The Rundown

Five reasons to care about UFC’s UK return

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to the United Kingdom on Saturday evening and are bringing with them an intriguing title fight as their headline attraction.

A lot of the names on the poster may be unfamiliar to casual fans of the sport of mixed martial arts in the United Kingdom and Europe, and indeed a lot of the likely better -known faces are tucked away on the show’s non-televised undercard.

However, if currently undecided then be assured that this is a show which warrants your attention.

Here are five reasons why:

1) THE MAIN EVENT: A WORLD-CLASS FIGHT FOR THE CAPITAL

Saturday night will be the fourth time that one of the UFC’s belts has been up for grabs on UK shores.

The most high-profile of these instances came in September 2007 when light-heavyweight champion Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson took on Dan Henderson, holder of the 205lb strap, for the Japan-based Pride Fighting Championships.

Zuffa, promoter of the UFC, had bought out the rival company earlier in the year and decided the two top dogs in the sport’s most talent-rich weight division at the time would square off to unify the belts in the UK.

Fast forward to the coming weekend and Renan Barao v Michael McDonald for the company’s bantamweight title lacks the same star power, but it’s a welcome riposte to criticisms from European fans calling for more meaningful main events.

Michael McDonald could take the next step in London

That the fight is taking place in the UK perhaps indicates the lack of faith the company has in its ability to sell the fight to an American audience as, simply put, the pair are simply are not star attractions despite their abilities in the cage.

Barao is unbeaten in his last 29 fights with the most recent victory coming over one of the company’s more popular fighters in Urijah Faber, which earned him in the interim title.

Dominick Cruz is outright champion in the company’s 135lb class – however a knee injury meant he was unable to fight at all in 2012 and a recent setback is likely to rule him out for most of 2013 as well.

Barao is effectively champion in all but name at the moment and boasts a dazzling array of skills. Like seemingly all products of Brazil’s Nova União fight team he is a slick grappler, but has an equally-adept striking game.

It is not the 25-year-old’s first visit to England and those who witnessed his victory over Londoner Brad Pickett in Birmingham in November 2011 will remember the power in his punches combined with the speed of movement which makes him so difficult to strategise against.

Choose to stand with him and he is comfortable with his hands, his feet and in the clinch. Take him to the floor and you will be grappling against a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, but significantly one who is very active and eagerly looks to sink in submissions.

Of the two options, his opponent McDonald is likely to choose the first. The Californian has knocked out nine of his 15 victims, with the two most recent scalps having propelled him to the front of the queue at bantamweight.

The match is between two exciting young fighters who are yet to enter their primes. The pair may not enjoy celebrity status at present, but whoever is victorious at Wembley can justifiably warrant comparison with the sport’s elite.

2) ALL EYES ON BRIT PROSPECT LOOKING FOR BREAKOUT PERFORMANCE

The main card starts at 8pm GMT, with light heavyweight Jimi Manuwa the British name to keep an eye on.

The big-punching Londoner is unbeaten in 12 fights, having stopped all of his opponents, and was victorious in his UFC debut in September.

Standing opposite him in the cage will be kickboxing specialist Cyrille Diabaté who will look to counter Manuwa’s power with precision.

The Frenchman is unpredictable and has a propensity to win fights he isn’t expected to while also losing when favoured, as UK fans saw in November 2011 when he was submitted by unheralded Australian Anthony Perosh.

It is in the UFC’s best interests that Manuwa has his hand raised on Saturday and to look impressive in doing so. They have not had a British star in the 205lb division since Michael Bisping dropped down to the middleweight ranks and would relish the chance to throw their promotional weight behind an emerging knockout artist.

3) THE MAN WHO WAS PHOTOGRAPHED WITH HIS HEAD IN RICKY HATTON’S GROIN

British boxing favourite Ricky Hatton may no longer have aspirations of competing in the ring following his failed recent comeback fight, but that didn’t stop a recent training session making the headlines.

When the UFC’s marketing vehicle rocked up to The Hitman’s gym in Manchester they brought Liverpool-based submission specialist Paul Sass with them.

Boxing great Ricky Hatton trains with UFC prospect Paul Sass (credit: UFC official Facebook)

The sparring session, where the pair exchanged tips on their respective skillsets, piqued interest from media members looking for Hatton’s take on mixed martial arts, but also shone a light on one of the more underrated talents from the UK.

Sass won his first 13 fights, with 12 of them ending via submission. The stretch included his first three appearances in the UFC’s octagon and the softly-spoken lightweight is one of the most dangerous grapplers currently competing on the world stage.

He looked out of sorts in his most recent outing when he was stopped in the first round via an armbar, but a victory over Danny Castillo would underline his status as one of Britain’s most-skilled competitors.

4) ‘GORILLA’ WARFARE

The show’s undercard will air live on the UFC’s Facebook channel and one of the faces on show may be familiar.

Tom Watson is looking for his first UFC victory, but has already had mainstream exposure in the UK when he defeated Alex Reid, a former MMA fighter and ex-husband of glamour model Katie Price.

The pair went at for five rounds in a fight which aired live on Bravo in Britain and attracted a peak audience of 835,000 viewers, an impressive figure for any programme on a niche cable channel.

Tom 'Kong' Watson wears a gorilla outfit to the cage (credit: MMA Weekly)

Known as ‘Kong’ due to his Simian-themed attire during ring walks, should you find yourself asking ‘where have I seen him before?’ then that is likely where.

5) AN EASY NIGHT FOR THE JUDGES

UFC matchmaker Joe Silva has put together a card of fights where many have the potential to end in a stoppage, via knockout or submission.

Semi-main event Cub Swanson against Dustin Poirier sees two men who haven’t heard the final bell between them in nearly two years, while exciting Icelandic debutant Gunnar Nelson in undefeated and has never gone the distance.

Along with the aforementioned Jimi Manuwa, the main card also features Ryan Jimmo, who won his UFC debut after SEVEN seconds of the first round and has won his last 17 contests.

If you are a British sports fan with a casual interest in MMA and like your fights short, sweet and impactful, then the UFC’s return to these shores will be right up your alley.

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Iain Liddle has written extensively on mixed martial arts for numerous publications including Fighters Only Magazine, HeavyMMA, Fight Opinion and The Fight Network in Canada. He was a founding co-editor of the Total MMA newsletter for thousands of subscribers worldwide. In addition to MMA, Iain has contributed to The Times, FourFourTwo, The Sun, Press Association and the Football League Paper, and is the former sports editor of the Kentish Times.