TNT Sports Reload - Episode 11Sep 26
The biggest show in combat sports comes to the British capital this weekend as the UFC returns to London for the first time in three years with a whopper of a card coming your way.
As ever, we’ll have every moment of the action exclusively live on BT Sport this Saturday night as rising heavyweight star Tom Aspinall tops a bill packed with British talent at the iconic O2 Arena.
With so much going on during a big night of fights, here are five reasons you can’t afford to be anywhere else this weekend.
Aspinall’s ascent to heavyweight contention
For several years now, Salford’s Tom Aspinall has been a name many within the British MMA scene have nominated as our next star-in-waiting.
Before joining the UFC back in July 2020, the towering heavyweight quietly went about his business on the regional scene, racking up a decent if unspectacular 7-2 record in the process.
But since making the step up to the world’s leading MMA promotion, Aspinall has not looked back.
He’s such a big guy, but he moves like a middleweight
- Bisping on Aspinall
Three performance bonuses, four straight wins and a whole heap of new fans later, Aspinall looks to be on the brink of fulfilling the potential many spotted within him in years gone by.
Speaking in May 2021, BT Sport’s own Michael Bisping told talkSPORT: “Tom is definitely championship material.
“He’s such a big guy, but he moves like a middleweight. He’s fast on his feet and very agile.
“He has the speed, which is important. Speed kills power and on top of that he has the power.”
Aspinall subsequently went on to stop Sergey Spivak within three minutes, continuing his rapid development on the biggest stage of all.
I just love there being a crowd
- Tom Aspinall
But now the 28-year-old faces inarguably the toughest challenge of his career yet in a headline tilt against Russian contender Alexander Volkov with the winner ensuring their place in the top five of the heavyweight division.
Curiously, it will also mark the first time since joining the UFC that Aspinall has fought in front of a significant crowd having made two appearances on Fight Island and two at the UFC’s APEX Center in Las Vegas.
It was a point that Aspinall himself raised after his dominant victory over Spivak in September last year, telling Caroline Pearce: “I really want to fight in front of 20,000 people because I want to see how I’m going to react - even in there [UFC APEX] there was a couple of hundred people and it’s different to it being empty.
“I just love there being a crowd, I want as many people there as possible. I want my family and friends there, the Mrs, the kids there giving it some! It will be brilliant!”
Aspinall will have his wish this weekend with another sell-out crowd in attendance at London’s O2 Arena as the surging heavyweight star looks to take the biggest scalp of his career yet.
Can Aspinall climb into the top five with another bonus-winning performance?
It’s tough to think of another fighter who has made such a name for themselves off the back of their UFC debut than Paddy Pimblett.
The brash Liverpudlian treated fans to an absolute barnburner back in September, surviving a scare against Luigi Vendramini to score a memorable knockout on his first appearance inside the Octagon.
Since then, the 27-year-old has become of the most recognisable fighters on the roster - even reportedly signing a lucrative partnership with US media giant Barstool Sports.
But with great expectation comes great pressure – and the pressure will now be on Pimblett to deliver a show on his UK homecoming following such a triumphant debut as he takes on Rodrigo Vargas in a lightweight cracker.
If he gets out the first round, I’ll be highly disappointed in myself
- Paddy Pimblett
If there were any nerves ahead of such a momentous occasion though, you wouldn’t know it, with the blonde-haired star telling BT Sport’s Nick Peet: “He [Vargas] does not get out of the first round, lad.
“If he gets out the first round, I’ll be highly disappointed in myself. I’ll be fuming.”
Pimblett, the former Cage Warriors featherweight champion, is famed for his high-energy Octagon walks, blaring his trademark mash-up of Lethal Industry by Tiësto and Heads Will Roll by Yeah Yeah Yeahs that he has made his own.
And speaking to the Daily Mail last month, he promised to make it an entrance to remember, adding: 'My tune gets people going and people want to see a fight. When you close that octagon door, there's only me and him in there so there's not much advantage at all but I've always wanted to come out with my tune in the UK.
“It's going to be the greatest entrance the UFC has ever seen and it isn't even a title fight or contender fight. People will be talking about this entrance for the next 10-20 years.”
You won’t want to miss this one!
Almighty Allen meets The Hangman
A sneaky pick to steal the show this weekend, Saturday night sees perennial featherweight contender Arnold Allen finally land the marquee name his unbeaten exploits have deserved as he takes on the always-game Dan Hooker.
Allen, who has not lost in any of his eight UFC appearances since 2015, will be hoping to take a giant stride towards featherweight title contention with victory over the visiting New Zealander.
But Hooker, who will return to featherweight for the first time since 2016, has his sights set on an eye-catching win that could instantly parachute him towards the top of the 145lb rankings.
Ipswich man Allen, now 28, has been regarded as one of the most promising young fighters from these shores for many years but has only fought twice in the same calendar year on one occasion since making his debut almost seven years ago.
But there is a feeling that Allen, who previously trained at the famous Tristar Gym alongside Georges St-Pierre, could be on the cusp of a true breakout year should he keep his UFC ledger unblemished against one of the most violent men on the roster.
Hooker has built a cult following thanks to his kill-or-be-killed approach inside the Octagon, as well as embodying the true spirit of fighting ‘any time, any place’ around the world.
He is no stranger to hostility – but he will likely be cast as the villain once again this weekend with the sold out O2 expected to back the home fighter in vociferous fashion.
Will ‘The Hangman’ maintain his composure – or can ‘Almighty’ Allen claim a famous win?
Craig creeps towards the title
Scotland’s Paul Craig returns to action for the first time since last summer aiming to extend his unbeaten streak to six against fellow light heavyweight contender Nikita Krylov.
Craig had been rumoured to have secured a mouthwatering showdown against one of the division’s biggest names in Alexander Gustafsson – but instead, the 34-year-old faces one of the bogeymen of the 205lb rankings in Ukraine’s Krylov.
But Craig will be full of confidence regardless of whoebver is put in front of him having discovered the best form of his UFC tenure yet over the past few years.
Impressive wins against Gadzhimurad Antigulov and former 205lb king Shogun Rua paved the way for a career-best performance in victory over Jamahal Hill last time out.
And with a relatively thin crowd of contenders at the summit of the light heavyweight division, Craig knows he may only be a standout performance away from securing a dream shot at the 205lb title.
Krylov, however, will be no walkover having lost only to former champ Jan Blachowicz, current champion Glover Teixeira and the man many believe to be the champion-in-waiting, Magomed Ankalaev.
Craig’s championship credentials look certain to be given a thorough examination then – but with a large crowd of fellow Scots expected at the O2 Arena, don’t bet against Craig making it a night to remember with another submission win.
The Punisher makes his debut
One of Britain’s brightest MMA prospects will make his UFC debut this weekend as former Team GB wrestling standout Muhammad Mokaev joins the bigtime.
Mokaev, a Dagestani refugee who came to the UK aged 12, has become a popular figure in his adopted hometowns of Wigan and Manchester, proudly representing both on his short journey through MMA so far.
The 21-year-old is believed to be one of the most talented fighters to come from these shores in a long while, blending elite-level grappling with an ever-improving skillset on the feet.
I want to be champion by the end of 2023, before I turn 24
- Mohammed Mokaev
And Mokaev has set lofty goals for himself since signing his UFC contract, promising to break Jon Jones’ long-standing record as the youngest champion in the history of the promotion.
"I want to be champion by the end of 2023, before I turn 24," Mokaev told BBC Sport last year.
"I have to be realistic. In less than a year, I might get two or three fights, maybe four fights and then I'll be up for the title."
Mokaev’s quest for the title begins against Cody Durden, a man whom Mokaev requested specifically having taken issue with racially-charged language used by Durden in the aftermath of his victory against China’s Aoriqileng last year.
“I don’t like Cody Durden racist comment in his interview. Should I smash this guy for my UFC debut?” Mokaev asked his Twitter followers in response.
The highly-touted debutant now has the chance to do exactly that in a must-see debut tilt against the visiting American.
Will he be able to follow through on his promise – or can Durden poop the party before it’s even begun?