 

Jared “Killa Gorilla” Cannonier (No. 3) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (No. 9): (From June): Gastelum is once again stepping in for a withdrawn opponent (Costa) in a high-profile fight, with this bout scheduled for late August. Gastelum has lost four of his last five fights, but the level of competition in those matches has been excellent. Given these recent outcomes, Gastelum is still a fair bit away from a title shot, even if he’s able to get through Cannonier. For the Killa Gorilla, who has only one loss at Middleweight and is known for finishing fights with his fists, earning a knockout over an uber-durable Gastelum (who has never been finished by strikes) would be a huge statement, and one likely to catch the attention of Adesanya, who has publicly said he wants to fight Cannonier and views him as a “dark horse” in the division. Had Cannonier beaten Whittaker back in October 2020 at Fight Island, he would likely have been next for Adesanya. He can get himself back on that path with a great performance against Gastelum. 

Derek Brunson (No. 5) vs. Darren “The Gorilla” Till (No. 7): This fight will headline the UFC Vegas 36 card on Sept. 4. Brunson has been rolling of late, winning four in a row (most recently in dominant fashion over Kevin Holland) since being knocked out by Stylebender in 2018. Brunson will be outmatched on the feet, which means he’ll look to take the fight to the ground where he usually excels. However, Till’s takedown defense is significantly better than Holland’s (82% to 47%). A healthy Till will be difficult for Brunson to beat, but if he can, a title challenge could be next. Conversely, the same could be said for Till. Despite losing three of his last four fights to absolute killers in Tyron Woodley, Jorge Masvidal, and Robert Whittaker, it’s well known that Adesanya wants to fight Till at some point in his career. If Adesanya defends the belt against Whittaker and Till beats Brunson, I wouldn’t be surprised to see those two get in the Octagon at some point, regardless of whether or not Till deserves the title shot.

Jack “The Joker” Hermansson (No. 6) vs. Sean “Tarzan” Strickland (No. 11): Strickland delivered in the biggest spot of his career against a tough but ultimately outmatched opponent in Hall. Strickland is now on a five-fight win streak, and clearly deserving of another step up in competition given how he dominated against Hall. A fight with Hermansson makes sense here. The Joker is a very tough opponent, who will likely be able to absorb much of Strickland’s boxing volume. While Strickland certainly has the standing advantage, Hermansson would definitely test Strickland’s ground game if he can bring the fight there. A win over Hermansson means that a top-five opponent would be next for Strickland, who continues to prove himself as a rising fighter.

Uriah “Prime Time” Hall (No. 8) vs. Brad Tavares (No. 13): It’s tough to predict what’s next for Hall. His last three fights (a win over a past-his-prime Anderson Silva, a “win” over Chris Weidman, and this loss to Strickland) have done little to nothing for his stock. He is now 37 years old, and I’m not sure how many more exciting moments he has left to provide in the Octagon. That being said, I’d like to see him take on Brad Tavares. Tavares recently grinded out a tough split-decision victory over Omari Akhmedov, making it two straight wins after two straight losses to Adesanya and Edmen Shahbazyan. Both of these men are primarily strikers with not the highest level of output, but at the very least it could be an interesting chess match on the feet. Tavares is 33, so it’s not too late for him to make another run, and a win over Hall would get him into the top 10. 

Edmen “The Golden Boy” Shahbazyan (No. 10) vs. André “Sergipano” Muniz (No. 13): Shahbazyan had a rough go in his last time out against Hermansson, as the Joker was able to get him on the ground where he had no answer for Hermansson’s ground and pound. Now on a two-fight losing streak, Shahbazyan should have to fight someone ranked below him in order to keep his No. 10 spot. I think the timing makes sense for him to take on Muniz, who is surging of late. Muniz has won seven in a row (three in the UFC), the most recent of which was a technical submission in which he broke Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza’s arm. Nobody had ever submitted Jacaré before this fight, and Muniz made it his 14th career submission. This would be a classic striker vs. grappler matchup: You’d have to favor Shahbazyan if the fight stays standing, and Muniz if he can get it to the canvas. Muniz gets his shot to earn a top-10 ranking here, while Shahbazyan will have an opportunity to defend his own ranking and put an stop to his skid. 

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