This Saturday, the UFC returns to the United Kingdom for the first time since 2019 with a card filled with up-and-coming European talent, including three Englishmen poised for prosperous futures.
Alexander Volkov vs. Tom Aspinall
Alexander Volkov enters his sixth UFC main event on the heels of a decision victory over Marcin Tybura last October. Volkov now looks to put together another win streak and work his way back to top contention within the Heavyweight division. A former Bellator Heavyweight Champion, Volkov holds an extensive resume with 22 of his 34 career victories coming by way of strikes. Names etched on his resume include the likes of former Strikeforece/Dream Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Fabricio Werdum, Stefan Struve, Roy Nelson, Tim Johnson, and Blagoy Ivanov. Against a rising prospect in Aspinall, Volkov will likely look to maximize all of his advantages – two inches of height, two inches of reach, and 30 bouts of additional experience. 10 of Aspinall’s 11 victories have come in the first-round, so expect Volkov to attempt to utilize the five rounds provided to extend the Englishman into deep waters before unleashing greater volumes of striking offence in an effort to turn back the prospect.
Following an early career run through BAMMA and Cage Warriors, Tom Aspinall burst onto the UFC scene in mid-2020 with a 45-second TKO over Jake Collier. Since then, he has extended his UFC record to 4-0 with subsequent finishes over Alan Baudot, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Andrei Arlovski, and Sergey Spivak. Despite just 13 bouts to his name, Aspinall is widely regarded as a top prospect in the division and actually comes into this bout as the favorite (as of this writing) over the 43-fight veteran in Volkov. The primary attribute that Aspinall possesses over most heavyweights is his speed, utilizing quick movement and hand speed to catch his opponents off guard. Against Volkov, Aspinall will likely need to utilize that speed advantage to close the distance and uncork some heavy shots on Volkov early. Should Volkov extend the bout into the later rounds, it will be very interesting to see what attributes Aspinall brings in the latter portions of the bout.
Arnold Allen vs. Dan Hooker
Arnold Allen has been on quite a run since his entrance into the UFC in 2015. Allen currently holds an 8-0 record in the organization and holds notable victories over the likes of Makwan Amirkhani, Mads Burnell, former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez, and Sodiq Yusuff. Against Hooker, Allen will be on the wrong end of a four-inch height and five-inch reach discrepancy. These discrepancies make his approach to the Hooker bout very interesting. Under the tutelage of Firas Zahabi, Allen will very likely have a strong gameplan in place to maximize his strikes from distance to outpoint his opponent – as he has done in the majority of his UFC victories. Also noteworthy is Allen’s opportunistic front choke attacks – notching comeback victories via the method against both Alan Omer and the aforementioned Burnell. Currently ranked seventh in the Featherweight division, if Allen is able to extend his winning streak to 9-0 he will be undeniable for a top contender’s bout.
Dan Hooker returns to the Featherweight division for the first time since 2016. The move back to Featherweight is an interesting decision given that he had previously gone just 3-3 in the UFC in that weight class prior to his Lightweight move. At Lightweight, Hooker had accumulated an 8-4 record and leaves the division as the eighth-ranked contender in the division. In all likelihood, after suffering three losses in his last four bouts, Hooker likely viewed Featherweight as his most optimal path to a shot at a title. It will be very telling to see whether the weight cut down to the Featherweight division takes a toll on Hooker’s abilities as he had previously been outstruck by the likes of Maximo Blanco and Yair Rodriguez in his last Featherweight run. Against Allen, Hooker may look to make the fight as ugly as possible to overcome Allen’s technical proficiencies. Hooker may look to stalk Allen with heavy leg kicks and straight punches from the outside early, but if bested from range he may rely on his granite chin to enter into the pocket and test Allen’s mettle in a brawl.
Paddy Pimblett vs. Rodrigo Vargas
Former Cage Warriors Featherweight Champion Paddy Pimblett made good on his UFC debut last September with a first-round TKO over Luigi Vendramini. Since then, his following has continued to grow at an incredibly fast pace. “The Baddy” now finds himself as a sizeable favorite over his opponent Rodrigo Vargas heading into Saturday’s main card bout. Pimblett is held in high regard for his grappling ability, typically doing his best work from top position against his opponents – utilizing heavy ground-and-pound to get the finish or set up his RNC finishes. Pimblett is also a submission threat from the clinch, having demonstrated a dangerous flying triangle choke on numerous occasions. Pimblett’s game is clearly evolving though, as it was his powerful hooks that got the job done against Vendramini his last time out, albeit after a tumultuous start where Pimblett was clearly rocked. Look for Pimblett to get back to his grappling ways in this fight in search of a quick victory.
Rodrigo Vargas picked up his first UFC victory last April with a decision victory over Rong Zhu. Prior to that, he had dropped his first two UFC bouts to Alex da Silva Coelho and Brok Weaver – the latter by way of DQ due to an illegal knee. The 36-year-old is an aggressive fighter, utilizing strong leg kicks, looping punches from both stances, and takedowns on the cage to constantly pressure his opponents and cause them to move backwards. While Vargas has shown decent ability when he is on top position on the ground, he may opt to avoid the most dangerous aspect of Pimblett’s game and instead look to keep the bout standing and engage in a brawl with Pimblett in a similar way to how Vendramini did.
Gunnar Nelson vs. Takashi Sato
Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson returns from a two-and-a-half-year hiatus from competition this Saturday against short-notice replacement Takashi Sato. Nelson is currently on a two-fight skid to top contenders Leon Edwards and Gilbert Burns, though his UFC record stands at 8-5. A Pan American BJJ Champion, Nelson has secured seven of those eight victories via submission and will undoubtedly be looking to submit Sato as well. Nelson presents himself as a dual threat, utilizing his karate background to close the distance with strong blitzes before bullying (or dropping) his opponent to the canvas in order to work his top-side grappling. From there, Nelson will either work to the back or the front headlock in order to secure a fight-ending RNC or guillotine choke. Against Sato, this gameplan will likely be no different given that the Japanese fighter has suffered three of his four losses via submission (all chokes).
Takashi Sato enters his bout with Nelson with a 2-2 record in the UFC with stoppage victories over The Ultimate Fighter season six veteran Ben Saunders and Jason Witt. Largely a striker, Sato has notched 11 of his 16 career victories via strikes and will need to utilize that power to defeat the grappling ace in Nelson. Utilizing a wide stance, Sato typically relies a lot on his lead right hand – utilizing a quick jab and a solid lead right hook. When he does throw his left cross, there is a significant amount of power behind it. Unfortunately for Sato, putting so much power behind his left cross also makes him susceptible to takedown attempts when he overextends on the strike. Against Nelson, Sato needs to stay away from the cage and maintain his ground in the center of the octagon. From there, he will need to rely largely upon his lead jab and hook to outpoint Nelson in a striking affair.
Jai Herbert vs. Ilia Topuria
Former Cage Warriors Lightweight Champion Jai Herbert put himself in the UFC win column last October with a first-round TKO over Khama Worthy. Herbert now looks to start a winning streak against Topuria and will enjoy extreme size advantages in the matchup – six inches of height and eight inches of reach. Having accumulated nine of his 11 career victories via strikes, Herbert is a very capable striker. Herbert typically utilizes a long jab and a snapping cross to do the volume of his work, though he has demonstrated good knees up the middle as well. The key for Herbert in his bout with Topuria will undoubtedly be to keep the fight standing. In Herbert’s sophomore appearance against Renato Moicano, Herbert was consistently taken down by the Brazilian and struggled on the bottom – ultimately succumbing to an RNC in the second round. Herbert will need to keep the bout standing and at range if he is to come out victorious.
Ilia Topuria missed out on a main card opportunity back in January when he had trouble making the Featherweight limit. Topuria now moves up to the Lightweight division for the first time in his career. The 25-year-old has started his UFC career in extremely impressive fashion, taking a short-notice decision victory over Youseff Zalal and stoppage victories via strikes against Damon Jackson and The Ultimate Fighter season 22 winner Ryan Hall. Topuria has demonstrated immense power in his hands alongside a slick front choke series – pairing his guillotine and anaconda choke attempts. Against the lengthy Herbert, Topuria will likely look to close the distance and grapple with the striking specialist. Given that Topuria has spent his entire career as a Bantamweight and Featherweight, it will be interesting to see how he deals with the frames of natural Lightweights such as Herbert.