The world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion returns to the United Kingdom after a three-year wait with local favourite Tom Aspinall looking to seize the moment when he battles Alexander Volkov in a headlining heavyweight showdown at UFC London on Saturday night, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
As usual, the card is stacked with UK talent. Ex-elite lightweight Dan Hooker starts the next chapter of his career as he collides with one of the top featherweights in the world in surging Brit Arnold Allen in the co-main event, while the O2 Arena will come unglued when the wildly popular Paddy Pimblett makes his second walk to the Octagon in front of his home crowd to take on Rodrigo Vargas in a lightweight banger.
The other half of the main card consists of a heavyweight clash between Shamil Abdurakhimov and Sergei Pavlovich, a flyweight affair between Molly McCann and Luana Carolina and a welterweight contest between Gunnar Nelson and Takashi Sato.
MAIN CARD (from 10 PM Saturday SA time):
Alexander Volkov (2.10) v Tom Aspinall (1.71) (Heavyweight)
A pivotal showdown between a veteran of the heavyweight elite in Volkov (34-9) and a soaring young star in Aspinall (11-2).
Scorching to a perfect 4-0 record inside the Octagon, Liverpool ace Aspinall (11-2) looks like a potential future champion and a victory over sixth-ranked Volkov would solidify him as the next big thing.
As dangerous as they come, the 28-year-old has a 100% finishing rate, all but two by knockout. Moreover, 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.
The 11th-ranked Brit is a natural finisher. He doesn’t chase the stoppage and, therefore, isn’t reckless as you might assume by solely looking at his record. He has crisp striking and solid grappling. If he chooses to go the latter route, he’ll have the advantage in the wrestling and jiu-jitsu departments, but it’s shaping up to be a striking battle.
The key to his success is speed – both in movement and striking. He’s remarkably fast and agile for a heavyweight while his hand speed catches opponents off-guard and sees him put their lights out.
Volkov has won three of his last four, the loss coming to the then-undefeated Ciryl Gane, who went on to win the interim belt and compete for the undisputed title. The 33-year-old Russian has fought the best of the best and represents the biggest test of Aspinall’s career.
The former Bellator champion boasts 25 finishes, which includes 22 knockouts. He’s a seasoned and patient tactician and a towering one at that. At 6’7″, he’s two inches taller than Aspinall and will have a two-inch reach advantage.
Armed with five-round experience, “Drago” will look to drag it out into the main event rounds (four and five) – unfamiliar territory for Aspinall, which you’d think would amplify the latter’s anxiety of a first headliner and home UFC bout.
I don’t see it getting there, though, as Aspinall’s speed and significantly higher output should see him melt Volkov and signal his arrival as a legitimate title contender inside the first three rounds.
Best Bet: This is rightfully seen as a pick ‘em by most sportsbooks but since Tuesday afternoon, the line has been moving into the home-grown hero’s favour. I got in early and got Aspinall outright at 1.90. Get him at 1.71 (as of the time of writing) before there’s more movement.
Arnold Allen (1.74) v Dan Hooker (2.10) (Featherweight)
For Allen (17-1), this co-main event is the opportunity he’s been waiting for. “Almighty” is on a 10-fight win streak dating back to 2014 and is a perfect 8-0 in the UFC. It’s seen the Suffolk star soar to seventh in the rankings, but his name recognition and popularity outside of the UK haven’t picked up at the same steam.
Fight fans can be demanding and the fact that six of his eight UFC wins, including the last four in a row, came by decision means he’s yet to grab the masses’ attention with a breakout performance. Beating Hooker (21-11) would do that for Allen, who’s well-rounded and cyborg-like in his ability to execute a tactical and technical game plan.
For Hooker, it’s a chance to take out one of the division’s top contenders and immediately throw his name into title contention. “The Hangman” drops back down to featherweight for the first time since a decision loss to Jason Knight in 2016. He compiled an 8-4 record in the lightweight division, where he was a staple in the top 10, but defeats in three of his last four to Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler and, most recently, Islam Makhachev see him return to 145 pounds.
The must-see Kiwi is a tall and rangy striker who loves bloody battles, which is what he’ll try to coax Allen into. At 6’0″, he’ll tower over his 5’8″ foe and will have a five-inch reach advantage.
He’s the more dangerous man (10 knockouts and seven submissions) and will get Allen out of there if he lands flush. To what extent will he be affected by the weight cut, though?
Allen’s fight IQ and technical prowess should keep him safe and he’ll gradually pick up the pace as the fight progresses to control things and outpoint Hooker.
Paddy Pimblett (1.18) v Rodrigo Vargas (4.75) (Lightweight)
Look forward to peak entertainment and one of the best walkouts of the year when “Paddy the Baddy” rocks the O2 Arena. Vargas (12-4) has a Tower of London-sized challenge in front of him with Pimblett (17-3) poised to have a nation behind him.
The same can be said for fellow Scouser (Liverpudlian) Aspinall, but the charismatic Pimblett possesses a special kind of electricity that lights up a crowd like few others, guaranteeing they’ll be at their loudest for this featured lightweight affair.
The UK regional darling announced himself to the wider MMA world in style when he made his much-anticipated UFC debut last September, overcoming early adversity to knockout Luigi Vendramini in the opening round and take his popularity to a whole new level.
With six wins by knockout and seven by submission, he’s well-rounded. However, grappling is the strongest facet of his game and his best path to victory over Vargas.
Primarily a striker (seven knockouts and three submissions), Vargas is 1-2 in the UFC, finally securing his first win in the promotion (by decision) in his last bout against Zhu Rong last April.
Pimblett does offer openings on the feet but has never been knocked out due to his iron will. Vargas’ weakness is more problematic, especially in this fight. With his poor takedown defence (25%), he’ll end up on his back where Pimblett will sink in a submission or ground-and-pound his way to a TKO win.
Shamil Abdurakhimov (3.45) v Sergei Pavlovich (1.30) (Heavyweight)
Everyone, especially at heavyweight, has a puncher’s chance, but this curious piece of matchmaking strongly points to a passing of the torch from a Russian veteran to his younger countryman.
At 40, 10th-ranked Abdurakhimov (20-6) is coming to the end of his career and has suffered back-to-back knockout losses. Pavlovich (14-1), in contrast, is just beginning to hit his straps, with consecutive knockout wins taking the 29-year-old’s KO tally to 11 and seeing him break into the top 15.
In a clash of strikers, Pavlovich’s not only significantly younger, faster and more agile but will also have an unheard-of eight-inch reach advantage. He’ll put the veteran down.
Molly McCann (1.71) v Luana Carolina (2.15) (Flyweight)
With her all-action style, infectious personality and the demons she’s slain to get where she is today, McCann (11-4) is one of the most beloved and respected female fighters worldwide, but especially in her native England, so strap in for a wild rollercoaster ride.
“Meatball” is a fearless slugger coming off a memorable win over Ji Yeon Kim that netted her a $50,000 performance bonus last September. She’ll be a supercharged bat out of hell in front of her home crowd. Carolina (8-2) won’t take a backwards step. The Brazilian is coming off back-to-back wins and will have a seven-inch reach advantage.
At 5’4″, McCann has made a career out of beating bigger and rangier opponents and packs a serious punch, which has earned her four knockouts. Carolina doesn’t have the power to keep McCann off her, so I see the latter rumbling to victory.
Gunnar Nelson (1.20) v Takashi Sato (3.45) Welterweight)
After more than a two-year layoff, Nelson (17-5) looks to return with a vengeance and a late change of opponent will aid him in that mission. Sato (15-4) steps in for fellow striker Claudia Silva, who had to withdraw due to injury last week.
“Gunni” has won all but one of his fights by stoppage. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt of the highest order, he has a dozen submissions to his name and should have little difficulty tapping out Sato, whose grappling shortcomings cost him three of his four losses, including the most recent against Miguel Baeza.