For the first time in a long time, the UFC hosts a Fight Night event outside of the UFC Apex as they travel to London, Eng. for UFC Fight Night: Volkov vs. Aspinall. The main event showcases the heavyweight division as perennial contender Alexander Volkov meets surging prospect-turned-contender Tom Aspinall.
Volkov is a former world champion in both Bellator and M-1 Global, who has racked up 43 professional fights and is still only 33 years old. He has been largely successful since joining the UFC, despite a few setbacks against Derrick Lewis, Curtis Blaydes, and Ciryl Gane. He enters this main event with Aspinall on the heels of a lopsided unanimous-decision victory over Marcin Tybura.
Aspinall is the best heavyweight fighter to come out of Great Britain in recent memory, perhaps ever. He has yet to taste defeat since signing with the UFC and has lost only twice in his entire career. After an early submission loss by heel hook, his only other loss came by disqualification after he landed an illegal downward elbow. Aspinall has finished all four of his UFC victories and looks to continue that trend this weekend just two hours away from his hometown of Manchester, England.
The co-main event features another rising British star in featherweight prospect Arnold Allen. Allen is riding a ten-fight winning streak, including an unblemished 8-0 record since beginning his UFC tenure. He meets Kiwi standout Dan Hooker, who is returning to the featherweight division on the heels of a first-round submission loss to Islam Makhachev at lightweight. Fans certainly won’t be disappointed when these two all-action fighters lock horns.
Also on the main card is yet another British prospect in Paddy Pimblett. “The Baddy” came into the UFC with a lot of buzz behind him from his time as a champion in Cage Warriors and his brash personality. He faces Kazula Vargas in his second UFC outing and is the biggest favorite on the card, with the line currently sitting at nearly -500 in Pimblett’s favor.
The event airs in its entirety on ESPN+ with prelims beginning at 1 p.m. ET, and the main card getting underway at 4 p.m. ET. The action goes down inside the O2 Arena in London, England in front of 20,000 screaming British fans. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action and make their picks in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Tom Aspinall is 4-0 inside the UFC, winning all four of those fights inside the distance; does Aspinall continue that trend in front of a hometown crowd by stopping Alexander Volkov?
Sumian: This is a huge step-up in competition for Aspinall. Volkov is, without a doubt, the best fighter the young Brit has faced thus far in his career. Despite the towering figure of Volkov, Aspinall is surprisingly only given up a two-inch reach and height advantage, which is huge due to the likelihood of this being a kickboxing match. The question is, who will be able to land first?
Aspinall is the definition of a heavyweight prospect. He is currently ranked No. 11 in the official UFC rankings and has defeated Jake Collier, Alan Baudot, Andre Arlovski, and Sergey Spivak. Apsinall is primarily a power striker, capable of knocking out a majority of heavyweights who stand and bang with him. A win over Volkov will firmly plant Aspinall as a top-seven heavyweight with two fights left before realizing a title shot.
Volkov is the best opponent for an up-and-coming heavyweight who is ready to prove he is elite. His only losses in the UFC are to guys who have all become elite heavyweight fighters in the last several years. Unfortunately for Volkov, safeguarding a top-five heavyweight ranking is as close as he will get to fighting for the UFC heavyweight championship.
This fight is going to be a classic striking affair between two awesome heavyweights. Aspinall is going to have a wonderful career as a UFC heavyweight but will take a step back on Saturday. Volkov has put on some size going into his main-event clash with Aspinall, and he will use the slight range advantage he does have to batter Aspinall with combinations and kicks. Apsinall will respond with offense of his own, but “Drago” will earn the unanimous decision victory and prove to the world that he is still top dog in the heavyweight division.
Petela: I agree that this is the biggest test of Aspinall’s career, but it is a test he is more than ready to pass with flying colors. There was a time not all that long ago when Volkov was considered a dark-horse contender for the UFC heavyweight title. His dramatic loss to Lewis derailed the hype train somewhat, and, despite racking up some nice wins since then, he hasn’t been able to firmly regain his footing, never winning more than two fights in a row since then. Granted, all of his losses have come against the best of the best in the heavyweight division, but Aspinall will show that he is a force to be reckoned with for anyone in the weight class.
Aspinall has not gone the distance in any of his eleven professional wins, notching nine knockouts and two submissions. He has power in both hands and has shown that he has a solid chin when he gets hit, which isn’t all that often. He has a ridiculously impressive striking ratio, landing over seven strikes per minute while absorbing less than two and a half strikes per minute. His volume will cause problems for Volkov in this fight, as will his ability to remain in boxing range and nullify the leg reach advantage of the Russian. Aspinall won’t run through Volkov the way he did Sergey Spivak and Andrei Arlovski, but this fight won’t see the scorecards as Aspinall picks up the biggest victory of his career and the roof blows off of the O2 Arena.
Paddy Pimblett is another hometown favorite who stormed into the UFC with a first-round TKO; how does he fare in his sophomore outing against Kazula Vargas?
Petela: With all respect to Kazula Vargas, he was picked as an opponent for Paddy Pimblett for a reason. This is a showcase fight for Pimblett against a fighter who has largely struggled on the big stage. Vargas is just 1-2 in his run with the UFC, but he picked up a win in his most recent outing which is really a thinly veiled way of the UFC giving Pimblett a fight he should win emphatically without looking like they are putting him against a fighter who has no business in the cage against him. Now, admittedly, one of his promotional losses came by disqualification when he landed an illegal knee against Brok Weaver. Vargas was winning that fight, but it wasn’t against a high-level opponent, so it’s hard to take much away from that performance.
Pimblett will get the win, and the fans will go wild when he finishes the fight early, but it’s not a win that will scream “fast track” to UFC executives. The real tests will start to come in the near future, but nonetheless, this fight will bolster his already soaring popularity, especially among British fans.
Sumian: I 100-percent agree with my colleague. Vargas was chosen to act like a sacrificial lamb for the UFC’s latest hot commodity. However, the hype behind Pimblett is undoubtedly puzzling. Nothing about his UFC debut was impressive in any shape or form. In fact, it was Luigi Vendramini who found early success against the Brit and took command of the cage. In the end, he was able to put together a sloppy and aggressive finish sequence that looked favorable for a highlight reel, rather than displaying his skillset as a martial artist. Pimblett’s character and personality are the only things keeping him in the spotlight. He will defeat Vargas but ultimately fail to deliver on the hype as he progresses in the UFC’s most competitive division to date.
Muhammad Mokaev – do we need to know this name?
Sumian: Generally, I am more favorable when it comes to the chances of UFC newcomers compared to my colleague. However, this time around, that is not the case. Mokaev is simply way too inexperienced in his professional MMA career to garner any significant attention. Yes, he has extensive experience as an amateur and is currently 6-0. However, the 21-year-old flyweight’s undefeated record comes at the expense of competition such as Dave Jones (0-3), Jamie Kelly (2-3) and Hayden Sherriff (0-11). To buy into the hype of Mokaev without several notable wins is absolutely absurd. A win over Cody Durden will certainly change that, but it is unlikely.
Petela: This is a rare role reversal where I am more optimistic about the chances for success of a debuting fighter. Mokaev is certainly somewhat unproven at only 6-0, but he has fought the bulk of his short career in Brave FC, the largest promotion in the Middle East and one of the premier international promotions in the world today. The comparisons that have been made to a mini Khabib Nurmagomedov are a tad premature, but Mokaev will prove the doubters wrong sooner rather than later by racking up a few dominant wins as he climbs towards the upper echelon of the flyweight division.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Makwan Amirkhani. “Mr. Finland” has struggled lately, to put it mildly. Three losses in a row, and only one win in his last five outings, for Amirkhani has to have him close to the end of his run with the organization. He has shown flashes of brilliance over his eleven-fight UFC tenure, even sometimes in losing efforts. Amirkhani looked impressive in the opening round of his clash with Lerone Murphy. Luckily for him, he has a winnable fight on Saturday against Mike Grundy, but, should he come up short, he will probably have a pink slip waiting for him when he gets back to the locker room.
Sumian: Gunnar Nelson is in a very precarious spot going into Saturday. He is 1-3 in his last four fights, and his sole win came in 2018 against Alex Oliveira. That win has not aged well given the fact that Oliveira is 0-4 since Oct. 2020. If Nelson suffers a third-straight loss to a lesser-known name like Takashi Sato, it could very well put him on the chopping block.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian:. The lightweight clash between Ilia Topuria and Jai Herbert. It is incredible just how deep the 155-pound division is today. Herbert and Topuria are both unranked fighters with eventual top-15 potential. Expect the two to throw down from start to finish with the certainty that this one does not go the full three rounds.
Petela: Jack Shore vs. Timur Valiev. Both of these bantamweights have gained a plethora of momentum over their past several fights. Shore is a Welsh prospect with an undefeated record of 15-0 and 4-0 inside the UFC. Valiev has not lost since 2016, when he dropped a split decision to Chris Gutierrez, a loss that he avenged in the rematch. The UFC’s bantamweight division has become perhaps the most talented from top to bottom inside the promotion, and these two up-and-comers will put on a show as they vie for their place as a future contender.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Arnold Allen. His fight with Dan Hooker is going to be fun as long as it lasts. Hooker is moving back down to featherweight after a fairly successful run at lightweight. His last performance against Islam Makhachev seemed to make something click with Hooker that he doesn’t have the physicality to deal with elite, powerful wrestlers at lightweight. Down at featherweight, Hooker will find himself with a power advantage, but a speed disadvantage, and that’s where Allen will capitalize. Hooker will have a few moments, but largely it will be the fast hands of Allen that do the most damage and batter Hooker, especially late in the fight. Expect a late stoppage on the heels of a picture-perfect extended boxing combination from Arnold Allen.
Sumian: Sergei Pavlovich. The Russian native has not competed in the Octagon since 2019, but is certainly one of the most vicious knockout artists when locked in the cage. Shamil Adburakhimov has suffered two back-to-back knockout losses and four overall losses by way of knockout. Pavlovich will make it three in a row when he puts out the lights of Abdurakhimov and reminds the world that he is still an active UFC heavyweight.
Pair this card with…
Sumian:Song 2 by Blur. This event is a shout-out to the potential of the U.K.’s up-and-coming talent. Paddy Pimblett, Arnold Allen, and Tom Aspinall are all on center stage as they aim to take the next step in their careers by taking out formidable opposition. There is a reality where all three suffer losses on Saturday but expect at least one to deliver on the hype and send the London crowd in an uproar.
Petela: This is a British card, filled with British fighters, so pair it with an easy British classic of fish and chips. It is great to see the UFC returning to the international stage, outside of Fight Island, and showcasing their worldwide talent in front of adoring fans. It will be fun to hear the rabid fans, as they go crazy for the fighters they have been watching since their days on the regional scene.
Main Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
HW: Alexander Volkov vs. Tom Aspinall
LW: Paddy Pimblett vs. Kazula Vargas
FW: Arnold Allen vs. Dan Hooker
HW: Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Sergei Pavlovich
LHW: Nikita Krylov vs. Paul Craig
WW: Gunnar Nelson vs. Takashi Sato
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 1 p.m. ET)
LW: Jai Herbert vs. Ilia Topuria
FlyW: Muhammad Mokaev vs. Cody Durden
FW: Mike Grundy vs. Makwan Amirkhani
Women’s FlyW: Molly McMann vs. Luana Carolina
BW: Jack Shore vs. Timur Valiev
Women’s StrawW: Cory McKenna vs. Elise Reed
BW: Nathaniel Wood vs. Vince Morales
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