The UFC is back in Merry England and there’s plenty of homegrown fighters for the locals to cheer for.
At the very top, Tom Aspinall gets his chance to break into the heavyweight top 10 when he takes on seasoned vet Alexander Volkov in Saturday’s UFC London main event. Aspinall has gone 4-0 in the UFC with four finishes to claim the No. 12 spot in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings and the No. 7 next to Volkov’s name could be next.
At 28, Aspinall is a relative spring chicken compared to some of the stalwarts that have populated the heavyweight charts for the past few years. Although he has beaten Andrei Arlovski, a former UFC champion and defeated his more experienced peers, Aspinall is yet to face a serious heavyweight competitor like Volkov. The towering Russian is a literal tall task for any aspiring champion and Aspinall’s first UFC main event could turn out to be a learning lesson rather than a step forward in line.
Arnold Allen faces Dan Hooker in the co-main event, a featherweight contest that will tell us plenty about where each man’s career is heading. For Allen, he looks to go 9-0 in one of the UFC’s deepest divisions; for Hooker he returns to 145 pounds to breathe new life into a UFC run that has already seen him fight the best lightweights in the world.
In other main card action, the popular Paddy Pimblett fights Kazula Vargas in a lightweight contest, Gunnar Nelson returns from a hiatus of over 900 days to fight Takashi Sato at welterweight, flyweights Molly McCann and Luana Carolina battle to rise up the ranks, and Jai Herbert welcomes Ilia Topuria to the lightweight division.
What: UFC London
Where: The O2 in London
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Alexander Volkov (7) vs. Tom Aspinall (12)
To get past Alexander Volkov, you have to be well-rounded. Tom Aspinall has a better understanding of mixed martial arts than many fans think. It’s not surprising that Aspinall has failed to make it past round two in his four UFC fights. He’s done a horrible job in trying to show that he isn’t just a heavy-handed puncher.
But Aspinall is a legitimate jiu jitsu practitioner, something he demonstrated when he submitted Andrei Arlovski. Volkov’s standing skills will make Aspinall’s grappling a significant factor in this fight.
Volkov is a great jab player and has a good control of range. His opponents are unable to close the distance effectively, which is why many of his victories have been so simple. We will see if Aspinall is able to overcome that obstacle and if he can challenge for the title of UFC fighter.
Aspinall, who is fueled by London fans, will continue to power through the fight, adding pressure to Volkov. Although an early conclusion is inevitable when dealing with two heavyweights of high caliber, I think Aspinall will win an entertaining battle of attrition before pulling away in later rounds.
Arnold Allen (11) vs. Dan Hooker (13 LW)
If Arnold Allen has been searching for that signature win, this is it.
Despite winning his first eight UFC fights, “Almighty” has yet to capture the imagination of the MMA masses. Maybe it’s because he’s been stricken by setbacks that have kept him from competing regularly, maybe he’s missing that big name on his resume, maybe he needs a spectacular viral finish, or maybe it’s some combination of those three factors. Hooker is rarely in a boring, unmemorable fight, so if Allen can’t manufacture some kind of moment here, it might never happen for him.
I think Allen has a great chance, both because he is a high-skilled athlete and because I don’t believe that moving down to featherweight would be a panacea for Hooker. Keep in mind, it’s not like Hooker was a world beater when he originally competed at 145 pounds. Aside from an impressive finish of Hatsu Hioki, he suffered odd losses to future BKFC star Jason Knight and Maximo Blanco (remember that guy?). All the evidence we have suggests that Hooker was a better fighter at lightweight.
That doesn’t mean he’s not good enough to beat Allen. Hooker is smarter and a more skilled fighter than five years ago. However, Hooker’s shopworn nature means that Allen has the advantage. If Hooker is diminished at all from his wars at 155 pounds, it’s difficult to imagine him keeping up with this next generation of 145ers. Hooker still holds a lot of Fight of the Night Awards ahead of him but Allen will keep up the winning streak, which includes Saturday’s assignment.
Paddy Pimblett vs. Kazula Vargas
This should be an easy win by Paddy Pimblett so long that we have more Cage Warriors champion Pimbletts and less BKFC wannabe Pimblett.
Pimblett’s right test at this point in his career is Kazula Vargas. A good kickboxer, with a strong chin and a great kickboxer who can give Pimblett an actual fight if he decides to trade in the middle of the octagon. Pimblett needs to shine on the ground, as he has some serious limits. Vargas will defend himself by hunting for guillotine chops. This won’t work against Pimblett, who is on Vargas’ back.
This is where you will see Pimblett be aggressive. He’ll take down Vargas, frustrate Vargas, and then open him up to ground-and-pound. From there, Pimblett will either find a choke of his own or pour on the strikes for the TKO finish.
Gunnar Nelson vs. Takashi Sato
Welcome back, Gunnar Nelson!
Our thanks to Takashi Sato, who stepped in as Claudio Silva’s replacement. But this should also be an opportunity for Nelson. Sato is susceptible to submissions and while I expect Nelson to get loose on the feet early and show off his karate stylings, it’s on the ground where this matchup will be decided.
It’s likely that Sato will be disappointed if Nelson is able to avoid Sato throwings and take the top spot. Although I know Nelson will enjoy being back after such a long absence, it’s clear that he won’t be wasting any time once he spots an opportunity to submit.
He knocks out Sato in the first round. Then, perhaps we can book that Silva fight again.
Molly McCann vs. Luana Carolina
Molly McCann’s simple strategy is to move forward, and not stop punching. That’s going to make for an intriguing clash of styles with Luana Carolina, who you know will aim to use her reach advantage to keep McCann at bay.
McCann has been outranged by fighters before. However, in her latest fight against Ji Yeon Kim, she seemed to have found the winning formula for backing up her opponent before she starts flurrying. McCann is strong and has a good chin. She can get her hands cracked when she’s throwing punches. It’s just that she’s confident she’ll do more damage in the long run.
Carolina has no problem dealing with aggressive opponents so McCann might want to be more systematic than she is used to to avoid being bitten by Carolina’s sharp teeth. I think McCann has better punching power than Carolina’s recent opposition though, so she gets the job done here with another crowd-pleasing performance.
McCann by decision.
Jai Herbert vs. Ilia Topuria
Jai Herbert showed off his slick feet and hands in his latest appearance. Ilia Topuria faces a tough test as he begins his journey to lightweight.
Herbert compliments an impressive 77-inch reach with a lot of lateral movement. It won’t be easy for Topuria to corner Herbert so he can land those body shots he’s so fond of. However, he only needs a few good ones early to let Herbert know he’s serious about striking.
In the grappling department, the edge definitely goes to Topuria, and given that he will regularly be at a size disadvantage in his new division, we could see him grow more dependent on his wrestling. It’s definitely something to consider against Herbert, a tricky standup fighter with loads of knockout power.
This matchup seems ripe for an upset, but I’ll go with Topuria if he can mix his wrestling with tight combinations for three rounds. He will win or get a close finish.
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Muhammad Mokaev def. Cody Durden