The UFC first visited London in 2002 for an event dubbed “The Brawl at the Hall.” The hall was the former Royal Albert Hall, which before matthew hughes defending his welterweight title against charles newton that night had been best known for appearances by the tenacious fighter Sir Winston Churchill and the speedy Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Since then, the UFC has returned to the English capital 11 more times, producing big moments with big fights. In 2007 at the O2 Arena, there was a champion vs. champion main event pitting the UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Riot” Jackson vs. Pride belt holder Dan Henderson. The pride of Manchester, England, the effervescent Michael Bispinghe twice headlined shows at the O2, though both occurred before he became UFC middleweight champion.
And that highlights what the UFC has No delivered to the banks of the Thames until this weekend. UFC 286, the promotion’s 13th visit to London, will bring a local champion to the city for the first time.
leon edwardswho grew up from the age of 9 in Birmingham, England, less than 200 kilometers from London, will be making the first defense of his welterweight championship when he takes on the man he dethroned, kamaru usmanin Saturday’s main event at the O2 Arena (ESPN+ PPV, main card at 5 pm ET).
Edwards (20-3, 1 NC) is unbeaten in his last 11 fights. Three of his wins during that career were at the O2. He hasn’t lost since a 2015 meeting with Usman (20-2), who was making his UFC debut and fought to a unanimous decision.
They met again last August, and late in the fifth round of a nearly lost fight, Edwards pulled a rabbit out of his hat. His last-minute head kick landed low, abruptly ending a 19-fight winning streak for Usman that spanned through 2013.
His rubber party heads a billboard loaded with local interest. Edwards will be the seventh fighter from England to enter the cage on Saturday. There are three from Scotland on the card and one from Wales. Great Britain, represent!
Whether it’s a showcase for a local hero or a showdown imported from abroad, there’s plenty to do on Saturday. Here’s a ranking of the most essential fights to watch… plus one to fantasize about.
1. Leon Edwards (c) vs. Kamaru Usman
UFC crowd, broadcasters in disbelief after Leon Edwards wins title
The Salt Lake City crowd and announcers can’t believe their eyes after Leon Edwards knocks out Kamaru Usman.
A title fight. A local champion. The completion of a trilogy in which each man has defeated the other. The energy inside the O2 is going to be high voltage, especially if by the time the main event rolls around it’s been a night of gangbusters for British fighters. But while the location of the arena will enhance the atmosphere, this fight could take place on the moon and still be a big step for MMA. Usman was a dominant champion until the moment last summer when he was unconscious. And Edwards was on a streak of success that went unnoticed until he pulled off a finish that couldn’t be ignored. Here they go again.
2. justin gaethje against Raphael Fiziev
Fiziev outclasses Dos Anjos in close matchup, celebrates after fifth-round knockout
Rafael Fiziev heads into the championship rounds with Rafael Dos Anjos and celebrates his knockout victory at UFC APEX.
I’m pretty sure I’m violating a promise I’ve made to myself all along, under any circumstances, to rank a Gaethje fight No. 1. He’s known as “The Highlight” for good reason; always ties us up for an exciting ride. And likewise, Fiziev is incapable of delivering a boring performance; The 12-1 lightweight has earned post-fight bonuses in each of his five most recent appearances. As soon as these two start walking towards the cage and I feel my heartbeat quicken, I fully anticipate experiencing a pang of regret for disrespecting my Gaethje vow.
3. maya jennifer against Casey O’Neill
This is something of a homecoming for O’Neill, who was born in Scotland and moved to Australia with his family when he was 10 years old. More importantly, it’s a comeback fight, as the 9-0 flyweight prospect has been out for more than a year. recovering from ACL surgery. O’Neill isn’t going back in easily either, as Maia is just over two years away from a spirited title challenge against Valentina Shevchenko. Questions abound here. Is Maia, 34, after losing two of her last three, still at contender level? And 25-year-old O’Neill is fully healed, rust free and ready to resume his rise through the ranks?
4. Marvin Vettori against roman dolidze
Roman Dolidze opens Fight Night with a bang with a first-round KO
Roman Dolidze catches Kyle Daukaus with a knee, then finishes him off with a flurry of punches.
In March Madness terms, this is a mid-major on a hot streak against a Big Dance regular who doesn’t cringe against his conference elite. Dolidze has caught up with him with four straight wins, the most recent three by knockout. Vettori has lost two of the last three to him, but the losses came against two of the best middleweights in the world, israel adesana and robert whittakerboth in the top 10 pound-for-pound on ESPN. Vettori is always in big fights, and Dolidze is ready for one.
5. Mohamed Mokayev against Jafel Filho
Muhammad Mokaev submits Malcolm Gordon with the armbar
Muhammad Mokaev gets Malcolm Gordon to tap out in the third round with an armbar.
Remember when the men’s flyweight had shovelfuls of dirt piled up on his little grave? Then the division was revived by a fight between brandon moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo and its series of Rocky-sized sequels, plus the emergence of a variety of legitimate contenders. Among them is Mokaev, who is 9-0, 1 NC. The Dagestani-born Englishman is a grappling genius with submissions in two of his last three fights. Let’s see how Filho tests the ground game of him, a 14-2 UFC rookie with finishes in all but one of his wins (eight submissions, five knockouts). And long live at 125 lbs.
And here’s an extra “fight” to behold…
chris duncan against christian duncan
No, this is not an actual matchup, but yes, these are two different fighters making their UFC debut in the prelims. Christian, who actually goes by Christian Leroy Duncan, is an undefeated middleweight from Gloucester, England who is relinquishing his Cage Warriors title to enter the Octagon against Dusko Todorovic. Chris, who has no middle name that we know of but has a nickname (“The Problem”) that he doesn’t share with his namesake, is a former Bellator lightweight from Scotland who has a cage date with Omar Morales. Stay tuned after fights for our pound-for-pound ranking of Chris Duncan.
The complete card of UFC 286
ESPN+PPV, 5 p.m. Eastern Time
Welterweight Championship: leon edwards (c) against kamaru usman
Light: justin gaethje against Raphael Fiziev
welterweight: nelson against Bryan Barberena
Women’s Flyweight: maya jennifer against Casey O’Neill
Middleweight: Marvin Vettori against roman dolidze
Men’s Featherweight: jack shore against makwan amirkhani
Light: chris duncan against Omar Morales
Light: sam patterson against Yanal Ashmoz
Men’s Flyweight: Mohamed Mokayev against Jafel Filho
Men’s Featherweight: lerone murphy against gabriel santos
Middleweight: christian duncan against Dusko Todorovic
Men’s Flyweight: malcolm gordon against jake hadley
Women’s Flyweight: joan wood against luana carolina
Light: jai herbert against ludovit klein
Women’s Flyweight: Juliana Miller against Veronica Hardy
(c) = defending champion