Stadiums, arrivals and the golden generation: UFC London sets the precedent for UK MMA

The Roman poet Propertius once suggested that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s been three long years since the UFC’s last trip overseas to the capital, the last concluding in the silencing of the O2 Arena by Jorge Masvidal. Saturday night, however, was the polar opposite of events.

The UFC’s presence has sorely been missed on the British scene. In a world where, for the last three years, a lot of UK talent has been locked down from Coronavirus regulations, unable to travel and unable to train. UFC Fight Night: London felt like the undoing of those restraints and the solidifying of UK MMA came to fruition, producing a magical and memorable night in its wake.

Given the circumstances that have seen Tom Aspinall’s (12-2) UFC career take shape, it’s quite crazy that his first taste of a live arena crowd just so happened to be in his very first main event. The UFC jitters are real, whether from the Apex or in an arena, but those nerves looked anything but visible. Aspinall looked like he belonged.

Tom’s supreme confidence and ability set him apart from his biggest test yet in Alexander Volkov (34-10). There wasn’t an ounce of doubting from Aspinall all week long and that only looked more evident in the main event. His footwork, speed and ability to switch stance on entries and exits was dazzling and in moments left the Russian stumped on countering the British adversary.

Aspinall once again, just as he did to fellow heavyweight standout Andrei Arlovski, took Volkov to the mat impressively with sheer ease and snapping on a straight armlock in the first round versus a man who has only been finished twice prior. How often do you see a fundamental yet rare submission? This is the new modern blueprint for a heavyweight. Aspinall is simply something else.

What could, or could not have been just a couple of years ago when Tom was struggling for any real challenge at heavyweight on the domestic scene, nearly causing him to turn his back on the sport and call it a day – to what we see now is by the finest of margins. Should he get his wish in Tai Tuivasa next, arguably a favourable contest for the Atherton native, he will be well on his way for gold.

While Saturday night may have been a stamp for British talent, it was a coming out party for the ‘Almighty’ one, Arnold Allen (18-1). Just as his compatriot would follow up, Allen was also fighting by far his toughest adversary in Dan Hooker (21-12).

Hooker’s known for his striking prowess and undying attitude to stand in the pocket and trade. It’s both your best friend and your worst enemy. When you’re connecting and landing the shots first, it’s a sweet place to be. On the other hand, when you’re facing a prospect on home soil with hands as powerful as Arnold Allen’s, it truly is the most deadly place to find yourself. Simply put, Allen never Hooker get himself in his stride. Blow after blow, not without taking a few licks himself for good measure, Arnold continued to fight fire with fire to bring the New Zealander’s night to an early close and send the English fans into pandemonium.

Arnold has been in the UFC now since he was 21-years-old. A fresh faced kid now developing into a grizzled young veteran. This was his coming out party. He can no longer be denied his place winning nine straight fights. Featherweight seems to be one of those divisions you have to cement yourself in more than any other to deserve a title shot. Former champion Max Holloway didn’t get his shot until he was riding a ten-fight win streak. Allen called his shot with Calvin Kattar next, and with a win there, might just see the fourth Brit ever to challenge for a UFC title.

For many, a Pimblett fight is the people’s main event. Just like his capturing of the Cage Warriors featherweight title in the co-main event in 2016, many fans come to see what exactly ‘the boy’ is getting up to next in the latest episode of this maniac’s career.

He’d been the talk of the fighting world all week, from fracases with Ilia Topuria to whether he should or should be in the main event himself. His placement was perfect nonetheless. Despite his fame, the work had to be done. The hype, the similarities to previous headliners are irrelevant. You have a man across the cage who wants to ruin it all.

There are three constants in this life: death, taxes and Paddy Pimblett’s submissions. Such is the ability in his game, the grappler showed his perseverance in early pressure to take the back of Rodrigo Vargas (12-4) and sink in his signature rear-naked choke. London was going from level to level. Statements at the large.

Paddy is no stranger to these raucous crowds. It was like the Echo Arena all over again. He begs for Anfield and boy it might just be on his way. As it stands it’s hard to doubt the capacity his name could bring. A proud scouser in the heart of Liverpool’s sporting venue? It stinks of easy money.

Pimblett’s counterpart in Molly McCann (12-4) delivered in the most memorable fashion that you can likely hand her the accolade of Knockout of the Year ‘22 now and nobody would bat an eyelid. The astonishing spinning back elbow to Luana Carolina (8-3) stunned the world and shook the O2. Dana himself says women don’t produce knockouts like that very much, but the timing, vision and execution was one more so from practice than improvisation.

Since saving her UFC tenure last September in a stormy unanimous decision in the Apex, McCann looks to have developed a new fire and confidence. It’s no secret how fast you can slip out of the UFC. It’s like McCann has been made aware of that. This is Meatball 2.0 we’re seeing here.

Jai Herbert’s (11-4) UFC career has been one of the toughest stints in recent memory. Seldom has a fighter been gifted a welcome package so tough time after time as Jai has. On his way into the UFC, Herbert’s style and momentum from his outstanding Cage Warriors tenure excited followers.

This time, the undefeated Ilia Topuria (12-0) was next in the firing line for ‘The Black Country Banger.’ After finally finding fortune in his last bout, Herbert was finding a solid home in the opening stanza against the Spaniard, getting comfortable with a jab, high right knee to set up a right straight, ultimately almost finishing the gritty battler with a beautiful headkick. Topuria has found himself in danger before and has managed to hang in fights that’s seen him keep the impressive winning streak.

With nothing to lose, a remarkably timed right hand beats Jai to the mark and send the Brit to the mat, out cold before he even landed. A battler of Herbert’s abilities will want these kind of contests, but there’s a lot to be said when you’re not on the winning side of these fights. A murder row of opponents, it might be the end of Herbert’s brutal run in the UFC, or he may just get one last chance. The resume Herbert packs will hope for the latter.

At 21-years-old, the prowess and confidence Mokaev (6-0) packs was oozing out of him as he opened the festivities and set a strong night in motion, making light work of bad-blooded rival Cody Durden in under a minute to announce himself under the bright lights of the big league.

Honestly, it’s likely we are looking at the next champion at flyweight and is making no bones about getting there, demanding a top 15 opponent already. This is a young man who the UFC wanted to sign before he’d even turned professional in 2019. He’s long been touted since his amateur days and the time is now. Mokaev looked like he belonged in there.

Some have dubbed Saturday night on par with UFC Dublin in 2014 and they’d be right to do so. It was the arrival of the golden generation making their mark in the UFC with several Brits getting one step closer to title ramification fights. I’d like to think the hallmarks of this began back at UFC 204 in 2016; the UK’s first UFC title fight headlining while laying the foundations for the future on the undercard.

Marc Diakiese, Leon Edwards and Jimi Manuwa all picked up highlight reel wins underneath Michael Bisping’s title retaining victory. The crowd, in a new era, had evolved to understand the ongoings against the mesh and on the mat. Gone felt the days of the ‘just bleed’ attitude.

Six years later, the isle is stronger than ever. Numerous contenders in multiple divisions as well as new stars building a handsome amount of stock for themselves along with a crowd packed out from the very first preliminary fight. The UFC have to return this year for a second time. If anything, more cards are needed here regularly. Saturday was a culmination of talent just waiting to burst out post-COVID when the opportunity presented itself and did they ever deliver.

It has to be said though: none of this happens without the local scene. Full Contact Contender, Shock N’ Awe, Golden Ticket, Cage Conflict, all the way up to Cage Warriors. The stars you witnessed fighting this weekend were all made in the sports halls on Saturday nights in front of the most loyal supporters for a fraction of the price.

Supporting your local scene supports the stars of tomorrow at the same time. These shows are the launching pad. Let’s go one better: in less than two weeks, Cage Warriors present a double-header in Manchester with even more stars on the rise. If this weekend can persuade you of anything, it’s to pay attention to the domestics. It’s the most exciting time in UK MMA. The golden generation are here in front of us and the amateurs are already on their way.