UFC 286 at the O2 is the stage for the most important fight in British MMA history. Leon Edwards will defend the UFC welterweight title against Kamaru Usman, hoping to become only the second-ever British fighter to defend a UFC belt. Elsewhere, the card features some of the UFC’s best talents, and MMA fans around the UK can’t wait for fight night.
Leon Edwards (20-3-0, 1 NC) vs Kamaru Usman (20-2-0)
On Saturday, Leon Edwards can overtake Michael Bisping as Great Britain’s most influential MMA fighter. But to join Bisping as the only other British fighter with a successful title defence, Edwards will have to take down the much tougher competition than an ageing Dan Henderson.
He rematches ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ Kamaru Usman.
Before the last fight, Kamaru Usman seemed undefeatable. He had taken on all comers, some of the best talent the division had ever seen, like Colby Covington and Gilbert Burns, dispatching them pretty comfortably.
Usman had entered the conversation with George Saint-Pierre as the greatest welterweight ever.
Much like his namesake ‘Rocky’, Edwards seemed down and out. The commentary team seemed to suggest that Edwards had given up.
Joe Rogan thought that Edwards “may have resigned himself to losing a decision.” But, instead, what followed was one of the most shocking finishes in the history of MMA.
What the commentary team at UFC 278 failed to understand was that Edwards doesn’t understand giving up. His origin story is one of constant struggle.
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in a one-bedroom shack. His father was shot dead when he was nine, and he grew up involved in gang crime. Now, he has turned his life around and has proven to the world that the seemingly perfect Usman can be beaten. However, the question remains, can Rocky do it again?
Yet again, the bookies have written him off somewhat. The Jamaican-born fighter is a 2/1 underdog, and pundits and journalists across the globe are not confident that Edwards can upset the odds.
Usman just seems too well-rounded. He will want to make the fight boring. Despite his improvements on the feet, the second fight in the trilogy showed that Usman needs to be wary of Edwards standing up.
He will try and take the fight to the mat and keep it there, which many are backing him to be able to do. Yet, Edwards showed at UFC 278 his takedown defence could hold up against the very best.
To make history, Rocky will have to shock the world. If he does, British MMA may never be the same.
Edwards: Alex, George
Usman: Andrew, Conor
Justin Gaethje (23-4-0) vs Rafael Fizev (12-1-0)
Gaethje is a highly decorated wrestler, twice winning the Arizona state championships and becoming an NCAA Division All-American. However, since he turned to MMA, he’s hardly used his wrestling background.
Gaethje has won 19 of his 23 fights by knockout and has won six fight-of-the-night bonuses in his UFC career, making him one of the most exciting athletes in the sport today.
His form recently has been mixed as in his last four fights, he is 2-2, having fallen short of UFC gold at the hands of Khabib Nurmagemedov and Charles Oliveira. He faces number six ranked Rafael Fiziev.
Fiziev’s introduction to combat sports was through Muay Thai, where he has a record of 29 wins and four losses. He also won a bronze medal at the 2016 World Championships representing Kyrgyzstan. While starting his MMA career with six finishes in his first six MMA fights, his move over to the UFC started off in defeat. Despite this setback, it didn’t deter him.
He is now on a six-fight win streak, having beat former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos last time out via 5th-round knockout.
A win for either fighter here will surely see them call out current champion Islam Machachev, who is yet to face either of these men inside the octagon.
Fiziev: Alex, George, Conor
Gunnar Nelson (18-5-1) vs Bryan Barbarena (18-9-0)
After being inactive for almost exactly a year, Gunnar ‘Gunni’ Nelson returns to the octagon on Saturday night to face Bryan Barbarena at 170 lbs.
Nelson was initially slated to fight Daniel Rodriguez at UFC 286 but Rodriguez withdrew for undisclosed reasons, and Barbarena stepped up. The Icelandic man is a true veteran of the sport, with his first pro bout being back in 2007.
Gunni last fought Takahasi Sato, winning by unanimous decision, and a victory in London could bring him close to a top-15 ranking.
Conversely, Barbarena last fought UFC legend Rafael Dos Anjos, losing via submission due to a Neck Crank. Before the Dos Anjos loss, Barbarena had been on a three-fight winning streak, with impressive victories over Robbie Lawler, Matt Brown and Darian Weeks.
He, too, will believe that a win over Gunni will leave him a victory away from a top-15 slot. Both fighters are very experienced, but the bookies’ odds have Gunni as the heavy favourite at 1/4 due to his superior ground game. If Barbarena is to at the O2, he’ll have to keep the fight standing and hope for a knockout.
Only Santiago Ponzinibio has ever done that to Nelson, making the Icelandic man the favourite in London.
Nelson: Alex, Andrew
Barbarena: George, Conor
Jennifer Maia (20-9-1) vs Casey O’Neil (9-0-0)
Jennifer Maia is an experienced operator when it comes to the octagon, having now fought ten times for the UFC.
With black belts in both Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Maia is a well-rounded fighter, which is highlighted by a mixture of knockouts, submissions and decision victories on her record.
Whilst she put up a valiant effort in her only UFC title bout against Valentina Shevchenko, she hasn’t been able to put together a recent run of good form to push her back into title contention. She’s 2-3 in her last five fights and will be looking to gain some momentum to propel her up the rankings.
The same can’t be said for her opponent this weekend Casey O’Neill. The Scottish-born Australian is undefeated in her nine MMA fights since making her debut in 2019.
Like Maia, O’Neill is a well-rounded fighter with a mixture of knockout, submission and decision victories. But, her strong suit is her Jiu-Jitsu, as in most of her fights, she looks to get on top of her opponents to win by ground and pound or submission.
This feels like a changing of the guard fight and a real opportunity for O’Neill to claim a scalp like Maia on her way to potentially fighting for the flyweight title in the near future.
Maia: Conor, Andrew
O’Neil: Alex, George
Martin Vettori (18-6-1) vs Roman Dolidze (12-1-0)
Coming off a one-sided loss at the hands of Robert Whittaker, UFC veteran Marvin Vettori will look to bounce back in front of the London crowd against Roman Dolidze.
Vettori has always been one of the most well-rounded fighters on the UFC roster, but he was truly picked apart by Whittaker.
As a result of his resumé, the middleweight has positioned himself as the gatekeeper to a title shot. Vettori has lost convincingly to Israel Adesanya twice and Whittaker once.
Consequently, if Dolidze fails to beat Vettori, it will show Dana White that the Georgian is not yet ready to compete against the best talent in one of the UFC’s top divisions.
Regarding how the fight may play out, it could be in Marvin’s best interests to stay off the canvas against Dolidze.
Boasting a 12-1 record, Dolidze has one of the strongest ground games in the UFC. While the Italian Vettori has the advantage on the feet, the Geogrian will try every way possible to get this fight to the floor.
Dolidze is 34 now, and this feels like a make-or-break run as he looks to get into potential title fight contention. But, for now, a formidable opponent in Vettori stands in his way, who himself is trying to cling on to his spot in the top 5 of the middleweight rankings.
Vettori: Andrew, Conor
Dolidze: Alex, George