The UFC first visited London in 2002 for an event called “The Brawl at the Hall”. The hall was consecrated at the old Royal Albert Hall, prior to Matt Hughes defending his welterweight title against Carlos Newton, which was accompanied by appearances that night by the determined fighter Sir Winston Churchill and the dashing Sergei Rachmaninoff. was known for.
Since then, the UFC has returned to England’s capital 11 more times, producing big moments with important bouts. At the O2 Arena in 2007, there was a champion-versus-champion main event pitting UFC light heavyweight titleholder Quinton “Rampage” Jackson against Pride belt holder Dan Henderson. Spirited Michael Bisping, the pride of Manchester, England, has headlined the O2 twice – though both before he became UFC middleweight champion.
And it highlights what the UFC has No Delivered to the banks of the Thames by the end of the week. UFC 286, the promotion’s 13th trip to London, will bring a homegrown champion to the city for the first time.
Growing up in Birmingham, England, less than 200 kilometers from London, nine-year-old Leon Edwards will make the first defense of his welterweight championship when he rematches Kamaru Usman in Saturday’s main event. Main Card at The O2 Arena (ESPN+ PPV, 5 p.m. ET).
Edwards (20-3, 1 NC) is unbeaten in his last 11 bouts. Three of his wins during that run came at the O2. He hasn’t lost since their 2015 meeting with Usman (20-2), who was making his UFC debut and clawed his way to a unanimous decision.
They met again last August, and at the end of round 5 of a fight he was on the verge of losing, Edwards pulled a rabbit out of a hat. His last-minute head kick landed flush, bringing an abrupt end to Usman’s 19-fight win streak, which had lasted until 2013.
Their rubber match headlined a card packed with local interest. Edwards will be the seventh fighter from England to step into the cage on Saturday. There are three from Scotland and one from Wales on the cards. Great Britain, represent!
Whether it’s a showcase for a local hero or an imported matchup from overseas, a lot happens on Saturday. Here’s a ranking of the most essential battles to watch… plus one to fantasize about.
1. Leon Edwards (c) vs Kamru Usman
UFC crowd, announcers in disbelief after Leon Edwards title win
The Salt Lake City crowd and announcers can’t believe what they’re seeing after Kamru Usman is put on hold by Leon Edwards.
a title fight. A hometown winner. Completion of a trilogy in which each has defeated the other. The energy inside the O2 is going to be high voltage, especially if it’s been a gangbuster night for the British fighters until the main event comes along. But while the location of the arena will amp up the atmosphere, this fight could take place on the moon and still be a giant leap forward for MMA. Usman was a major champion until last summer when he was out with a cold. And Edwards was on a run of success that went largely unnoticed until he wrote an ending that couldn’t be ignored. Here they go again.
2. Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fizziev
Fizziev beats Dos Anjos in close fight, celebrates after 5th-round KO
Rafael Fizziev enters the championship round with Rafael Dos Anjos and celebrates his KO win at UFC APEX.
I’m pretty sure I’m in breach of a promise I made to always, under any circumstances, put Gaethje at number 1. He always keeps us hooked for a thrilling ride. And just like that, Fizziv is incapable of boring performances; The 12-1 lightweight has earned post-fight bonuses in each of his most recent appearances. As these two begin to walk toward the cage and I feel my heart beat faster, I fully anticipate feeling regret for disrespecting my Gaethje vow.
3. Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neil
It’s a homecoming of sorts for O’Neill, who was born in Scotland and moved to Australia with her family when she was 10. More importantly, this is a comeback fight, as the 9-0 flyweight prospect has been on the sidelines for over a year. Recovering from ACL surgery. O’Neal isn’t taking it easy on her way back either, a little over two years away from a feuding title challenge against Maiya Valentina Shevchenko. There are loads of questions here. Is Maia, 34, having lost two of her last three, still at contender level? And is O’Neal, 25, fully healed, rust-free and ready to resume his rise through the ranks?
4. Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze
Roman Dolidze Begins Fight Night With First-Round Knockout
Roman Dolidze catches Kyle Doukas 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 Big Dance regulars who haven’t wavered against their conference’s elite. Dollidze has hit his stride with four consecutive victories, the most recent three by knockout. Vettori has lost two of his last three, but is ranked in the ESPN pound-for-pound top 10 against two of the world’s best middleweights, Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker. Vettori is always in big fights, and Dolidze is ready for one.
5. Muhammad Mokayev vs. Jafel Filho
Muhammad submits Malcolm Gordon with the Mokaev armbar
Muhammad Mokayev tapped Malcolm Gordon in the third round with an armbar.
Remember when men’s flyweights piled shovels on top of their own little graves? The division was then revived by the fight between Brandon Moreno and Daveson Figueredo and its Rocky-shaped sequel series, as well as the emergence of an array of legal contenders. Among them is Mokaev, who is 9-0, 1 NC. The Dagestan-born Englishman has struggled with submissions in two of his last three bouts. Let’s see how his ground game is tested by Filho, a 14-2 UFC debutant with all but one of his victories (eight submissions, five knockouts) by finish. And long live 125 pounds.
And here’s a bonus “fight” to consider…
Chris Duncan vs Christian Duncan
No, this is not an actual matchup, but yes, these are two different fighters making their UFC debut in a preliminary test. Christian, who actually goes by Christian Leroy Duncan, is the undefeated middleweight from Gloucester, England, who is relinquishing his Cage Warriors title to step into the octagon against Dusko Todorovic. Chris, who has no middle name that we know of but a nickname (“The Problem”) not shared by his namesake, is a former Bellator lightweight from Scotland who has a cage date with Omar Morales. Stay tuned after the fight for our pound-for-pound Chris Duncan rankings.
COMPLETE UFC 286 FIGHT CARD
espn+ ppv, 5 p.m. ET
Welterweight Championship: Leon Edwards (c) vs. Kamru Usman
Lightweight: Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fizziev
Women’s Flyweight: Joanne Wood vs. Luana Carolina
Welterweight: Gunnar Nelson vs. Brian Barberena
Middleweight: Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze
ESPNNews/ESPN+, 3 o’clock in the afternoon
Men’s Featherweight: Leron Murphy vs. Gabriel Santos
Lightweight: Chris Duncan vs. Omar Morales
Men’s Featherweight: Jack Shore vs. Makwan Amirkhani
Lightweight: Sam Patterson vs. Yanel Ashmoz
ESPN+, 1 p.m.
Men’s flyweight: Muhammad Mokaev vs. Jafel Filho
Middleweight: Christian Duncan vs. Dusko Todorovic
Men’s Flyweight: Malcolm Gordon vs. Jake Hadley
Women’s Flyweight: Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neal
Lightweight: Jay Herbert vs. Ludowitz Klein
Women’s Flyweight: Julianna Miller vs. Veronica Hardy
(C) = defending champion