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UFC Vegas 85: Nassourdine Imavov, France’s best hope for Middleweight gold

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French “Sniper,” Nassourdine Imavov, will return to action opposite submission ace, Roman Dolidze, this Saturday (Feb. 3, 2023) at UFC Vegas 85 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s been a strange 12 months for Imavov, who was supposed to get a step up in competition against Kevlin Gastelum this time last year. Instead, he wound up in the cage with a Light Heavyweight Sean Strickland and suffered a fairly one-sided loss. His attempt to rebound six months later against Chris Curtis went up in smoke after a clash of heads. Subsequently, his momentum is largely gone.

This bout is an opportunity to rebuild. The 28-year-old talent still has obvious physical gifts and solid technical abilities, so there’s no reason he cannot break into the upper echelon of the Middleweight division. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

LIVE! Stream UFC Vegas 85 On ESPN+

TOP-RANKED LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT REMATCH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) kicks off its 2024 mixed martial arts (MMA) campaign on Sat., Jan. 20, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada, with No. 3-ranked Light Heavyweight contender, Magomed Ankalaev, running it back against No. 7-seeded Johnny Walker after their initial wild encounter went up in smoke. In UFC Vegas 84’s co-main event, Lightweight legend, Jim Miller, locks horns with upstart knockout artist, Gabriel Benitez, in an intriguing 155-pound showdown.

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

Striking

A lifelong boxer, Imavov’s work at MMA Factory in Paris, France has majorly influenced his kickboxing style. He’s very light on his feet and active with his feints at range, which allows him to surprise his opponents with his speed.

Imavov may have the rangy build and speed necessary to fight like his teammate Ciryl Gane, but he’s much more aggressive in forcing the issue. He doesn’t hang back, instead relying on the bounciness of his stance to quickly spring forward with his hands. Prior to closing forward with punches, Imavov is an effective kicker. He’ll work with the snap kick fairly often, as well as switch Southpaw and blast the body with his left leg. In his last bout versus a Southpaw in Curtis, he showed that inside crescent kick up the middle that Gane has used to great effect.

Imavov’s prime distance weapon, however, 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 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.

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 small 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 in close distance exchanges. 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.

Imavov’s bout vs. Curtis ended early, but Imavov looked sharp in that eight minutes of combat. Most notably, he attacked Curtis’ unusual guard very effectively. Curtis does good work in hiding behind his shoulders and elbows, presenting his foe with an unpleasant target to punch. Imavov worked around that defense by flashing or feinting the jab, then controlling Curtis’ forearm afterward and folding over elbows. At one point, he used this approach to sidestep Curtis and latch onto the back clinch for an easy takedown — a smart counter to the shoulder roll style!

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. There’s also the question of efficiency, as Imavov slowed significantly over five rounds while throwing down versus Sean Strickland. It’s not easy for such a large man to bounce around constantly!

Wrestling

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!

The clinch work against Curtis was a pleasant surprise given Curtis’ historically strong takedown defense. The mat return mentioned above was good, but Imavov also managed to force Curtis to the floor with a body lock and inside hip position late in the first. By jabbing Curtis at range then elbowing and wrestling him in close quarters, he effectively played both the long and close distance game while avoiding that middle range where “Action Man” is most powerful.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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.

Conclusion

Imavov has the athleticism and striking ability to be a top talent at 185 lbs. He still has to prove that he can handle an elite fighter’s pace for five rounds, however, and this main event slot may be an opportunity to demonstrate improvement in that realm.


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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