After a three-year wait, the UFC has finally returned to London.
With 2020’s edition of UFC London canceled at the last moment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and no card staged in 2021 for the same reason, British fans and fighters have been forced to wait much longer than expected for MMA’s flagship promotion to return to this side of the pond.
British fighters are scheduled to take part in 10 of the 12 planned bouts at the O2 Arena this Saturday, and The Independent spoke to co-main eventer Arnold Allen, UFC debutant Muhammad Mokaev, Jack Shore and Cory McKenna ahead of the card at the O2 Arena.
Arnold Allen (17-1, 28 years old, Suffolk)
Featherweight Allen has won all eight of his UFC fights, with three of them having taken place in London and one in Liverpool. He fights Dan Hooker in this weekend’s co-main event.
“It’s awesome [to be back in London]. Obviously for all the lockdowns, all the restrictions everywhere, having the first event back in the UK with what’s probably gonna be a sell-out crowd… and the placement on the card, to be in the co-main event. It’s a great feeling.
“Probably the biggest card I fought on was Jon Jones vs Thiago Santos [at UFC 239 in 2019]. Obviously being the English guy fighting away in Las Vegas, fighting earlier on the card, no one really knows who you are, cheers or cares.
“But in London there’s always a big reception for the home fighters, a lot of noise made, so it definitely gets you buzzing and fired up. When you walk out, you just have to kind of get that tunnel vision and focus on the fight, but there’s good energy there – it’s a great crowd.
“As soon as they announce you’re from England, people are gonna be cheering, even if they don’t know who you are.”
Jack Shore (15-0, 27 years old, Abertillery – Wales)
Bantamweight Shore is 4-0 in the UFC since his debut in 2019, with three of those bouts having been staged behind closed doors amid the pandemic. Saturday’s clash with Timur Valiev marks the Welshman’s first UFC fight in front of fans since his debut, and his first UFC fight in Britain.
“I’ve been as a fan three times to watch the UFC, and one of those was the most recent time at the O2. The atmosphere’s electric. It’s not like some of the American cards, where they don’t fill up until the main card; when me and my friend went to watch UFC London a few years ago, every seat was filled from the very first fight – from 5pm until 11pm. The crowd didn’t stop chanting or cheering all night. It’s something I can’t wait to be apart of.
“The atmosphere is a completely different ball game, the walkout is a completely different ball game, the intros with Bruce Buffer are gonna be a completely different ball game. That atmosphere has so much energy and gives you that little extra push, it’s hard to put it into words. When you’re fighting and it’s silent in there, and the only people you can hear are your coaches, the opposition and the commentators, you don’t have that little extra drive.
“Make no mistake, there will be thousands of Welsh there on the night, and it’s always good to fight with guys like Arnold, Tom [Aspinall]Paddy [Pimblett]Molly [McCann] – especially Paddy and Molly; I came up fighting at the same time as them in Cage Warriors.
“It’s a massive, massive night for us Brits and for UK MMA to show where we belong and stand among the bigger picture. Everybody’s gonna be competing for that spot, we all want to be the one everyone remembers.”
Cory McKenna (6-1, 22 years old, Cwmbran – Wales)
Strawweight McKenna is the youngest female fighter on the UFC roster and the first Welshwoman to compete in the promotion. Her bout de ella with Elise Reed this weekend marks her second time fighting in the UFC, her de ella first in the promotion with fans present, and her de ella first UFC contest in Britain.
“It’s already very rare that we get a card back home, usually once a year. So, I feel like for the people back home it’s a bigger event where they show out and support the fighters. I know it’s going to be exciting, regardless of where I am on the card. It’s my first UFC event with the crowd, so I feel like it’s going to feel like my first actual UFC fight.
“Until I got into the UFC, I’d only ever been to two of their events – the Manchester card in 2014 and a Sacramento card. I want to say I went to the O2 once for something… but I don’t think there’s any way to truly visualize the night until you experience it.
“I feel very fortunate that I had my whole pro career on Cage Warriors, where they did a very similar format and had big crowds. I was lucky enough to fight in England and Wales, so I’ve had that home crowd stuff.
“So, I feel like I’m already kind of prepared for it, but I’m also aware that it’s going to be completely different on fight night.”
Muhammad Mokaev (5-0, 21 years old, Manchester)
Dagestan-born flyweight Mokaev, the youngest fighter on the UFC roster after taking that accolade from McKenna, is making his highly-anticipated UFC debut. The unbeaten Mokaev faces Cody Durden, also undefeated, on Saturday.
“When I came to the UK in 2012, everyone who was around me at school and the staff supporting me – who taught me English in break times – they were treating me like their family. Everyone was good to me, treating me like their own. That’s why I’ve always been proud to represent the UK.
“I was in the O2 Arena in 2016, watching Michael Bisping vs. Anderson Silva. And my friend Rustam Khabilov, who is actually gonna be in my corner this weekend, fought on the same card.
“I went there to support him, now he’s here for me six years later. I’m looking forward to the atmosphere there.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.