UFC 251: Begins Month of British Combat Voyage
By James Lee
This Saturday’s marquee pay-per-view event will signify the beginning of the UFC’s venture into the Fight Island, in an attempt to overcome complications that the Covid-19 pandemic has arisen for those outside of North America.
However, for British fight fans, the event signifies the beginning of a historic month of combat, in which the substantial bulk of their home fighters will compete and attempt to individually progress in the sport’s leading promotion.
From Davey Grant kicking off the entire month of combat to fan-favourite Darren Till ending it weeks later in a middleweight title eliminator, there can be little but elation surrounding the coming period on these shores.
Ultimately, as the travel restrictions have seen North American fighters given ample opportunities and a UFC London card cancelled days before in March, the month is a redemption, but crucially, a showcase of British talent in a surging market for martial arts.
UFC 251 – July 11th:
Danny Henry vs Makwan Amirkhani
Davey Grant vs Martin Day
This Saturday’s event is, without doubt, the main attraction of the month. Three title contests, headlined by a long-awaited welterweight clash between champion Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal. Undoubtedly, all attention will be on the main card, but it is, in fact, an Englishman that will kick off and set the standard for the entire month of combat.
A secure status as a UFC fighter looked in doubt for Davey Grant just last year, but a fight in Moscow last October was vital in him saving that status after a winless three years. A split decision win over Grigorii Popov was fortunately enough for redemption in the Russian capital.
His opponent for the upcoming event is Martin Day. A relative unknown who lost his UFC debut in November 2018 after a successful spell in Hawaii’s regional circuit. Although most will not be largely engaged in the contest, it will certainly be salient in opening the entire month of action and perhaps setting the momentum for UFC 251.
The other Brit in action on Saturday is Danny Henry; a Scottish featherweight with a professional record of 12-3. Despite achieving world championship status under the promotion EFC five years ago, Henry has yet to amass the same recognition some of his fellow Brits have. Victories over notable names Hakeem Dawodu and Daniel Teymur certainly add prestige to his record, however.
A loss to Dan Ige last March broke a winning streak for him, but increased activity and consistency will increase his profile. His opponent on Saturday is no easy task, though. Despite also looking to bounce back from disappointment, Makwan Amirkhani has consistently proved himself to be a top featherweight with over a decade of experience. It must be said that Henry has more to gain in the contest, making it an opportunity that cannot be wasted for the Edinburgh man.
UFC Fight Night 172 – July 15th:
Chris Fishgold vs Jared Gordon
Molly McCann vs Talia Santos
Lerone Murphy vs Ricardo Ramos
John Phillips vs Dusko Todorovic
Jack Shore vs Aaron Phillips
The midweek card days after UFC 251 is perhaps unlikely to attract mass attention like the other events throughout the month, however, it poses a noteworthy showcase of British talent to make it a definite watch for UK fans.
The standout fighters from the UK will be Next Generation MMA’s Chris Fishgold and Molly McCann. The pair have differing consequences, but like all, tremendous stakes await their result.
For Fishgold, he has yet to establish himself amongst the featherweight division because of winning just one of his first three fights. Although losses to Calvin Kattar and Makwan Amirkhani cannot worry his promotional status, a run of success must be imminent for the former Cage Warriors champion if he wishes to realise the success highlighted for him before his debut.
On the other hand, Molly McCann has widely changed her situation and looks to be honing in on an opportunity to fight Valentina Shevchenko for flyweight gold. After losing her UFC debut to Gillian Robertson in Liverpool, McCann proved she deserves her spot in the sport’s biggest promotion with three wins in 2019.
Her latest win came against promotional newcomer Diana Belbita, in which she dominated the Romanian fighter over the entire fifteen minutes, coming close to finishing the fight on two occasions as well. Wins against Priscila Cachoeira and Ariane Lipski prior has touted her for contendership, and although it was expected she would face a ranked opponent next, all she can do is keep winning and make herself undeniable.
Additionally, Welsh fighters Jack Shore and John Phillips will feature on the preliminary card, in yet another showcase of the combat talent from Wales. Along with Brett Johns, the fighters from South Wales are becoming an integral part of the British combat outlet.
The pair were both successful in Copenhagen last September, with Shore earning his first win in the UFC and Phillips securing a knockout that kept his spot in the UFC intact. The community is aware of the power that dominates Phillips’ gameplan, but it is Jack Shore that is Wales’ biggest hope for a championship future. Twelve wins without defeat and a Cage Warriors title represents his short career so far and a win over his short-notice opponent could importantly boost fan aspirations.
Also, Manchester fighter Lerone Murphy will make his second appearance in the UFC after drawing with Zubaira Tukhugov on his debut. Few gave ‘The Miracle’ a chance considering Tukhugov’s status, but he excelled and impressed on the night, despite taking the fight on short notice. Another troublesome opponent in Ricardo Ramos awaits him on July 15th, but one he can build from.
UFC Fight Night 173 – July 18th:
Marc Diakese vs Rafael Fiziev
Nad Narimani vs Grant Dawson
Brett Johns vs Montel Jackson
Few can dispute that Marc Diakese’s UFC consignment has gone as hoped so far. After a successful start in which he continued his unbeaten run to 12-0 with three finishes in the sport’s largest promotion, his career took a severe stumble as three consecutive losses followed. However, a career-defining performance against Joe Duffy in London, followed by a decision win over Lando Vannata in Copenhagen has not only maintained his status as a UFC fighter but pushed him back onto the path to contendership. A third consecutive win on July 18th will continue that momentum.
Regardless of the outcome though, Diakese’s style means he will always be welcome in the sport by the fans. The sport was built on unpredictability and Diakese has that in abundance as his ranging array of strikes create an energetic atmosphere where anything can happen in the fifteen minutes. Most importantly though, and as his last two fights have shown, he is beginning to mix that excitement with discipline in a so-far successful attempt to capture continuous success.
In similar circumstances, bantamweight fighter Brett Johns is also looking to build a winning streak, after breaking a two-fight duck in his last contest. Although suffering two professional defeats back-to-back does not bode well for contendership, those losses have fortunately been merited over time.
His first professional defeat came to Aljamain Sterling, who looks likely to challenge for a title shortly. His second was to Pedro Munhoz who himself is now established as a top-ten contender at 135 lbs. Johns is credited more by the fact he stayed put throughout both fights, showing immense heart despite constant pressure from Sterling and Munhoz.
Nonetheless, his career cannot just be noted for bravery if he believes in his ability to reach the top. A stately outing against Tony Gravely in January saw him return to octagon victory and continuance of that can be sure to return him back to his earlier UFC success and resurrect the mainstream attention he once amassed from the British fan base.
The third fight featuring a Brit will be Nad Narimani vs Grant Dawson. After a loss to Mike Grundy last March, the Bristol fighter has been inactive since. However, there is little doubt that the former Cage Warriors featherweight champion can return to winning ways against his American counterpart. Although lacking in recognition, Narimani is one of the most talented amongst the plethora of British talent competing this month and has all the potential for triumph on July 18th.
UFC Fight Night 174 – July 25th:
Darren Till vs Robert Whittaker
Mike Grundy vs Movsar Evloev
Tom Aspinall vs Jake Collier
Nathaniel Wood vs John Castaneda
Jai Herbert vs Francisco Trinaldo
Paul Craig vs Gadzhimurad Antigulov
The event on July 25th will be a Team Kaobon takeover as the three standout fighters from the Liverpool gym will compete in highly relevant contests for each in their individual pursuits of progress.
Of course, the standout fighter for the card is Darren Till, who will be headlining the last ever bout on Fight Island against Robert Whittaker. Surely a middleweight title opportunity awaits the winner, making the July 25th main event one of the most important fights to grace the Island over July.
After a disappointing start to 2019, Till resurrected his career with a move to middleweight and a decision win over Kelvin Gastelum last November. The Liverpool fighter is not only Britain’s most popular fighter but one of the most prevalent in the sport. A fight between him and Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title would be one of the most substantial fights to be made in the UFC, making victory vital for Till to ensure that fight’s potential is fulfilled.
Featherweight Mike Grundy and heavyweight Tom Aspinall are similarly both scheduled to compete on the preliminary card.
Grundy (12-1) was successful at the UFC’s annual London card last year when he finished fellow Englishman Nad Narimani in the second round. A fight with Moksar Evoev awaits him this time, however, which is one that is difficult and unlikely to see him widely recognised amongst the masses. Interest should be high in the fight, as it poses an unsurety as to who will have the grappling advantage. Grundy hails from a wrestling background and has a Commonwealth bronze medal, whereas Evoev is a product of a Russian wrestling education.
Tom Aspinall is instead making his promotional debut on the card in the esteemed preliminary headliner spot. The importance of a promotional debut is undoubted and a good impression, especially in the heavyweight division, can be instrumental in the trajectory of a career. The UK has lacked a heavyweight contender since Ian Freeman in the early 2000s and Aspinall has the potential to fill that void.
After a hiatus from the sport between 2016 and 2019, Aspinall secured two quick finishes in Cage Warriors on his return last year and will want to prove he is much better than the European standard. Success in Abu Dhabi is the first step to that.
Furthermore, as all attention will seemingly shift to Darren Till in the build-up to the event, it can be said that Jai Herbert vs Francisco Trinaldo is the best stylistic matchup on the night. When it was announced that Cage Warriors lightweight champion Herbert was to make his debut in the UFC, it was expected he would be schemed tamely, with room to grow before making his way to the top of the division.
However, a fight with Brazilian veteran Francisco Trinaldo awaits. On one hand, he has been given a chance to quickly ascend up the 155 lbs division, but it is one that comes at a cost. Trinaldo is perhaps one of lightweight’s most underrated, but if Herbert has global championship ambitions, he must advance past his toughest career step every fight.
Additionally, fan-favourite Nathaniel Wood returns to fight late replacement John Castaneda.
The GBTT fighter was expected to welcome promotional newcomer Umar Nurmagomedov at the event, but the fight was cancelled after the passing of Umar’s uncle Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.
The excitement surrounding his contest will be sure to garner attention. Alongside Darren Till and Leon Edwards, Wood is a standout English fighter with a large amount of support from London in particular. It is rare for a fighter with just three wins in the UFC to receive such high notoriety, but that will mean little if he cannot secure redemption after losing to former title challenger John Dodson earlier this year.
Lastly, Scottish light-heavyweight Paul Craig will fight Gadzhimurad Antigulov. Craig’s UFC career has been inconsistent so far, with his professional status on a pendulum. A win against Antigulov will ensure security. A loss could put his position in jeopardy.