Local hero and heavyweight standout Tom Aspinall makes his big return in the main event of UFC London against Polish powerhouse Marcin Tybura at the iconic O2 Arena on Saturday night, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The card is stacked with some of the best British fighters in the business, including uber-popular Molly “Meatball” McCann, who meets Lithuania’s Julija Stoliarenko in the co-headliner, Nathaniel Wood, Jai Herbert and Lerone Murphy.
The UK crowd creates an atmosphere unlike any other, so go out of your way to watch this festival of fisticuffs.
MAIN CARD (from 9 PM Saturday SA time):
Tom Aspinall (1.22) v Marcin Tybura (4.50) (Heavyweight)
The hottest heavyweight prospect in years, Aspinall (12-3) has taken the UFC by storm since arriving in the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion in 2020.
The British blue-chipper made light work of his first five opponents, including former Bellator champion Alexander Volkov, who he submitted in the first round to solidify himself as the next big thing.
Another headlining bout on home soil against fellow top contender Curtis Blaydes last July looked to be his chance to make his case for a title shot. Instead, his momentum was derailed in the most unfortunate fashion as he blew out his knee 15 seconds into the fight.
Returning almost a year to the day after his injury setback, Aspinall aims to make a statement in front of his home crowd.
The 30-year-old’s as well-rounded as they come and a natural-born killer boasting a remarkable 100% finish rate (nine knockouts and three submissions). He’s such a prolific predator that only one of his victims made it to the second round, former two-time champion Andrei Arlovski, whom he choked out a minute into the second frame.
Ranked fifth, Aspinall’s extraordinary speed and athleticism are what sets him apart. The 6’5″, 252-pound freak athlete moves like a middleweight and has lethal hand speed that sees him strike like a cobra. On top of that, he has good wrestling, excellent jiu-jitsu and has never been taken down inside the Octagon.
Tybura (24-7) is a complete fighter in his own right. He has nine knockouts and six submissions to his name and enters the marquee match-up on a two-fight win streak, having beaten Alexandr Romanov and Blagoy Ivanov by decision.
Tenth-ranked “Tybur” is yet to take down one of the division’s elite like Aspinall has, falling short against the likes of Volkov, former champion Fabricio Werdum and two-time title challenger Derrick Lewis, so this is a golden opportunity for him to show he can win the big one.
This marks his first main event, whereas Aspinall has headlined his last two events, so it remains to be seen how Tybura handles the added pressure, as well as what’s set to be a partisan crowd. He’s a seasoned competitor, though, with more than double the number of fights his favoured foe has.
Tybura’s solid rather than spectacular in all areas and has good conditioning. However, the 37-year-old isn’t close to the level of athlete Aspinall is. The returning rising star looks to be in the best shape of his life and his speed and dynamism will be too much for Tybura to handle.
Expect the Englishman to blow the roof off the O2 with a knockout inside two rounds.
Best Bet: Aspinall by KO/TKO/DQ at 1.62
Molly McCann (1.46) v Julija Stoliarenko (2.85) (Flyweight)
With her all-action style and infectious personality, McCann (13-5) is one of the most beloved female fighters worldwide, but especially in her native England.
If you’ve never watched a “Meatball” fight, get ready to be electrified. She’s a 5’4″ firecracker with explosive power and animalistic aggression and while she always brings the heat, fighting on home soil brings out the best in her.
She lit up London when she starched Luana Carolina with a savage spinning back elbow in one of the best knockouts of 2022 and repeated the feat against Hannah Goldy. Now elevated to the co-main event, she’ll be more fired up than ever.
She faces a submission specialist in Stoliarenko (10-7-1). With all but one of the Lithuanian’s wins coming by tap out, it’s no secret that she’ll try to get the fight to the ground.
Her first battle will be on the scale. She’s had serious weight-cutting issues in the past and usually fights at 135 pounds, so the drop to 125 is ambitious, to say the least.
Even in optimal shape, she’s struggled, winning just one of her six UFC fights. Add the likelihood that she’ll be drained and we should see McCann score another popular knockout.
Nathaniel Wood (1.51) v Andre Fili (2.65) (Featherweight)
An intriguing featherweight fight sees emerging talent Wood (19-5) take on crafty veteran Fili (22-9).
Though he may be a journeyman, Fili (nine knockouts and three submissions) remains a threat and has halted the rise of up-and-comers in the past, making him exactly the type of test Wood needs at this stage of his career.
“The Prospect” is looking to pick up his third straight victory and is a sharp all-rounder. He has 14 finishes (nine knockouts and five submissions) but won his last two by decision.
Fili’s been in more than his fair share of wars and is starting to show signs of that wear and tear. He was able to eke out a split-decision win over Bill Algeo in September but Wood’s a different animal. The 29-year-old’s an accurate striker and throws at a far higher volume.
The older and slower Fili will, thus, look to make it a slugfest. Wood will be wise to this and I expect him to avoid getting sucked into a brawl en route to registering another decision victory.
Paul Craig (2.85) v Andre Muniz (1.46) (Middleweight)
Jiu-jitsu wizards meet in a fascinating middleweight melee.
One of the most intense competitors in UFC history, Craig (16-6-1) is a kill-or-be-killed fighter with a 100% finish rate, which includes 13 submissions.
A six-fight unbeaten run at light heavyweight, which included a stoppage win over future champion Jamahal Hill, saw the Scot close in on a title shot but back-to-back defeats to Volkan Oezdemir and Johnny Walker have prompted him to drop down to middleweight, where he’s in for a tough opening assignment against a mainstay in the division’s top 15.
Muniz (23-5) is arguably the best grappler in the 185-pound weight class, boasting 15 career wins by submission. He was on a nine-fight win streak, with five of those coming in the UFC, before losing to Brendan Allen last time out, and will be looking to return to winning ways.
One can only hope we get treated to a high-level grappling fest with back-and-forth scrambling, but more often than not, when top grapplers face-off, it turns into a stand-up fight. “Sergipano” is the better striker and despite being the shorter fighter, he’ll have a two-inch reach advantage.
There’s too much uncertainty around Craig’s ability to cut the 20 pounds to middleweight and how it’ll affect him for my liking, especially considering he’s doing so late in his career at 35. Muniz is more agile and technical on the feet and has proven conditioning, so I expect him to turn back “Bearjew”.
Jai Herbert (2.35) v Fares Ziam (1.64) (Lightweight)
Home-grown talent Herbert (12-4-1) has had mixed results fighting in his backyard, coming away from the last three London cards with a win, a loss and a draw.
“The Black Country Banger” was headed towards victory against Ludovit Klein last time out, but a point deduction for a groin strike resulted in the fight ending in a stalemate, so he’ll be looking to leave no doubt this time around.
Herbert’s a hard-hitting striker whose extraordinary range, good hands and thudding kicks make him a rather unique buzzsaw with nine knockouts to his credit.
Ziam (13-4) is long and rangy in his own right but still gives up two inches in reach, which is significant in a fight like this that could go either way.
“Smile Killer” is the more balanced fighter on paper (five knockouts and four submissions), but Herbert’s strong enough to keep the fight standing, where he has the edge and should get the better of the Frenchman.
Lerone Murphy (1.71) v Joshua Culibao (2.20) (Featherweight)
Hot prospects in the 145-pound division will get the main card underway.
Unbeaten at 12-0-1 with seven knockouts, Murphy has crisp striking, fast hands and good footwork. “The Miracle” is slick at range and in tight, with crushing knees forming part of his arsenal.
Like his opponent, Culibao (11-1-1) has plenty of upside. The Australian has won three on the bounce including bagging his first submission win against Melsik Bagdasaryan in February to go with his five knockouts. Don’t expect much grappling in this one, though.
With more tools at his disposal and the support of his countryman, Murphy’s set to start the night with a bang for English fighters by KO’ing “Kuya” in a thrilling opener.