So the UFC's huge push for world domination rumbles into London, and lands at the 02 Arena, Greenwich, the second biggest indoor arena in the UK and one of the busiest in Europe. It's a great venue, tailor-made for hosting big fights. In what could be a landmark achievement for the promotion, the 15,000 seats sold out in record time for a UK event, and the media hype has been unprecedented. This is the first time I recall seeing a main feature about UFC in a national tabloid (the Sun, 7th March). Proof, perhaps, that the British public are finally taking MMA seriously.
When Jimi 'Poster Boy' Manuwa was announced as the opponent for Number One contender and current UFC Golden Boy Alexander 'The Mauler' Gustafsson, many people responded with WTF? Not What the f**k, but WHO the f**k. Understandable, given that Manuwa has plied his trade mostly in the UCMMA (where he was light-heavyweight champion) and BAMMA promotions, and is therefore a largely unknown quantity outside the UK. Even so, a perfect record of 14 finishes from 14 fights, is not to be sniffed at. A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Manuwa for a magazine I write for, and I can tell you he is one intense dude. If we hadn't been in a controlled environment, I would have feared for my life. He's the first to admit that all the media attention makes him uncomfortable, and would much rather just beat the shit out of people. Gus is right when he describes the Londoner as being 'dangerous.' With knockout power and the vociferous home crowd on his side, anything can happen. Dismiss him at your peril. That said, his strengths are obvious. If Gus can make it a wrestling match he'll probably finish the fight. The thing is, the Swede is just ballsy enough to stand and bang. And if he does that, my money is on Manuwa to pull off the upset.
But there is a lot to get through before the hour of judgment. The undercard saw British loudmouth Luke Barnatt easily beat Mats Nilsson, and wins for Louis Gaudinot, Igor Araujo and Llir Latifi. The early-evening section was not without disappointment with Davey Grant, one of the great hopes of the UK MMA scene, being pulled from his fight with Roland Delorme due to a knee injury with less than 24-hours notice. With no time to organize a replacement, it left a small hole in the bill. The biggest talking point came when Claudio Silva was adjudged to have somehow beaten Bradley Scott on points. I might have to watch the fight again. I must have missed something, because on the night, it seemed the Brazilian spent most of the three rounds in escape and evasion mode.
On to the main card, and Icelandic welterweight Gunnar Nelson is another highly-rated European prospect boasting an unbeaten record of 12-0-1. Perhaps unusually for a European, he's also a world class jiu-jitsu competitor. Tonight he is up against the Russian Omari Akhmedov, who with only one previous UFC fight under his belt (a KO win over TUF: Brazil competitor Thiago Perpetuo last November), will be a new face to many. He has a background in freestyle wrestling, apparently. Interesting. Unfortunately, the Russian just wasn't up to par, and took a a serious beating before mercifully tapping out to a guillotine near the end of the first round. There was such a gulf in class between the two welterweights that it was hard to tell whether Nelson was really good or Akhmedov was really bad. I suspect a bit of both.
Next up is Brad 'One punch' Pickett taking on Neil 'Two Tap' Seery. I shit you not. The 34-year old Irishman, making his UFC debut tonight, is a slightly strange signing by the biggest promotion in the world as the veteran of the UK fight scene has lost nine of his 22 fights. The general consensus is that he is simply cannon fodder for local favourite Pickett, who has himself picked up two losses in his last three. The difference, however, is that Pickett's two losses came against Eddie Wineland and Michael McDonald. In his six UFC outings, Pickett has won Fight of the Night four times and Knockout of the Night once. He's an exciting fighter, and it's easy to see why he is one of Dana White's favourites.
Perhaps the biggest question of the night was how Pickett would deal with the drop to flyweight, and how he would finish his inexperienced opponent. The bookies had the Londoner 1/6 to win. However, it wasn't that clean cut. Pickett looked fresh, busy and lean, but Seery proved a more than capable adversary, and had his moments on the feet. He had no answer for Pickett's skill level and though there was no finish, the Londoner won a unanimous decision. Rather weirdly for a known striker, Pickett's wrestling won him this contest.
Melvin Guillard should have been fighting Ross Pearson tonight after their non-event in Manchester last October, but the TUF alumni is out injured so in steps Michael Johnson, straight from his knockout of Gleison Tibau at UFC 168. Guillard seems to have been around forever. In fighting terms he has, despite still only 30 he has been active since 2002 and built up a record of 31-12-2. There are signs, however, that the Young Assassin's powers may be waning. Before the No Contest ruling against Pearson in Manchester, he had lost four of his last six. Disappointingly, this fight was the first of the night to draw cat calls and boos from the crowd. These people pay a lot of money to be entertained, and if they are not they will let you know. That's always been the tricky thing with London crowds. On any given night there are a a dozen or more huge events. To be honest, though, I don't know why they were booing. The fight was entertaining enough. For the most part there were two guys going at it, with Johnson regularly getting the better of the exchanges on his way to a UD. The only person not willing to engage tonight was Claudio Silva... and he fucking won.
Alexander Gustafsson won legions of new fans in losing that brutal five-round war with Jon Jones last September. A fight many people thought he had won. Before I continue, I just want to be clear on something. Manuwa's record says his last two wins, against Cyrille Diabate and Ryan Jimmo, came due to some kind of freak injuries. That's bollocks. The truth is, Manuwa literally kicked their legs so hard they couldn't continue. Pitting Manuwa against Gus is either a very shrewd marketing move by the UFC or a disaster waiting to happen, as one of these fighters will leave the arena tonight with their reputation in tatters. Obviously, if you listen to most of the mainstream MMA media, especially in the US, Manuwa hasn't got a chance in hell of winning this fight. All that does is take some of the pressure off Manuwa, who literally has nothing to lose, and heaps yet more on the shoulders of Gus.
I have to be honest here. We all have loyalties. Anyone, journalist or otherwise, who claims to be completely impartial is full of shit. In MMA, you just can't help it. You pin your colours, and you live or die by your decisions, just like the fighters. I like Gus, a lot. But Jimi won me over. I'm a sucker for a rags to riches story. I even put a bet on him, something I rarely do. Sadly, when it came down to it, Jimi just fell short. He rocked Gus more than once in the first round, and it was obvious Gus was shocked by his brute power. But the Swede's superior skill set shone through, and in the second round he dropped his foe with a knee in the clinch followed by a lethal barrage of punches. At times Manuwa looked a bit static and overawed by the occasion. He didn't shock the world as many had hoped, but neither did he embarrass himself as many had predicted. In the post-fight press conference, Jimi claimed he didn't go out. Or at least, not to remember going out. Sorry mate, but you did.
This was a severe test for Gustafsson, and he came through it with flying colours. Strangely for a fighter from another country up against a local boy, the London crowd was at least split 50/50. If anything, Gus had the neutrals. Perhaps that's a sign of his mass appeal. In the post-fight interview he, of course, called for a rematch with Jon Jones. He's lived up to his end of the bargain, now Jones has to live up to his so the UFC can stage the fight everyone wants.
X: A Collection of Horror by C.M. Saunders is out now