Mixed Martial Arts, Sports

The Red Corner: UFC London returns

It has been two years and one day since the UFC hosted a card outside of the continental United States or Abu Dhabi. It has been 732 days since Charles Oliviera (32-8) put Kevin Lee (19-7) into a guillotine choke in his home nation of Brazil on his steady march toward UFC lightweight gold. 

Mixed Martial Arts is a global game — a melting pot of disciplines from all corners of the world. On the feet, fighters rely on many combinations of boxing, karate and Dutch kickboxing; in the clinch, Muay Thai and sambo; and on the mat, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And with global martial arts, there are fighters from a diverse array of nations who represent a diverse range of styles. 

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Alongside your American fighters, Dagestani wrestlers and Brazilian submission wizards, there stands an emerging market of Western European talent. Europe features some of the most liked fighters in the game. Think McGregor, Gane, Till and Bisping, with a fervent fan base which endures drastic time differences to watch the UFC each Saturday. 

With Monday, March 14 marking the UFC’s two year hiatus from most of the world, Wednesday marks exactly three since the promotion held fights in London. On March 16, 2019, the UFC made its last promotional appearance at the O2 Arena in London. The then-face of U.K. Martial Arts, Darren Till (18-4-1), challenged rising welterweight Jorge Masvidal (35-16) in the main event. Till, fighting in his home nation, was taking care of Masvidal handedly — and then Masvidal knocked him out cold. 

For every hometown hero, there is another fighter across the cage looking to play spoiler. This Saturday is likely to boast chapters of both triumph and tribulation for any of the 11 fighters hailing from the British Isles. There are eight Brits, two Welsh fighters, and one Scotsman all looking to feed off the raucous sounds of the O2 this weekend.  

This card is really quite good. The UFC really made a concerted effort to get as many U.K. fighters in the cage this weekend. With a few key absences like No. 8 middleweight Till and No. 3 welterweight Leon Edwards (19-3), the card boasts the best and most exciting talent under St. George’s Cross. 

The event is headlined by two ranked heavyweights in Tom Aspinall (11-2) and Russia’s Alexander Volkov (34-9). Aspinall is one of the top prospects at 265, and is facing his toughest challenge to date in No. 6 Volkov. Aspinall has four fights in the UFC, winning all four via first or second round finishes. Aspinall has a 100% finish rate across his 11 victories and will look to get Volkov out early. Volkov has much more experience in the Octagon, and has been competing at an extremely high level for nearly his entire UFC career. He has experience in the later rounds, and may look to test the gas tank of Aspinall. 

If Volkov succeeds at his game, he will supply a technical, albeit boring, decision victory over Aspinall, much to the chagrin of the London crowd. If Aspinall succeeds at his game, an early stoppage victory over Volkov would ignite the O2 faithful. It will be a boom or bust main event Saturday, and Aspinall will be fighting for his nation and his place in the top-10. It would be much more rational to side with “Drago,” but I believe in the legend of Tom Aspinall. 

Charlie’s Prediction: Aspinall via R1 KO/TKO

Peter’s Prediction: Aspinall via R3 KO/TKO

The co-main event is going to make for a fun scrap as well. Arnold Allen (17-1) welcomes New Zealand’s Dan Hooker (21-11) to the cage in the Kiwi’s return to featherweight. Hooker is a well established staple of the lightweight division, and has fought the likes of Makhachev, Poirier, Chandler and Felder. He started in the UFC at 145, and will endeavor to prove he can still compete at the lighter weight class. He has a slim frame that makes the power he throws all the more surprising. His route to victory will be to test the chin of Allen, and see if “Almighty” is willing to stand and trade. 

Allen, on the other hand, has made a quiet ascent to the top-10 since 2015. He has six decision victories over eight fights in the UFC, and sports only one loss, a decision from his time in Cage Warriors in 2014. I think this fight is very similar to Volkov vs. Aspinall, but the opposite for fans. Hooker’s best bet is to look for a finish. Allen is a methodical points fighter, who presents dangers on the ground. Hooker needs to throw hard and find that chin to silence the crowd. 

Allen will do the opposite. He will attempt to mix in takedowns and technical striking en route to a decision victory. This fight is largely hard to predict for a few reasons. First, Hooker is an accomplished striker who keeps opponents at his long range. He was tall and lanky at 155 pounds, so you can imagine the size difference one weight class lower. He is, however, moving down a weight class, which can mean a resurgence in his career (see Jose Aldo), or it means the beginning of the end. 

Ultimately, I believe Hooker’s power won’t translate well to 145. I think Allen will be able to hang around until Hooker gasses out after a tough weight cut. Allen fights smart — if he can neutralize Hooker’s first round flurry, the rest of the fight may be his. I could be overlooking Hooker’s ability to stick around, he has multiple decision victories after all, I just see Allen being able to control the wrestling and pace in rounds two and three. 

Charlie’s Prediction: Allen via Decision

Peter’s Prediction: Hooker via Decision

This card showcases a lot of up-and-coming names for English MMA as well as some members of the old guard. Ultimately, this card will be lots of fun. Tune in for Liverpool personalities Paddy Pimblett (17-3) and Molly McCann (11-4) for their post-fight interviews alone. The entire card will run on ESPN+ and will start at 1 p.m. EST.

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