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UFC London: Volkov vs. Aspinall preview - Are we in for a British breakout?

Get the lowdown on the main card action of UFC London, topped by English heavyweight phenom Tom Aspinall looking for his breakout win over respect veteran Alexander Volkov.

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Tom Aspinall punching Sergey Spivak at UFC Vegas 36
Tom Aspinall punching Sergey Spivak at UFC Vegas 36
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

UFC London has one dominant theme: establishing the next set of English stars. Tom Aspinall, Arnold Allen, and Paddy Pimblett appear to be the top talents out of England who will be relevant over the next five years. I can’t say one of them is currently the best given Leon Edwards is still out there, but it seems likely one of these three will be able to surpass Edwards sometime in the next few years.

Given the UFC is giving Aspinall and Allen some tough tests, it shouldn’t be seen as the end of the world for their prospects if they fall short. The same can’t be said of Pimblett. Perhaps the most hyped of the three, he isn’t just being given an opponent he’s supposed to beat, he’s being given an opponent he’s supposed to showcase his abilities on. And while she may never be a true star, Molly McCann, one of the most beloved figures of hardcore fans, populates the main card too. It’s been a long time coming for England. I’m glad to see the UK fans getting live UFC action once again.

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Alexander Volkov vs. Tom Aspinall, Heavyweight

At first glance, my immediate thought was to pick Aspinall without much thought. A magnificent heavyweight athlete with power and plus grappling skills, many are predicting a title reign in his future. Plus, Volkov has served as a stepping stone before. So, it’s only natural Aspinall will run over him, right?

After a little bit of thought, I realized I had to slow my roll. It is far from a sure thing Aspinall is going to secure his breakout win over Volkov. Sure, Aspinall has an incredible burst, fast hands, and plus power even for the heavyweight division. What happens if he can’t find the KO? Most fans would point to Aspinall’s slick grappling skills. In fact, Aspinall’s base is his BJJ, his father being a notable instructor in the UK. Those ground skills are easy to forget about given Aspinall tends to keep things standing and hasn’t showcased his abilities on the grandest of stages. Nonetheless, what he has flashed indicates he’s superior to most heavyweights on the roster.

Still, that doesn’t explain away my concerns. Aspinall is a long and lanky, but he isn’t as long and lanky as Volkov. Even more concerning, Volkov easily qualifies as the most skilled striker Aspinall has faced. It will be a hell of a chore for Aspinall to traverse the distance between Volkov’s kicks and punches without taking too much damage. Perhaps all Aspinall will need is one good opening to put away Volkov, but Volkov’s chin is a tough one to crack. Only Derrick Lewis and Vitaly Minakov have put him away over the course of 43 fights and Volkov has faced a who’s who of heavy hitters. There’s no guarantee Aspinall will add his name to the list.

There’s also no guarantee Aspinall will be able to get the fight to the mat either. Volkov has always had solid takedown defense, but he beefed that area up even further after Curtis Blaydes took him down time and again. Volkov put on some additional weight, but it appears to be healthy weight. Some would point out Volkov looked sluggish in his most recent fight against Marcin Tybura, but Volkov’s wife was also in the hospital. It’s only natural that type of distraction would affect his performance. Given the extra weight didn’t seem to be problematic in his other three appearances since he put on the pounds, I’d say the emotions were the issue. Plus, Aspinall’s wrestling is hardly a proven quantity.

There’s one other major concern about Aspinall. He has never gone to a decision in his career. Hell, he’s never even entered the third round. When the fight leaves the first round, Aspinall is 1-2. Volkov has been able to go five rounds and remain effective. It’s hard to believe Aspinall will be able to squeeze out a victory should the fight go beyond the second round. Volkov isn’t a power puncher by heavyweight standards, but his weight gain coincided with him securing a pair of TKO stoppages that weren’t the result of exhaustion on the part of his opponent. Aspinall has the higher upside and will probably have the grander legacy down the road, but there are still too many questions about what he can do when he gets in a sticky situation. I’m going with the Russian. Volkov via TKO of RD4

Arnold Allen vs. Dan Hooker, Featherweight

There is one big fulcrum for this fight that needs to be addressed right off the bat: how does Hooker look cutting to 145? Yes, he used to fight at featherweight back in the day, never missing weight for one of his contests. But there’s a reason Hooker didn’t break out until he moved up to 155. Hooker was bigger than most of his opponents even after moving up to lightweight. When he did fight at featherweight, he would slow down considerably after the first round. Now 32, it’s hard to believe it won’t be harder for Hooker to slim down to 145 over five years since he last did. Plus, it’s not like he’s giving himself a lot of time to acclimate his body to the cut, his last fight coming less than five months ago.

If Hooker can make the cut effectively, there is no doubt he’s the better striker. His Muay Thai background shines through, whether it’s his knees and elbows in the clinch or his kicks from the outside. Hooker has an excellent sense of timing and no one can doubt his toughness. Unfortunately for Hooker, his willingness to take damage appears to be taking a toll on his durability. If the deterioration of his durability is a real thing, it’s hard to believe cutting the extra weight will help him.

Perhaps what Hooker thinks it’ll do for him is allow him to fight off takedowns better. No doubt that’ll be a concern with Allen. The 28-year-old Brit is considered by many to be the pound-for-pound strongest fighter at 145. He isn’t the most technical wrestler, but he makes up for it when he gets the fight to the ground. Not only is his BJJ more refined than his wrestling, but he’s a surprisingly nimble scrambler for someone of his strength. Even more impressive is Allen’s record is full of respectable wrestlers and grapplers and Allen hasn’t suffered a loss during his UFC run.

However, while it’s indicative of how good Allen’s ground abilities are, it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions about his standup. There aren’t a lot of heavy hitters on his resume. Yes, it is no doubt encouraging that Allen was the one to score a knockdown and another near knockdown against Sodiq Yusuff. But it’s also overlooked that Yusuff doubled up on the significant strikes against Allen. Allen has grown more comfortable boxing in the pocket and does a good job covering ground to tie up his opponent if things start going their way, but what if Hooker gets his outside striking going? At the time of my typing this, I have no idea how Hooker will look at featherweight. I don’t trust the cut is the right move for the Kiwi. Allen via decision

  • There isn’t much middle ground on Paddy Pimblett, at least in the eyes of fans. No surprise given he’s made some comparisons of himself to Conor McGregor. Who’s more polarizing than the Notorious one? Regardless, Pimblett’s talents can’t be neglected. While his grappling has long been the stand he sets his hat on, Pimblett showed he’s developing into a threat on the feet when he knocked Luigi Vendramini silly before finishing him off. Even if Pimblett’s standup continues to progress, there are reasons to be concerned about his development, including how he holds his chin high. On the mat, Pimblett has been exposed by physical wrestlers who can stifle his ability to scramble and move. It doesn’t look like he’s going to need to worry about that with his opponent, Kazula Vargas. Vargas’ UFC run has lasted longer than most believed it would as he has demonstrated more savvy in his aggressive striking than he had on the regional scene. At 36, Vargas is still in phenomenal shape, but he was never a top-flight athlete to begin with. Still, there is a road to victory for Vargas. While Pimblett hasn’t ever been finished by strikes in his career, he has been hurt on the feet several times. Despite that, the expectation is that Pimblett’s chain wrestling and grappling will be too much for the heavy-handed Vargas to handle. Pimblett via submission of RD1
  • It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Takashi Sato fight in the Octagon. It will be close to 16 months by the time he steps in the cage. However, those 16 months are significantly shorter than the 30 months it has been since Gunnar Nelson last fought. Once one of the most hyped members of the roster, Nelson endured a rough stretch of three losses in four fights and ended up taking a long hiatus. At 33, Nelson is still young enough to make a run, though most would doubt his ability to do so now that he has let his prime years go by. Regardless, if Nelson resembles the fighter he was before the hiatus, he’s still one of the better grapplers at 170. He’s not helpless on the feet either, showing an excellent sense of timing and space as a counter striker. Where the undersized Nelson struggles is with larger and stronger opponents. Sato is larger. He may be stronger. But Sato doesn’t have near the grappling credentials of Nelson. In fact, both of Sato’s UFC losses came by submission against less accomplished grapplers. Sato probably has a power advantage, so he may be able to clip Nelson and put him away as Nelson’s chin has shown increasing signs of fragility. Despite that, it’s hard to believe Nelson has deteriorated much, if at all. Expect him to have a successful return. Nelson via submission of RD2
  • With her hard-nosed approach towards fighting, Molly McCann had no problems endearing herself to fight fans. It’s unfair to label her a brawler, but she isn’t a technician by any means either. Regardless, McCann is at her best in the pocket, firing punch after punch at her opponent, trusting her chin to hold up against anything her opponents might throw back at her. It’s exceptionally difficult to beat McCann if that’s the fight she gets. Unfortunately for her, MMA features wrestling and grappling and McCann has serious issues stopping her opponents from taking her down. Fortunately for her, Luana Carolina doesn’t like to go to the ground herself. Carolina is an accurate striker with plus power, but she exhibits poor defense. Carolina doesn’t mind a brawl, but she’s at her best when she can sit on the outside and pick her shots. McCann isn’t likely to give her that fight. Carolina isn’t terrible in a brawl herself, but she’s going to be entering McCann’s world when the fight breaks out in that manner. McCann via decision
  • After being forced to pull out of his last contest due to weight cutting issues, Ilia Topuria raised a lot of eyebrows when he opted to fill in on short notice at lightweight. Everyone was wondering if Topuria was leaving the featherweight division. Topuria has expressed this expedition to lightweight is a one-time affair, but there’s no doubt it’s an interesting contest he’s stepping into. A squat fighter even at featherweight, he’ll be facing one of the lankier fighters at 155 in Jai Herbert. Herbert is a sharp boxer on the outside, throwing lots of jabs and straight punches with a surprising amount of pop given his thin frame. It won’t be easy to get past Herbert’s 8-inch reach advantage for Topuria. However, if Topuria does – and it’s hard to believe we won’t be able to at least once – Herbert’s takedown defense has been notoriously poor. Even though Topuria is the one moving up in weight, it’s hard to believe he won’t have a strength advantage. There’s no doubt Topuria is going to have a major advantage in wrestling. Even though Topuria is built like a brickhouse, he exhibits grappling skills the belie his appearance. Even if Herbert’s grappling can withstand Topuria’s attempts to sub him, I don’t think he’ll be able to resist Topuria’s GnP. Hell, Herbert may not be able to resist a clean shot from Topuria standing. Topuria will have some issues to overcome if he ever makes the move to 155 permanent, but Herbert doesn’t look like the guy who will illuminate those problems. Topuria via TKO of RD1