If you think about bantamweights who have made their mark on the Canadian MMA scene more than anyone else, two names probably come to mind: Jesse Arnett and Josh Hill.
It is no coincidence that Arnett and Hill are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, at bantamweight in Canada on Tapology’s website; they have been major players on the regional circuit for years.
Arnett has held titles in Hard Knocks, Z Promotions’ Fight Night, and most recently, TKO. Between 2014 and 2018, Arnett won 12 fights in a row, an impressive run highlighted by wins over UFC veterans Roland Delorme and Johnny Bedford. Arnett finally saw his streak snapped by Nate Maness last September.
To most, Hill is best known for his time in World Series of Fighting. He twice fought current UFC bantamweight contender Marlon Moraes, who is a month away from his first shot at UFC gold. Hill fell short on both occasions, but he took Moraes the distance in their first fight. In Hill’s other WSOF bouts, he picked up wins over Mike Adams and Bekbulat Magomedov. Hill also competed on The Ultimate Fighter 18, on which he beat then-future UFC flyweight Paddy Holohan.
Arnett and Hill are two of the best Canadian fighters — not just bantamweights — never to have made it to the UFC, and a fight between the two of them has been discussed for years. In fact, they’ve even talked about it themselves. In 2016, it was prematurely announced as official by Z Promotions’ Fight Night, a promotion based in western Canada. But it never came to fruition — until now.
Arnett and Hill are set to meet Friday night at TKO 48 in Gatineau, Quebec. The card streams live on UFC Fight Pass. Arnett hasn’t fought since his loss to Maness and Hill is coming off a split-decision loss to UFC veteran Taylor Lapilus. Arnett, 34, and Hill, 32, are fighting for all-time great status among Canadian bantamweights, but at the same time, they are also fighting to stay relevant in the country because of their recent setbacks.
“Very rarely do the two best guys take on each other,” Arnett said. “This is a fight that is definitely years in the making — maybe even a grudge match.”
When asked why this fight hasn’t happened until now, Arnett blamed “politics.” Hill, on the other hand, simply feels they haven’t lined up at the right time.
“We’ve both been involved with different promotions and never really lined up at the same time,” Hill said. “When I was fighting with WSOF, he was fighting with Hard Knocks and Z Promotions. I started fighting in Russia, and he was with TKO, and then I came to TKO, and now we’re finally eligible to fight each other in the same promotion.”
But Arnett knew he would stand across from Hill in the cage one day. He wasn’t sure when, because they both were on their own paths, but he knew it’d happen eventually.
“At the end of the day, it was bound to happen,” Arnett said.
Hill said he would have preferred to fight Arnett when Arnett was still the TKO champion, while Arnett believes it’s happening at the “perfect” time.
Either way, neither fighter believes the fact that both of them are coming off losses takes away from the anticipation surrounding the fight, which will precede three title fights on the TKO 48 card. Top prospect Ciryl Gane defends his heavyweight title against Roggers Sousa; Maness meets Lapilus in his first 135-pound title defense; and Jade Masson-Wong defends her women’s flyweight title against Mandy Böhm.
If anything, the fact that Arnett and Hill are coming off losses just gives fans more of a reason to tune in. The loser of the bout, Arnett said, “won’t be in a good situation” — further from the TKO title and from any UFC aspirations that may still exist. A win on Friday is crucial for both their careers.
“This isn’t the first time that I’ve had to fight for bantamweight Canadian supremacy if you want to call it that,” Hill said. “When I was 25 or 26, John Fraser was ranked the No. 1 guy and was beating everybody. They had us two fight and it was billed as, ‘Who’s the best bantamweight in Canada?’ Five years later, I’m still at the top of the heap, and I’m gonna do it again with Arnett.”
Also at stake in the fight will be a TKO bantamweight title shot; that isn’t a guarantee made by the promotion, but both fighters said they feel the winner of their fight will deserve a crack at the winner of Maness vs. Lapilus. Arnett and Hill both said they don’t really care who they face for the title, but if they could choose, it’d be who they lost to in their respective last bouts. For Arnett, that’s Maness, and for Hill, that’s Lapilus.
“Who doesn’t want to see this fight?” Arnett said. “I’m gonna make Josh Hill fight me. I’m gonna come forward, and we’re gonna fight. He has a chance to finish me because of my aggressive style. But I will be patient, I will chip him down, I will hurt him. I’m looking to open him up; I’m looking to cut him. I will ground-and-pound him if I have to. I will mess him up everywhere.”
Arnett said he has nothing against Hill – in fact, they’ve had a couple drinks together, according to “Big Cat” – but still considers the fight a grudge match because it’s been in the works for so long. Hill, however, doesn’t. It may be a big fight, but it’s just another one, he said, and it’s not personal.
“He can make it a grudge match if he wants to,” Hill said of Arnett. “That’s cool. I don’t need to hate my opponent. I know Jesse knows I’m a tough matchup for him. I’m a tough matchup everywhere this fight goes; I think I’m the stronger fighter, the faster fighter, the more athletic fighter. It’s going to be hard for him to deal with me.”