By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 2 years ago

From 2016-19, the UFC made a point of making a February or March trip across the Atlantic to deliver a fight card in London.


Raucous, partisan crowds would pack The O2 Arena from the first fight, passionately supporting anyone from England, Ireland, the United Kingdom, or that had some kind of ties to those locales, like Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson.


During that time, the British faithful were treated to some quality fights and memorable moments, including Michael Bisping beating Anderson Silva, Paul Craig’s last-second submission win over Magomed Ankalaev, and Jorge Masvidal knocking out Darren Till before getting into a dust-up with Leon Edwards backstage.


But the night Masvidal introduced “three piece and a soda” to the MMA lexicon is the last time the UFC made its yearly voyage to London … until now.


On Saturday, the Octagon returns to The O2 and the lineup is flush with compelling fights, intriguing new additions, and local favorites that are sure to put on a show.


Here’s a look at some of the key names to keep an eye on this weekend.


Tom Aspinall


The 28-year-old heavyweight headlines opposite Alexander Volkov in what is both his first UFC main event and his toughest assignment to date.


Unbeaten in his last seven and sporting a perfect 4-0 record with four finishes inside the Octagon, Aspinall has looked the part of a potential championship contender since arriving in the UFC, showcasing good movement and crisp, powerful hands while briefly displaying his prowess on the canvas as well.


He’s made steady progress up the ranks over his first four appearances, and stated many times over that he wasn’t in a rush to reach contention, but this assignment and a victory on Saturday would put the man from Wigan in the title mix.


Volkov is the gatekeeper to title contention in the heavyweight division — a tall, rangy veteran with a history of turning back pretenders and falling to the top-flight talent in the big boy ranks. The 33-year-old Russian is coming off a good win at the end of October, has won three of his last four, and scored the biggest win of his UFC career in the same arena four years ago when he stopped former champ Fabricio Werdum.


Hometown headlining assignments — or home country, as is the case here — are a sign the UFC thinks you could be championship material, so it will be interesting to see if Aspinall can navigate this massive test and propel himself into the thick of the title chase with a victory this weekend.


Arnold Allen


If Allen fought more frequently, he’d garner more mention amongst the crop of rising stars with championship potential in the UFC, but unfortunately for the talented featherweight, injuries have left him competing at odd intervals, leaving him stuck in the shadows a little in the 145-pound weight class.


Sporting an 8-0 record inside the Octagon and a 17-1 mark overall, the 28-year-old has all the tools and talents to be a top contender at featherweight if he could maintain a more regular schedule and land himself a marquee victory or two. He fights this weekend for the first time since April, when he out-worked Sodiq Yusuff in a battle of prospects, and does so against Dan Hooker, the highly respected New Zealand native who returns to the division after an impressive and largely successful five-year, 12-fight run in the lightweight division.


Much like Aspinall, this is Allen’s chance to collect the kind of victory that signals his arrival as a contender in the talent-rich featherweight ranks. He’s strong as an ox, skilled in every facet of the game, and a massive fan of the £3 meal deals at Tesco, which makes him both fun to watch and quite relatable. 


Paddy Pimblett


There might not be a more popular fighter in the entire United Kingdom at the moment than “Paddy the Baddy,” who makes his sophomore appearance in the Octagon against KazulaVargas.


The lightweight from Liverpool has personality for days and the talent to match, wielding a fan-friendly style that made him a massive star during his Cage Warriors days and has turned him into an immediate hit since arriving in the UFC last year. He became a brand ambassador and content creator with Barstool Sports following his debut win over Luigi Vendramini, and was part of a hotel lobby fracas on Tuesday that signaled the official start of Fight Week in London.


Pimblett has an obvious, indescribable magnetism about him that will all keep him in the spotlight, but it remains to be seen how successful he can be now that he’s competing on the biggest stage in the sport. Saturday’s fight with Vargas feels like more of a showcase opportunity for the charismatic Scouser, so it will be interesting to see if he can rise to the occasion and deliver the kind of dominant showing most are anticipating.


Molly McCann


Pimblett might be the most popular fighter in the UK at the moment, but his teammate and fellow Liverpool native McCann is easily the most beloved.


“Meatball” has endured ups and downs throughout her UFC run, but enters Saturday’s meeting with Luana Carolina off a quality victory over Ji Yeon Kim in September that earned the duo Fight of the Night honors, and she should get a hero’s welcome when she strides out to the cage.


The 31-year-old is unapologetically herself and works to inspire others to be the same. Last year, she penned a children’s book, Be True to You, about the struggles and fears of someone finding their sexuality and coming out, with a portion of the proceeds going towards Stonewall, an LGBTQ+ charity in the UK.


Jack Shore


Okay, so I’m sneaking one of my personal favorites into this mix, but it’s not like Shore doesn’t belong.


The Welsh bantamweight is 15-0 as a pro, including four straight wins in the UFC, and went 12-0 as an amateur. He’s walked into battle 27 times and walked out with his hand raised 27 times.


Guys like that deserve your attention because if winning 12 or 15 consecutive fights were easy, more people would do it… but they don’t… because it’s extremely difficult… which makes what Shore has done all the more impressive.


“Tank” gets a stern test this weekend in the form of Timur Valiev, a 32-year-old Russian with strong grappling and solid boxing that should force him to be at his absolute best in order to get the victory. But a dozen of Shore’s first 13 wins came by stoppage and he’s continued to look strong in earning consecutive decision wins heading into this one, plus, the former Cage Warriors champ will have a legion of supporters in attendance on Saturday cheering him on.


Bantamweight is ridiculously competitive and deep at the moment, but Shore definitely needs to be including in the collection of names to watch in the 135-pound weight class and someone to keep close tabs on this weekend.


Muhammad Mokaev


The last time I was this excited about a new arrival making the walk to the Octagon for the first time was the night Conor McGregor strolled to the cage for his debut in Stockholm, Sweden.


Mokaev is an undefeated 21-year-old flyweight who won multiple world titles as an amateur and has been projected as a future champion since transitioning to the professional ranks in the summer of 2020. Born in Dagestan and raised in Wigan, he’s represented England on the international stage in wrestling and has drawn comparisons to former undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.


Now, I know I’m setting the bar high by invoking the names McGregor and Nurmagomedov, but that’s where the excitement level is at as Mokaev makes his debut against Cody Durden.


I don’t know if he’s going to live up to the hype or break Jon Jones’ record for being the youngest UFC champion in history — which is his stated goal — but I’m hyped to see what he looks like inside the Octagon for the first time this weekend and you should be too.

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